Thursday, March 31, 2005
Earlier this weeks a 126-pound Mountain Lion killed and ate a 7-pound Jack Russell Terrier near Rapid City, South Dakota. The Moutain Lion was hunted down with hounds and killed for his transgression.
Mountain Lions are slowly making their way east -- there are known Mountaion Lions in Iowa, and evidence of cougar in Virginia and West Virginia has been found. Most of the lions moving east are young males, like the cougar found in South Dakota.
As far as I am concerned, a lion that kills an occasional small dog or cat in a rural area should be left alone.
The penalty for human stupidity should not be the death of a magnificent animal.
Cruft's, the world's largest dog show, has come and gone again. This time a six year-old Norfolk Terrier by the name of "CoCo" won Best in Show, besting a Chihuahua named Astro, a beagle named Harry, a Belgian Shepherd named India, a Japanese Shiba Inu named Marnie, a giant Schnauzer named Phil, and an English Setter named Rosco.
By what nonsense criteria do judges ajudicate these things?
Nothing has ruined the terrier world more than dog shows, and Crufts is a perfect example. Charles Cruft was a dog food salesman who never even owned a dog himself.
For Cruft the shows were all about money, never mind that they bestowed silly importance to stupid things, and that closed registries narrowed the gene pools of dogs so that breeds ended up with all the intellectual and physical vigor of the Hapsburg Empire.
Cruft began his show ring escapes by taking over the Allied Terrier Club Show in 1886. This show was quickly followed by others, with every year a new new "ancient breed," being created and "discovered" and given some trumped-up provenance. To read more, see >> here
The Westminister Kennel Club Show, the largest dog show on this side of the Atlantic, did much the same, ruining fox terriers with the speed of a War Powers Act. To read this sad history, see >> here
The last time the buffalo appeared on the nickel, between 1913 and 1938, it became one of the most popular coins ever issued in the United States. That vintage started with an idea from Theodore Roosevelt - the greatest naturalist ever to inhabit the White House - but didn't become reality until the Wilson administration.
Now the Bush Administration has brought the buffalo nickel back, albeit with a difference; this buffalo is really glad to see us.
The picture above is from the U.S. Mint and shows viral American wildlife at its finest. John Ashcroft, who spent his tenure as Attorney General draping cloth over partially nude statues in federal buildings, must be having a fit.
-- "Is that a Nickel in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?"
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
The following review of the new Bellman and Flint collar system is posted on their web site. The Bellmand and Flint system includes a collar transmitting at the same 457 Khz as a standard avalanche rescue system, coupled with an unmodified Pieps locator box.
Results of Testing the New
Bellman & Flint Terrier Location System.
Article in The Countryman's Weekly, March 24, 2005
by Gary Morgan, professional Terrierman for The Vale of Aylesbury Foxhounds
Over the years of working terriers, the locators in my opinion have got worse, and I think that a lot of people reading this will agree.
It had got to a stage when I personally was getting through a dozen collars and three or four boxes per season.
In September 2004 I was asked by Bellman and Flint to test the new collar and box that they had developed for locating terriers underground. I was very pleased to do this, as it would be good news to have a new system. Something that I hoped would prove to be better and more reliable.
When I was first handed the new system I was surprised at the size of the transmitter on the collar but the more I thought about the size the less worried I became, believing that if a dog's head and neck will not get through the tubes, then there is no chance of the dog's chest getting through. Looking at the collar, the transmitter looked very tough and robust. The collar itself is much better for being changed from traditional leather to a plastic nylon which will not rot and has a breaking strain that you can pull a car with.
The transmitter itself I was really impressed with because it has a magnetic switch which enables the collar to be turned on and off when needed just by swiping a magnet over it. It also has two flashing lights one green, one red. When the green light flashes you know the collar is switched on. With a new battery, you'll have approximately 100 hours continuous use starting with the green light flashing, and then flashing green and red, and finally when it flashes red alone you know you have approximately 20 hours use remaining. I personally would not risk entering a dog underground when the collar was flashing only red.
