No one likes ticking boxes or being challenged on the way they do things but, especially where animal welfare is concerned, proving high standards and changing systems for the better is the only sure way of retaining social licence for any activity. The Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB) published its new welfare strategy yesterday and highlighted how embracing change and driving standards can fundamentally change public and political perceptions. Fifteen years ago, greyhound racing was on its knees waiting for the axe to fall after a series of media exposes about large numbers of healthy dogs being euthanised and welfare abuses in kennels and on the racetrack. Yesterday, however, the Animal Welfare Minister, Lord Goldsmith, welcomed the new strategy and “the positive progress the Greyhound Board are continuing to make”.
This change did not come about by accident, or by spin, but by a cultural change within greyhound racing which has put dog welfare at the heart of everything the industry does. Owners, trainers and punters always claimed to love the dogs, but at the same time were willing to turn a blind eye to welfare failings. Now that claim can be made without any reticence. Nearly all greyhounds retired from racing are being rehomed, standards in kennels are strictly monitored, and injury and fatality rates on the racecourse are at a very low level.
Horse racing recognised the very similar challenges it faced before getting into such a difficult place and has largely pre-empted problems with a focus on racehorse retraining and welfare. Where public concerns have arisen, for instance around fatalities in the Grand National, racing has been willing both to engage with sensible welfare organisations and make necessary changes. Other equine activities like eventing, show jumping and endurance have similarly developed a new focus on horse welfare.
This is the context in which the hunting authorities are currently addressing their governance with the aim of “ensuring that hunting can be open and positive about its activities and provide consistency across all hunts while offering reassurance to other stakeholders”. The challenge for hunting is a significant one because there is a perception that not all trail hunting activity is legitimate. The proposal for a single governing body for all forms of hunting and a separate regulatory body to deal with disciplinary issues will be put to the Masters of Foxhounds Association, the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles, and the other hunting associations at their AGMs in the summer. This is a critical step, but as greyhound racing has shown, it is the cultural change that follows restructuring which drives change in public and political perception. Hunting is on a journey which is crucial to retaining its social licence. That journey will include opportunities to promote the environmental and social benefits of hunting, but its foundation must be delivering a clear and unarguable message that the highest standards of welfare of hounds, horses and staff will always be at the heart of hunting.