Friday, September 22, 2017

The Countryside March: 15 Years Ago Today


The Countryside Alliance March of September 22, 2002 (15 years ago today) was the largest political protest in British history, but its seeds were sown several hundred years earlier.

The Enclosure Movement which began in 1750 and which lasted for about 100 years, swept much of rural England clean of subsistence agriculture and human settlement. Most large woods were cut down, and the land was repopulated by sheep hemmed in by stone walls and thick hedges.  It has been described, quite accurately, as a "revolution of the rich against the poor."

The idyllic beauty of today's British landscape obscures the grinding suffering that occurred as a direct result of the Enclosure Movement. Every part of the United Kingdom was effected by this "rich man's land grab" including England, Scotland, and Ireland. 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.

With the Enclosure Movement, came restrictions on hunting on lands that had once been part of "the commons." The Game Laws of 1816 limited the hunting of game to landowners: pheasant, partridge, hares and rabbits. The penalty for poaching was "transportation" for 7 years. i.e. you were sent overseas, and if convicted a second time you were never allowed to return.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 -- An Act for the Amendment and better Administration of the Laws relating to the Poor in England and Wales -- is one of the most significant laws in British history. After the rural poor were forced off of the land that they depended on for survival, this law set up Dickensian work houses designed to dampen down the the social unrest that was was the byproduct of shifting an entire nation from subsistence agriculture to a wool-exporting economy.

Across England hundreds of thousands of people died premature deaths from diseases that flourished in the rat-infested squalor of cities where sewage, water and trash systems were incapable of keeping up with rural-to-urban migration pressures.

Reverend John Russell counted among his most important work the raising of money for the North Devon Infirmary which provided health care to many of the people made poor made by the seizure of lands to form large estates. Ironically, it was on these same large land holdings that the Reverend Russell often hunted.

With the importation of cheap cotton from the United States and cheap wool from Australia and the US, the British wool economy faltered and began to collapse. What was to replace it? A lot of field crops, of course, but also potted bird shoots and mounted hunts. The stone walls and laid hedges proved perfect for jumps, and the rise of trains and improved guns meant that more and more urban rich and idle country squires could take the to the field for entertainment.

One small problem of the Victorian era was that there were not a lot of fox about. Back when there were poor people in the country, free-range chickens and ducks were common, and so fox were trapped and poisoned with abandon. Now, with the countryside cleared of people, there were not enough fox for the mounted hunts. What do do? Why protect fox, of course! And so the mounted hunts worked to pass laws to discourage free-agent fox-culling by farmers. Look up the word "vulpicide" in the Oxford English Dictionary and you will see it is defined as as "One who kills a fox otherwise than by hunting it with hounds."

Even as fox were being protected so they could be chased, the rise of dog shows was creating new dog breeds. A newly emerging middle class in the UK and the United States wanted to bestow status, prestige and exclusivity on themselves. What better way to do that than to invent a breed with a contrived, romantic, and intrepid history? And is there a cheaper breed to raise and produce for sale than a terrier? And so a "terrier craze" swept the show dog world from 1870 to the start of World War II. Most of the terrier breeds we know today were either created or "improved and standardized" at this time.

In 1950 the Myxomatosis virus was imported to the UK to control rabbit numbers, and it resulted in the death of 98% of all rabbits in the country. Fox populations collapsed, and ancient rabbit warrens and fox earths caved in from non-use. In order to provide sheltering dens for what fox remained, and in order to encourage these fox to stay on hunt lands, many new artificial earths were created. These artificial earths are a great deal bigger and easier to negotiate than a natural fox earth, and the availability of larger drains and artificial den pipes led to increased tolerance for larger dogs.

The first push to ban fox hunting in the UK began shortly after World War II.  A few dates:

1949 - Two private member's bills to ban, or restrict, hunting fail to make it onto the statute books. One is withdrawn, the other is defeated on its second reading in the Commons. The Labour government appoints a committee of inquiry to investigate all forms of hunting. The committee concludes: "Fox hunting makes a very important contribution to the control of foxes, and involves less cruelty than most other methods of controlling them. It should therefore be allowed to continue."

1970 - The House of Commons votes for legislation to ban hare coursing. However, the bill runs out of time when the general election is called.

1992 - A private member's bill to make hunting with dogs illegal is rejected by the Commons. The Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill, proposed by Labour MP Kevin McNamara, is defeated on its second reading.

1993 - Labour MP and animal rights campaigner Tony Banks fails in his attempt to get Parliament to pass his Fox Hunting (Abolition) Bill.

1995 - Labour MP John McFall is unsuccessful with his private member's bill to ban hunting with hounds. The Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill passes its second reading in the Commons. But it is heavily amended before it falls in the Lords.

May 1997 - The Labour Party wins the general election. In its manifesto it promises: "We will ensure greater protection for wildlife. We have advocated new measures to promote animal welfare, including a free vote in Parliament on whether hunting with hounds should be banned."

November 5, 1997 - Labour MP Michael Foster publishes a private member's bill to ban hunting with dogs. The government delivers a blow to the chances of the bill becoming law by refusing to grant the legislation any of its Parliamentary time.

March 1, 1998 - After the Foster bill passes its second reading in the Commons, the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance organises a massive protest rally in London. An estimated 250,000 people join the countryside march to protest against the bill and threats to other aspects of rural life.

March 13, 1998 - Hunt supporters celebrate as the Foster bill runs out of time during its report stage in the Commons. The bill is talked out by hunt-supporting MPs who table hundreds of amendments to block the legislation's progress. Mr Foster pledges to fight on.