Another feature that the transmitter has is a waterproof O-ring seal which enables the collar to work in wet conditions and after being used can simply be scrubbed clean under the tap in the sink.
The locator box is also waterproof, digital and made out of hard plastic. It has backlights which allows the box to be used at night. The box tells you how much life is remaining in its batteries. It has a feature of arrows which when used correctly allows you to walk in a straight line to the dog, rather than searching every part of the earth. When the box and collar is being used it has a range of 65 metres, so if you stood in the middle of the earth there would not be many earths in the whole of the country that would go off this system.
The first day that we tested the system, we fitted two collars to the dog. One was the new Bellman and Flint the other being Deben. The dog was entered and allowed to settle for some time. We located the dog with the Bellman and Flint system and could not believe the depth that the box was showing was 3 metres (approximately 9' ). We double checked the depth with the Deben box which also said 9' ( approximately 3m ). Looking at the earth, it did not look to run more than 3 or 4 foot. Because of the depth, the dog was left some time in case he moved, he didn't so we started digging.
When we were approximately a foot and a half from the dog who had not been heard for some time we decided to pinpoint the dog's exact position. We had conflicting readings from the two boxes.
When we eventually broke through to the dog to conclude the dig, the Bellman and Flint system was the most accurate, being right on top of the dog. The Deben box was each side of the dog, but not on top.
The second dig we had the same day was in a very big earth which at one time had a lot of elder trees standing. Because this was a shooting estate the gamekeeper had tried to make an extra drive and decided to lay the elder and the whole covert and earth was covered in nettles which was going to make searching for the dog very unpleasant. A fresh dog was fitted with both collars again and allowed to enter any hole, we then decided to have something to eat and drink while letting the dog find and settle. After many discussions about who was going to look for the dog the B and F box was turned on and the digital readout read 47 metres (approximately 160 feet). Because this box is equipped with directional arrows, when the main arrow is pointing forwards this enables you to walk in a straight line to where the dog is. This was done, and we pinpointed where the dog was, again at a depth of 2.5 metres ( 8 to 9' foot ). The dog again was allowed to settle for some time before we started digging. A couple of hours later the dig was ended successfully. On this particular dig I was very impressed with the B and F system, because of the way it took us straight to the dog and where the dog had settled it would have been the last place you would have expected him to be. Finding the dog in this vast earth with the elder and the nettles could have taken you a couple of hours with the Deben system.
Since starting to use the new system, I have probably worked my terriers on two hundred occasions what with bolting foxes out of straw bale stacks, drains and earths. I have only changed the collar and box batteries once each. The collar transmitter casing has stood up very well to the punishment and is not showing any wear at all. This system has never let me down once, and it has come to the assistance of a neighboring terrier man who had got into some difficulty after two Deben collars failed in one particular earth.
I was not the only person to be testing this system, D. Finlay who is a full time terrier man and who does a great deal of digging tested for B and F and is still using the system today and he agrees with me that it is a revolution from the old system, being very reliable, much tougher and more accurate.
This is a well-written review and sounds quite fair. I would note, however, that one of the principals in Bellman and Flint is the joint Master of the Vale of Aylesbury Fox hounds by whom the reviewer is employed as a terrierman -- a fact that I think should have been disclosed.
Monday, March 28, 2005
Saturday, March 26, 2005
Thursday, March 24, 2005
Wednesday, March 23, 2005
Poison Ivy is one of the burdens of American terrier work -- it's out there and you will get it if you work enough hedgerows.
Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac are all in the Rhus family of plants, and these plants produce more cases of contact dermatitis than all other substances combined. Plant-caused rashes can affect any part of the body, but commonly affect the forearms, face and back of the hands.
Poison ivy skin rashes are not contagious -- only the toxic oil of the plant (urushiol) causes the poison ivy reaction, and generally it has to be on your skin for an hour or more before it takes effect.
You can reduce or eliminate your chance of getting poison ivy in the field by wiping off your arms with soap and water if they have been dragging around in poison ivy during a dig. A very easy way to do this is with a packet of "handywipes" designed to clean off oils, such as Kimberly-Clark's Professional Heavy-Duty Hand Cleaning Wipes.
