Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Terrier Work, Part 3 -- Malthus, Darwin, and the Enclosure Movement

The great Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was the first person to write about fox-hunting as a social phenomenon. He was also the first person to talk about terrier work as part of the mounted hunts in Great Britain.

It should be said that, to this day, terrier work is divided between those who pursue fox with horse and hounds, and those who pursue fox on foot with terrier and spade.

Fouilloux, writing in 1560, was of the latter school. Though he wrote of a well-to-do landlord going out into the countryside with a cart of tools, a team of diggers, and a young maiden to stroke his brow, his terrier work had nothing to do with packs of hounds and a field of well-dressed riders.

In Guy Mannering, we find the other kind of fox hunting. Here Scott is writing about High Society and fox hunting as social event. The juxtaposition between "the haves" and the "have nots" is a core part of the story.

It is not an accident that the first substantive mention of fox hunting in English literature was written in 1815 and set in the 1760s. This period of time coincides with the great expansion of the Enclosure Movement which was to sweep through the United Kingdom and transform every facet of the British countryside.

It is impossible to overstate the economic violence of the Enclosure Movement which has been described as "a revolution of the rich against the poor."

In England some 6 million acres, or one-quarter of the cultivated acreage, was enclosed by direct act of Parliament. Another 4 to 7 million acres are estimated to have been enclosed privately. Most of the large woods were cut down and the land was hemmed in by stone walls and thick hedges — not only to keep sheep in, but also to keep peasants and their livestock out.

Every part of the United Kingdom was effected by this "rich man’s land grab". Poor peasants poured into towns and cities, most without jobs, skills, money, or entertainment.

One of the Great Questions facing the well-fed and well-bred in Great Britain at this time was what to do with the now inconvenient riffraff that were jungling up in cities and towns. This seething population seemed to breathe resentment and insurrection. At the very least they were discomforting and depressing.

In 1798, the Reverend Thomas Malthus published his tract on human population growth, which was written as a defense of the Enclosure Movement.

Malthus argued that the poor were morally incapable of abstaining from sex and that all other forms of birth control were clearly a Sin. The dilemma was what to do with the growing (and inevitable) number of poor which threatened Britain’s social fabric. Malthus argued that rather than help the poor, society should push them towards the grave so that the lives of the rich (and presumably moral and abstentious) could be better enjoyed and poor taxes reduced:

Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases: and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders. If by these and similar means the annual mortality were increased ... we might probably every one of us [moral, rich and abstinent] marry at the age of puberty and yet few be absolutely starved.


In fact, increasing the level of misery was very much on the menu in early 19th Century England.

With the Enclosure Movement, came restrictions on hunting on lands that had once been part of the Commons.

The Game Laws of 1816, for example, limited the hunting of small game — such as pheasant, partridge, hares and rabbits — to landowners. The penalty for poaching was "transportation" overseas for seven years. If convicted a second time you were never to be allowed to return.

The Poor Law Amendments Act of 1834 started the work house system later made famous by Charles Dickens. Across England hundreds of thousands of people died premature deaths from diseases that flourished in the squalor of cities where sewage, water and trash systems were incapable of keeping up with rural-to-urban migration pressures.

Brown rats, which first arrived in England around 1720, found the cities of England a delightfully accommodating place, and they soon drove out the Black Rat, thereby ending the Black Plague carried by the black rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis).

Brown rats had another use. At harvest time rural threshers often kept terriers to kill rats that buried themselves in wheat and oats waiting to be separated. "Threshing parties," held at harvest time, often pitted several local terriers against the scores of rats seething through a now-greatly reduced pile of straw and grain.

A variant of this sport was recreated in the cities, with terriers competing to see who could most rapidly kill their weight in rats. Thus were born the Victorian rat pits, a kind of reduced version of the arena animal-baiting made famous by the Romans and still evident in the bull rings of Spain today.

Out in the countryside livestock of both sexes were still kept together in the fields and allowed to breed at random, but that was about to change. A farmer by the name of Robert Bakewell realized that simply by separating males from females — made easy by the rising number of enclosed fields — a farmer could choose which stock was allowed to breed. By deliberately inbreeding livestock, and selecting for desirable traits, Bakewell rapidly created new and "improved" breeds of sheep and transformed modern agriculture forever.

Bakewell’s experiments with sheep quickly spilled over into other farm stock, such as cattle, pigs, and chickens, and eventually into pet stock such as dogs and pigeons.

One of the people who noticed the rapid transformation of British livestock was naturalist Erasmus Darwin who devoted an entire chapter in Zoonomia to the rapid changes he observed being made to British farm animals.

For his part, Erasmus’ son, Charles Darwin, was so besotted with country sport that his father despaired he would ever amount to much of anything.

"You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and your family," Erasmus wrote to Charles.

In fact Charles Darwin turned out all right.

After washing out of medical school and the seminary, and then letting a romantic relationship drift away (due to his being more infatuated with beetles than women), young Charles signed on as naturalist aboard the Beagle, a survey boat on a voyage around the world.

Darwin returned to Britain in 1836, but it was not until 1859 that he wrote The Origin of Species, and then only after reading Reverend Thomas Malthus’s work on the role of "natural" limits to population growth.

Darwin’s ruminations about evolution were greatly influenced by the amazing varieties of livestock being produced by farmers and fanciers in the U.K. at this time. He was especially fascinated by pigeon breeders who were able to rapidly express all kinds of peculiar variation from the common rock dove — rollers, pouters, fantails, barbs, tumblers, and carriers, to name a few.

It was not much of a leap to speculate that the forced selection being done by pigeon breeders might have a parallel in "natural selection" among finches on a remote volcanic island in the Pacific.

Thus was borne the Theory of Evolution.

1 comment:

Gaddy Bergmann said...

I'm not trying to be contentious here, but I really don't see how people who love domestic canids (dogs) can hunt wild canids (wolves, coyotes, jackals, and foxes) for sport. To me, respecting one means respecting them all, if in different ways. I've been a dog lover all my life, and the thought of killing a coyote or fox for any reason other than defense seems morally reprehensible. Actually, the thought of hunting any wild carnivoran (cats, bears, badgers, etc) also seems unethical, but at least it wouldn't be hypocritical for a dog lover to hunt a carnivoran from another family. But foxes? They're so much like dogs, I just don't see how people can allow themselves to use hounds or terriers to hunt them. What's the deal?