July 3, 1998 - Mr Foster withdraws his bill citing the "cynical tactics" of his opponents. He insists that to carry on would deprive other valuable legislation, such as a law on puppy farms, of valuable Parliamentary time. He predicts that fox hunting will still be banned during this Parliament. But he says it is now up to the government to see the job through.

July 8, 1999 - Prime Minister Tony Blair makes a surprise announcement that he plans to make fox hunting illegal and before the next general election if possible.

July 12, 1999 - Labour denies that Mr Blair's pledge is connected to an extra £100,000 donation it had received from an anti-hunt pressure group. The Political Animal Lobby (PAL), had previously given £1m to the party before the 1997 election. PAL had also made donations to the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

July 12, 1999 - Labour MSP Mike Watson announces plans to put forward a private member's bill in the Scottish Parliament to ban hunting with dogs in Scotland. He predicts the bill could come into force by Spring 2000.

September 15, 1999 - Hunt supporters set up a national body, the Independent Supervisory for Hunting, to ensure hunting is carried out in a "proper and humane manner".

October 1, 1999 - Tony Blair insists he can deliver his promise to ban fox hunting before the next election, despite claims that it will have to wait until the House of Lords is reformed.

November 11, 1999 - The government announces it will support a backbenchers' bill on fox hunting.

November 14, 1999 - Home Secretary Jack Straw announces an inquiry into the effect of a fox hunting ban on the rural economy, to be led by Lord Burns.

March 2000 - MSP Mike Watson's bill starts its passage through the Scottish Parliament.

April 2000 - Mr Straw looks at producing a bill where MPs choose between the three options of an outright ban, no change and stricter regulation of hunting.

May 30, 2000 - Labour backbenchers urge the government to put its weight behind a hunting ban or risk losing voters, and Labour MP Gordon Prentice proposes an amendment to the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill to ban the sport.

June 2000 - The Burns inquiry says between 6,000 and 8,000 jobs would be lost if hunting was banned, half the number suggested by some pro-hunt groups. It finds no conclusive evidence that foxes suffer physical pain when pursued, but accepts they do not die immediately.

February 2001 - Hunting suspended because of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.

February 20, 2001 - MPs vote by a majority of 179 for an outright ban as the hunting bill clears the Commons

March 26, 2001 - House of Lords votes by 317 to 68 against the ban. The hunting bill runs out of time when the general election is called.

June 2001 - The Queen's Speech promises another free vote for MPs on hunting.

October 2001 - More than 200 MPs back a Commons motion calling on the government to honour its promises and make time for a vote on banning hunting.

February 2002 - Scottish Parliament bans hunting in Scotland.

February 28, 2002 - Ministers ready to set out timetable for a hunting bill.

March 2002 - The House of Commons and the House of Lords are asked to choose between three options: a complete ban, the preservation of the status quo and the compromise of licensed fox hunting. The Commons opted for a complete ban while the Lords chose the "Middle Way" option.

September 22, 2002: The Countryside Alliance organized a massive march in central London to promote the interests of rural Britain and especially to oppose a ban on hunting with dogs. The British National Party tries to co-opt the march, but the Countryside Alliance issues a statement: "Everything we stand for is the opposite of what they believe in." Over 400,000 people attend the March, still the largest political march in British history.

December 3, 2002 - Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael unveils the Hunting Bill, which would allow some fox hunting to continue under a strict system of licensing but would outlaw hare coursing and stag hunting. Mr Michael says he hopes the compromise would avoid further lengthy battles between the pro-hunting Lords and the anti-hunting Commons.

June 26, 2003 - Commons Leader Peter Hain tells MPs he has been advised that major amendments to the bill - such as moves towards a complete ban on hunting - could mean it has to be sent to a standing committee and cause delays.

June 30, 2003 - An amendment from Labour MP Tony Banks proposing a complete ban is passed by 362 votes to 154.

July 1, 2003 - Alun Michael says that he would be surprised if there was not a ban on fox hunting, with a few exemptions, by 2005. MPs vote to turn the Hunting Bill into an outright ban on hunting with dogs after five hours of intense Commons debate by 362 votes to 154.

July 10, 2003 - Hunting Bill clears the House of Commons after MPs give the measure, which makes no provision for compensation, a third reading by 317 votes to 145.

October 21, 2003 - The bill returns to the House of Lords for its committee stage. A cross-party group of peers throws out MPs' plans for a complete ban and replace them with a licensing regime for fox and stag hunting, as well as hare coursing. But anti-hunting MPs vote for the bill to be re-written to become a wholesale ban on hunting with dogs in England and Wales. The House of Lords then rejects that call in a vote and the legislation runs out of parliamentary time.

September 8, 2004 - The government announces plans to give MPs a free vote on the Hunting Bill by the end of the parliamentary session in November. The Bill is similar to the one originally proposed and would lead to an outright ban on fox hunting. Rural minister Alun Michaels says the fox hunting issue has already taken too much parliamentary time and the government is prepared to deploy the little-used Parliament Act to over-rule the Lords if peers try to block it. But Commons leader Peter Hain says, if the bill becomes law, an actual ban on fox hunting would not come into force for two years. This would allow people involved in hunting to wind down their businesses, but also avoids pro-hunting demonstrations during 2005's expected general election campaign.

1 comment:

Tom Slater said...

Amazing that the largest protest in the country's history was not able to stop the ban. Maybe peaceful protest doesn't achieve anything? Do we need to be like the French and refuse to go to work to get what we want?