Tecnu is a special outdoor skin cleanser that removes Poison Oak and Ivy Oils from your skin. This product stops the irritant from spreading and can also decontaminate pets and tools. Small bottles are at many camping stores and pharmacies, such as Walgrens -- just apply with a small hankerchief..
Highland County, Virginia has fewer people today than it did 150 years ago. Sheep far outnumber the 2,500 people in the County, and the sheep are far outnumbered by the cattle despite the fact that the County (the highest East of the Mississippi River) lies a day's drive or less from half the population of the United States.
The Highland County Fair is a modest affair with a little calf roping and barrel racing, a few tractor pulls, a lot of canned fruit and vegetables, 4-H kids selling off their sheep, pigs and cattle, and a few carney rides.
Among the local exhibits were some locally-shot taxidermy's including bobcats and black bear. About 1,000 bear a year are shot in Virginia and the population is stable and perhaps slightly growing. The bobcat population appears to be on the rise, with about 4,000 taken last year. About 220,000 white tail deer a year are harvested by hunters in the State -- untold numbers more are hit by cars, and quite a large number are shot as part of nuisance abatement programs in orchards.
Tuesday, March 22, 2005
I placed this spike buck skull up on the trunk as a goof. Mountain leaped up to investigate, but was more captivated by the smells going up the right fork than the dead deer skull on the left. Farms are littered with deer skulls and carcasses this time of year -- and millions of deer footprints as well.
The New York Times of March 14th reports that New Jersey's surging deer population has eaten through so much of the state's forest that the New Jersey Audubon Society is advocating hunting to help prevent deforestation from leading to the extinction of various species of birds.
"Suburban sprawl has led to a significant increase in the size of the white-tailed deer herd, by providing shrubbery and other vegetation for deer to feed on during the once-fallow winter months. The state Department of Environmental Protection estimates that the herd now numbers 200,000, up from 150,000 less than a decade ago.
"In a study released on Monday, the state Audubon Society says that grazing deer have so depleted the brush, flowers and wild shrubs that they are threatening to wipe out the population of birds including Kentucky warblers, hooded warblers and ruffed grouse.
"'A dramatic change in New Jersey's native ecosystems is already well under way, and the survival and integrity of the state's natural ecosystems, native species and populations are at stake,' the report said.
"The study applauded various attempts to use costly fencing and deer relocation programs to manage the size of New Jersey's herd, but also urged the state to allow for increased hunting and 'lethal control' programs, which involve hiring sharpshooters to kill deer.
"In the 2003-4 fall and winter deer seasons, 69,456 deer were killed, according to the state's Division of Fish and Wildlife. Eric Stiles, the Audubon group's [state] vice president for conservation, declined to say how many additional deer his organization thought should be harvested."
"'This is an ecological disaster in the making,' Stiles said. 'We have to do something now, before it's too late.'
For more information, see >> http://www.gla.ac.uk:443/newsdesk/pressreleases/stories.cfm?PRID=3212
Monday, March 21, 2005
A couple of pictures from today's digs which yielded three groundhogs and a fair sized possum. It was a bit drizzly, and we had to call it quits by 4 pm due to rain, but it was a fine day in the field none the less -- the first day of Spring! None of the holes were deep, though we hit a lot of roots and I broke a saw trying to shred one with a little too much enthusiasm.
The very small groundhog in the tree hole was snared and placed up there to get him out of the way of the dogs. We introduced a few of the young dogs to this little fellow, and then left him to climb down on his own. Groundhogs can climb trees with ease and have no problem getting down them either.
Saturday, March 19, 2005
No terrier breed is very old.
Depite the fact that all but one or two terrier breeds originated in the last 150 years, most breed histories are so riddled with myth, lies, confusions, disortions, exagerations and fantasies that they are nearly unfathomable.
Part of this has to do with the mythology of show ring aficionados. A coat color variation will pop up in a litter and someone will admire it and attempt to breed more like it. To butter the bread a bit, a short story is invented to explain why the attribute has some imagined import in the world of working terriers ("White dogs are less likely to be mistaken for the fox"). A dog's legs are low to the ground and another attribute is given meaning ("The dachsunds short legs enable it to get to ground with ease"). A dog's nose is lengthened, solely for looks, and we are told this is necessary for work ("The fox terriers long snout keeps its eyes well back from the fox").
In fact, most terrier breeds were never seriously or commonly worked, and even a few of the breeds which many believed were commonly worked never did much outside of one or two owners. The Sealyham terrier -- a great favorite of Sir Jocelyn Lucas -- was such a smash favorite that it was repeatedly said that Lucas "had the only pack of working Sealyhams" in the U.K., and he himself attempted to abandon the breed by crossing it with a Norfolk terrier which, in turn, resulted in such an unimpressive dog that it too passed into the realm of footnotes and fantasy until it was recreated and shoved into the show ring in recent years.
So it is with breed after breed in the terrier world, from Cairn to Norfolk, from Scottie to Irish, from Manchester to Skye, from Yorkie to Kerry Blue. None of these dogs ever saw serious work underground, at least not in anything like their current recognizeable form.
The short and simple truth is that the world of working terriers has changed very little in the last 200 years. The same dogs are being dug to today that were being dug to 100 years ago -- no more and no less. The shovels are the same and the bar is the same. Only the Deben locator is different.
This is not to say that a lot of trumped up histories have not been invented -- from fake paintings of Trump (Jack Russell's dog) to fanciful descriptions of shepherds protecting their flocks from marauding fox the size of wolves, to the creation of mysterious "extinct" breeds of terriers which, a close reading of history reveals, never even existed at all (or still exist, but under a different name).
As noted in previous posts, most terriers breeds evolved (or devolved as the case may be) from cross-bred farm terriers with little or no particular function. Most of these dogs were all-purpose pets and chore companions who, it was hoped, would score an occassional rat, bush a rabbit, and perhaps discourage a fox from entering the farm yard and stealing a chicken. In truth, their chief "job" then -- as now -- was to sleep, clean off kitchen plates, trot at their owner's side, and greet guests and family members with enthusiasm.
Some of these all-purpose terriers found honest work as cart dogs, riding high on the cart and protecting the horse-drawn "trucks" of the 19th Century from petty thieves. Every bread man had a cart dog, and so too did most fishmongers, butcher boys, and fruit merchants.
A few terriers found work as "turnspit" dogs. The job of the turnspit dog was to walk around an endless wooden "rat race" wheel turning meats that were being roasted -- or else churning butter, pumping water or even washing clothes.
Turnpsit dogs had to be short since they had to fit within half a turning wheel housed inside a small kitchen or out building, but they also had to be very strong, as their jobs frequently lasted many hours without rest.
What ever happened to these "turnspit" dogs? Most simply vanished, but one Irish type -- the Glen of Imaal Terrier -- was declared a "breed," though in truth it never much caught on with the public.
The Glen of Imaal Terrier stands about 14 inches tall, but it has a massive head and chest and weighs in at around 35 pounds -- more than twice the weight of the average vixen. These dogs were never designed to go down a fox den -- they are simply too big. This is a short strong dog designed to turn a spit. They also found some use in another arena -- badger baiting and dog fighting.
Small strong dogs were often used in the cruel-practice of badger-baiting which, it should be said, has nothing to do with badger hunting despite the rather obvious effort to confuse the two by animal rights lunatics.
Badger baiting is a betting game in which captive badgers are loaded into barrels, pipes or artificial earths so that humans can bet on dogs that are timed as they draw them out. A baited badger may face several dogs over an extended period of time and there is no larger point to it than to win sums of money or bragging rights, while considerable stress (and sometimes injury) is inflicted on the badger and the dog.
Badger hunting, on the other hand, is a legitimate form of pest control in which the badger is terminated as quickly and painlessly as possible, or else sacked to be moved to another earth. There is no betting, and the badger is not likely to suffer damage from the dog, though the converse cannot always be said.
The Glen of Imaal Terrier, which started out as a turnspit dog, found some popularity with Irish badger baiters and dog fighters. This was a dog that was large enough to pull a large badger out of a barrel -- something beyond the abilities of most 15-pound fox-working dogs.
The use of Glen of Imaal Terrier by badger baiters led some to believe this dog was often used for badger hunting. In fact, this was not so. Arthur Heinemann's Badger Digging Club, which later became the Jack Russell Terrier Club of Great Britain, used Jack Russell Terriers to do the job. Sir Jocelyn Lucas used a pack of very small Sealyham terriers. Bert Gripton used very small cross-bred Jack Russells, etc.
When badger baiting was banned, a small group of Glen of Imaal Terrier owners invented a "test" in an attempt to give their breed continued purpose in a changing world. Thus was born the "Teastas Beg" and the "Teastas Mor" -- gaelic words meaning "Little Test" and "Big Test"
The Teastas Beg was a pretty modest affair and was really nothing more that artificial ratting and rabbit bushing.
"A Teastas Beag consisted of flinging rats into a large pond and allowing the dogs competing to swim and hunt one at a time. The inexperienced handlers of the rats created much merriment and a large proportion of the rats survived to tell the tale. In the case of the rabbits, each one was released from a marked spot on the fresh ground. As soon as it had taken cover the dog was released at the spot where the rabbit had been set free. He was required to run the trail accurately and to hunt will through briars and undergrowth. The actual catching and killing of the rabbit was immaterial as any untrained dog will often do that. Often to save time, the judges would call up a dog once he had satisfied them as to his capabilities."
The Teastas Mor was simply an attempt to bring back badger baiting, albeit under the cover of a "club" activity. Only a handful of Teastas Mor events were ever held, as the authorities quickly ruled them illegal and in violation of the badger baiting laws. As one observor noted of a 1926 Teastas Mor event:
"On the first and second occasions the badger chute was defined as, (rule A4) 'A natural shore at least fifteen feet long, not more than sixteen inches wide with a bed ten feet from the mouth. A well about twelve inches square to contain the badger must be at least eight inches below the level of the shore and at right angles to it.' It is obvious that such an exact arrangement could not have been natural. It was artificial, the sides and top being of timber. This rule cause the Committee's undoing at the subsequent State Prosecutions. The Court held that the baiting of a captive animal had been proved which is contrary to the law and the defendant members of the Committee were fined."
Later the "earth," while still artificial, was constructed of earth and stones and sodded over with grass. The end effect was a bit like a cross between an AKC earthdog set up and an artificial earth for fox.
Unfortunately, a twising den earth in real earth proved too difficult for over-large Glen of Imaal Terriers to negotiate!
"Natural badger work still appeared unwieldy to the Committee and the Teastas Mor on that occasion consisted of an artificial earth constructed of stones and covered over with sods some time previously. The growth of grass made it, in the absence of direct evidence, almost impossible to prove the construction artificial. The badger was put in early that morning before the possible arrival of any police inspectors. It was one captured by a small Blue Bitch of mine, 'Emer,' the previous week. These preparations defeated their own object, for the earth was too long and too narrow and too twisty for the dogs, and none of them succeeded in drawing the badger while some were severely mauled in the attempt. I never saw that particular earth, but it was feelingly pointed out that the members who constructed it had not entered any of their own dogs! After that it was a case of 'back to nature' - a decision both welcome and sound."
In fact, there was no "back to nature" with the Glen of Imaal; very few of the dogs ever worked historically, and almost none are found in the field today even in those countries where legal and illegal badger digging is common.
This is hardly surprising -- a dog designed to be mute and to fight anything it sees head-on is a dog that is hard to locate and likely to be wrecked in short order by a badger. Badger diggers at the turn of the century --as today -- prefer a smaller dog with more discretion and more voice. Unsurprisingly, they use the same terriers for badger work today that they did 100 and more year s ago -- Jack Russells, Fells, Patterdales, and various crosses in between.
For more see:
Friday, March 18, 2005
Several states have developed programs that have opened millions of acres of private land to the public for hunting and fishing. Each state's program is a little different and is designed to meet the needs of a given state's sportsmen, but they all have one thing in common: serious lack of funding to compensate farmers and other land owners for extending hunting and fishing access to sportsmen.
Congress is looking to provide $50 million per year through 2007 from the Farm Bill to enable states to establish and improve private land access programs for hunting, fishing or other outdoor recreation. This is a great idea and deserves support from everyone who hunts and fishes in the United States.
"Open Fields" legislation will provide additional income to ranchers and farmers, while expanding opportunities to hunters and anglers. You can do your part by sending a letter to Congress at this site >> Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
Wednesday, March 16, 2005
I joined up with Beth and Jeff, who has a very good looking young dog from Beth's Kennel by the name of Dickens. It was an overcast day with a sharp wind and temperatures that ranged around 40 degrees but felt much colder on the hills.
Mountain found a groundhog in a hedgerow, and Jeff and I dug it out in short order while Millie worked another groundhog up the hedge that eventually managed to dig away in the very soft soil. Sailor found in a small pipe under a mass of dry sticks that was a bit like a beaver dam, and we dug down to this one in short order as well, with Mountain doing the final bit of extraction work.
Groundhogs number three and four were found in the same sette -- Sailor working away at one on one side of the pipe, and Millie working the other on the other side of the pipe. The two groundhogs ended up pushed up one behind the other in the pipe, with a dog on each end -- quick work and another shallow dig in soft earth, albeit with a net of finger-roots mixed in.
Millie had the fourth groundhog firmly by the seat of the pants, which was good luck as we weren't expecting it to be there!
All of the groundhogs we located were small -- one-year-olds that had lost a third of their body weight during hibernation.
At the end of the day, we watched a turkey vulture hunt low over the field, playing in the wind, its bright red head quite visible. Jeff guessed that it must be scenting one of the dead groundhogs we had left out for scavenging fox, and sure enough in the gloamin (and while we dug down six feet to extract Millie who was hard at work on the 5th critter of the day a bit farther up the field) we watched it settle down for its feast.
Everything is recycled, one way or another.
Millie was extracted from the pipe with the help of a snare (they work on dogs too!), and we finished repairing the den just as the last light faded into blackness.
All in all, an excellent day, and we left some in the ground to come back to another day. Nothing wrong with that.
The dogs were pretty tuckered out, the pups got an eyeful, and everyone had a few sore muscles at the end of the day. About as good as it gets.
Friday, March 11, 2005
Thursday, March 10, 2005
Wednesday, March 09, 2005
Groundhog hibernation is a truely amazing thing.
During the summer a woodchuck's heart rate is around 80 beats a minute, and it has a temperature of 98 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the winter, however, a groundhog's heartbeat drops to only 5 beats a minute, and its body temperature drops to just 38 degrees.
The Black Rat Snake is the largest snake in Virginia and Maryland, growing up to eight feet long. A mature Rat Snake is solid black, with a white belly. A young black rat snake will have a broken black and white pattern.
Black Rat Snakes are found in forests, fields, marshes, and farmland. In the Spring and Fall, these snakes are very active during the day; in the Summer they are more active at night.
Rat Snakes are excellent climbers and will often hide in the holes of hollow trees and logs -- the very spots they will overwinter in, and where they will lay their clutch of 5 to 30 eggs.
Black Rat Snakes are constrictors; once they catch their prey, they wrap their body around it and squeeze until the animal suffocates. Their primary foods are mice, rats, chipmunks, bird eggs, baby birds, lizards, frogs, and other snakes, but they will also tackle baby squirrels and small rabbits if they get a chance. They are quite harmless to humans.
In April and May, look for rat snakes in the hollows of trees, in rotted stumps, and around barns where they often prowl for mice. They are quite capable of climbing up the rough planks of an old barn side, and are often found in haylofts.
Tuesday, March 08, 2005
The internet is the kind a place where 50-year old men impersonate 17-year old girls and where anyone with an email account can be sure they will receive a bit of spam promising them millions if they just send a $2,000 "transaction payment" to Nigeria.
The world of working terriers is not immune to flim-flam and fantasy. Some "fantasy diggers" are owners of AKC dogs that imagine their dogs were "bred to work" when in fact their terrier's ancestors have probably not seen the inside of a den pipe in more than 40 generations.
Some folks are simply confused and think they have working dogs because their pooch catches an occasional rat or mouse while out in the countryside.
Others are convinced they are experts by dint of being able to drop a name or two -- as if knowledge and experience were transferred to them in a phone conversation or a chance meeting over cocktails.
If you pay attention, you can generally figure out what is real and what is fantasy -- the trick is to be able to read the "tells."
>> To read more
Monday, March 07, 2005
Friday, March 04, 2005
Thursday, March 03, 2005
A Plea for the Wild
23 - 9 - 2004
A former leading official with Britain’s League Against Cruel Sports describes__________
how he came to change his mind about banning hunting with dogs.
Roger Scruton’s summary of the constitutional aspect of the British government’s proposal to ban hunting with hounds is a valuable contribution to openDemocracy’s archived debate. However, his article and the debate as a whole do not directly address the aspect of the debate that for me is the most important: animal welfare.
Is an open, evidence-based dialogue about hunting possible, between people who listen to rather than shout at each other? See openDemocracy’s debate “Hunting culture” – with contributions from distinguished anthropologist Hugh Brody, the campaigner for hunter–gatherer communities Rupert Isaacson, the literary scholar Donna Landry, the rural activist and agronomist, Graham Harvey, and representatives of the constitutional reform movement Charter 88 and the Countryside Alliance in Britain, as well as Roger Scruton
Like many people of broadly left-liberal sympathies, I tend to side with the victim: with the miners against Margaret Thatcher, Solidarity against Poland’s communist government, farmers in the global south against multinational agribusiness, gays against anti-sodomy laws, laboratory animals against vivisection. True, not every issue can be squeezed into this mould, and the tendency to treat politics as simply one long protest on behalf of victims can deform the left.
Still, like many others, I entered the contest about hunting because I saw it as a call to defend wild animals against the people who oppress them. I put enough energy into this cause to become executive director of the League Against Cruel Sports (Lacs), entrusted with running the league’s campaign against hunting with dogs.
When my predecessor at the league abandoned our campaign and even joined “the other side”, I assumed that he just took pleasure in being perverse. In fact, four previous Lacs directors have now said publicly that a ban on hunting would be wrong – not the most comfortable fact for a pressure group dedicated to the abolition of hunting.
It was obvious that I would only be able to do my job, which involved frequent public debates and press interviews, if I knew the full facts about hunting. I had followed hunts as a saboteur and then, at Lacs, as an observer. Now, I also wanted to research the effects of hunting – not merely on the individual quarry, but on its species, on the environment, and on the other animals involved.
At the end of a long, slow learning-curve, I was convinced that a ban on hunting would have a serious and negative effect on animal welfare. Moreover, I concluded that properly-regulated hunting can justify its place in Britain’s countryside as a relatively effective, humane and ecologically positive form of wildlife management.
This point of view has little or no impact on the anti-hunting lobby and their political representatives. Hunting is the perfect vehicle for a package of prejudices that sees its proponents as rich, dim upper-class Conservatives. Yet when you visit a hunt you discover that the majority of the followers – who gather behind the hunting pack on horseback, on bicycle, in cars, or on foot – do not fit the stereotype.
For many hunt supporters, the pleasure lies in following the hounds, in something like the way that falconers follow their birds, enjoying the spectacle of animals intently at work and cooperating with their human keepers. Some of the followers are simple people, others are among the shrewdest and most interesting people I have met; very few can be dismissed as sadists and many are besotted with their own animals.
The prevailing image of hunting – of an animal chased over great distances to the point of exhaustion and then slowly torn to pieces while still alive – had worked its influence on me. But I came to realise that it is entirely false. Chases in foxhunts last on average about fifteen minutes, and proceed by a series of ambushes as the quarry moves from one covert to the next.
During the chase, the fox is moving away from something it finds unsettling, and does not know that it is running from a possible fatal encounter. Indeed, previous similar experiences are likely to tell the fox that escape is inevitable. Full flight usually ends in escape, unless the fox is old or diseased. Death, if it does come, is instantaneous.
Importantly, there is no wounding; the fox either escapes or is killed, something that simply cannot be said about other methods of control. Nobody can deny that the last minutes of a “run” must involve some stress. But by what standard of comparison do we judge this? Recently, someone out lamping for foxes at night shot a birdwatcher. In another case, a fox was shot through the head and survived for days before being caught by a local foxhunt pack. A hunt ban will entail an inevitable increase in shooting; will such examples multiply?
Hunting, unlike shooting and trapping, presents the quarry with a threat which it is adapted to deal with; it discriminates against unhealthy animals and helps to maintain a healthy population at a manageable level. Hence the only sound reason to ban hunting with dogs is if alternative methods of control (shooting and snaring) can be shown to be significantly more humane.
In the absence of any such evidence, and given that any method of control can have serious welfare implications, the best way forward (as the 2000 report by Lord Burns found) is regulation to ensure high standards in all of them. Hunters themselves have established various monitoring bodies to regulate the hunts, but these do not guarantee that all those involved will work together to put animal welfare first. What kind of regulatory system for all methods of control would work best?
At the League Against Cruel Sports I considered this question carefully, and decided to consider legislation that would ensure better animal welfare – even if that meant retaining hunting as a part of overall wildlife management. Several colleagues at Lacs agreed that this would be both the most humane approach and the most practical, likely to win acceptance from all the interests involved and therefore most likely to lead to a lasting legislative solution. As soon as we said this in public, however, we were forced out of the league – a fairly familiar occurrence now, but one that awoke me to the sheer bigotry that has animated so much of the campaign against hunting in Britain.
Despite this, our support for a regulatory statute was essentially endorsed by a series of inquiries – Phelps (1997), Burns (2000), and the Portcullis House consultations (2002). Now, after the seriously flawed bill introduced by the Labour minister Alun Michael failed to become law, the British government has reintroduced a confused and contradictory proposal to ban hunting – along with a threat to use the Parliament Act (1949) to bypass the upper house of parliament (the House of Lords) in order to secure legislation.
Meanwhile, an alternative way forward exists in the form of the All-Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group, which supports the Wild Mammals (Protection) (Amendment) Bill, proposed by Lord Donoughue in the House of Lords and Lembit Öpik MP in the House of Commons. This bill seeks a rational solution to the problem of wildlife management as a whole, and would have the side-benefit of saving the government from its prejudiced and scientifically illiterate approach to hunting.
The bill would protect all wild mammals from undue suffering in all circumstances. The measure of cruelty could at last be tested in the courts, and a serious regime of wildlife management developed that would over time benefit all quarry species. The League Against Cruel Sports and its parliamentary supporters are adamantly opposed to such a bill, since it undermines their absolutism and invites them into a dialogue that they consistently avoid.
Most people on the liberal left are likely to feel that the time and energy spent on the hunting controversy are out of all proportion to its real social and political significance. Any possibility that the Parliament Act, which was expressly designed as a last resort in matters of supreme national importance, might be used to pass a law on hunting is bound to reinforce that impression.
For others on the left, however, the hunting issue has become symbolic of old antagonisms and of an unfinished war against the English upper class, wrongly imagined as the embodiment of hunting culture. If I have learned only one thing from my involvement in the controversy, it is that those who are determined to fight that war are not fighting it on behalf of English wildlife.
I still hope that some future British government will find a way to revisit the issue of hunting in an open-minded spirit, and introduce regulations that will benefit the quarry – rather than a ban that will hurt both the quarry and the people who have the greatest interest in managing it.
- Editorial, London Observer, 20th February 2005
Wednesday, March 02, 2005
In the waning days of winter, it's nice to look through photos from April when the weather was a bit warmer, the flowers were just coming out, and the geese were beginning to sit on their eggs.