Twenty years on from the Liberty and Livelihood March, our President, Baroness Mallalieu looks ahead to what the future may hold for the countryside. This article was first published in My Countryside magazine.
I remember the 22nd September 2002. If you were one of the 400,000 people who went to march in central London on that day, it is one which you will never forget. Just short of half a million people, disciplined and determined, walked with a common purpose – to stand up for freedom, the country way of life and the continuation of hunting.
Afterwards, Michael Heseltine, then an MP who had marched that day, said that for the first time he understood the spirit which had enabled Britain to win the Second World War. There was a realisation that there were so many others who felt as passionately as we did about the same things. The sense of power and comradeship was almost palpable.
Above all, the organisation, the people, the march, the electric atmosphere and all the effort made to get there from all parts of Britain made it all feel worthwhile.
We did not, in the end, prevent a bad law – the Hunting Act – from reaching the Statute Book but, 20 years later, our defence of the countryside, its different way of life and our hounds mean we are still here.
Today many of our most passionate supporters were too young to have been on or to remember that March. They missed out on a day which was not just a serious demonstration – the largest ever in London in peacetime but the greatest of fun too.
The history is just worth recalling; The Hunting Act which came into force in 2004 was a political mistake which should never have happened. Tony Blair, unprepared for the question, was asked on late night TV what his government would do about foxhunting. “Ban it as soon as we can” was his spontaneous answer. He later admitted that that answer, and the steps which were taken subsequently during the seven years which elapsed before the ban came into force, was one of the mistakes which he most regrets making during his time in office.
The first great public protest was the 1997 Hyde Park Rally, it was a triumph and those 120,000 of us lucky enough to have been there will never forget it. A Somerset farmer came to me weeks later. “When I went into Hyde Park, I felt this small,” he said. He held his finger and thumb 1cm apart. “When I came out, I felt 10 feet tall.” So did we all. We had felt isolated in our small communities in the countryside. We realised that day that there were hundreds of thousands of us who felt as we did out there too.
After that day in Hyde Park it went on. Larger and larger mass marches and rallies, up to a quarter of a million of us at times, not just in London but in Cardiff, Birmingham, Newcastle, Exeter and Edinburgh – not to mention demonstrations in Parliament Square and at local level which took place, especially when a hostile politician appeared. Then came the almighty Liberty and Livelihood March which was, at the time, one of the largest protests that London had ever seen.
Support for us came from across the political spectrum too. We had more than 1,000 paid-up Labour Party members join our Labour Leave Country Sports Alone Campaign. When the Hunting Bill eventually reached the House of Lords, a majority of even Labour peers voted for hunting to continue under licence rather than a ban. The Government, after 200 hours of parliamentary time wasted, had to use the Parliament Act to get the Act through.
This is history, but the consequences of what was done still continue today. In 2004 the Labour Party hung an albatross around its neck. John Major said at the time that the Hunting Act would sour off a generation. He has been proved right.
Back in 1997 Labour had more than 100 rural MPs reaching into Conservative rural heartlands. It now holds just 17 of the 199 seats which are designated as rural in England and Wales. Yet, without rural seats the Party cannot win a majority.
The arguments for hunting and coursing put forward 25 years ago did not succeed against parliamentary tactics and a hostile Commons majority but, ironically, the next 25 years have shown those arguments were right. Instead of improving animal welfare, animal suffering and death has increased as a direct result.
Immediately after the Hunting Act came into force, the population of rural foxes plummeted in number. Snaring and lamping – shooting at night – have in some areas radically reduced the fox population with no benefit in terms of welfare. Wounding and prolonged distress, however carefully and however strictly codes of practice are followed, can be the result. The closed season afforded by hunting for vixens and cubs has gone. More hares were shot in the years following the ban on coursing competitions than would have been tallied in 200 years of organised coursing which had managed and conserved the hare populations in areas where they operated and kept the illegal poachers out of business.
Unsurprisingly, without the care those clubs provided, illegal violent trespass has increased to such an extent that the Government has had to introduce further legislation to try to stop it. I suspect those unpaid volunteers were better at the task than the under-pressure rural police force can be and the main losers, of course, are the hares.
In the last 20 years our country has changed too. Rapid population increase with development into many former rural areas has made them suburban and roads are so much busier almost everywhere. In many areas, hunting as it used to take place would no longer be realistically possible anyway, even if it was permitted. Trail hunting within the law – where there can be control over the route that the hounds will follow – has replaced traditional hunting with hounds. In many parts of the country, it provides an opportunity for people to ride horses off the increasingly dangerous roads, out of an arena and into the countryside itself. Yet there are, even now, MPs trying to stop it. Another generation is preparing to be “soured off ”.
It is not just the countryside but public attitudes towards animals and how we treat them which have altered too. Our population is increasingly divorced from direct contact with animals which are not their pets. For most people, knowledge of farming and wildlife comes into the television from presenters who sometimes owe their popularity to appealing to the sentimental but personally inexperienced viewer who believes himself or herself to love animals.
We proudly describe ourselves as a nation of animal lovers, yet the rescue centres today are full – quite literally – of dogs, cats, horses and small pets which bears witness to the reality that our love for animals is too often combined with a lack of understanding about their needs and what caring for them requires. We attribute our own sentiments and moral standards to them when that is not always in their interests or for their welfare.
No one in their right mind approves of cruelty to animals – the deliberate infliction of unnecessary suffering. But the term “cruel” is appraised randomly by the animal rights movement which has the ear of significant parliamentarians to an increasing number of activities involving animals.
A strong lobby today argues that it is wrong to use animals in sport and that movement includes some of our major animal charities. The planned campaign aims to stop greyhound racing, National Hunt racing, Flat racing, eventing and eventually the riding of horses altogether. There are also active, strong and very well-funded campaigns against meat and the dairy industry.
The animal rights movement shouts very loudly in political circles and, despite evidence to the contrary, many politicians believe legislation about animal issues will change votes in their favour. Surely, all those of us with responsibility for animals should examine the way in which we do things and be prepared to change how we do things but changes need to be soundly based – on the facts, the evidence and, where it exists, on the science? Prejudice is a bad basis for change and especially legislative change.
In 2000, the Burns Inquiry into hunting with dogs in England and Wales made clear, as Lord Burns did in clear terms in the House of Lords, that his committee did not find hunting to be cruel. It did not advocate a ban or find that animal welfare would be improved by one, yet, the House of Commons passed the Hunting Act and the then-Government pushed it through with the result that the Act has been a failure on every count.
So where do we go from here? In some areas only trail hunting is realistically possible. In other areas there is a real need for working hounds. Wildlife populations need to be managed so that they can continue to thrive in nature but without conflict with food production on which we all ultimately rely. In very few places would it be possible to go back to hunting as we did 20 years ago. Our countryside is now very different and changing more each day. The construction of HS2 has made places I loved to go hunting then impossible now.
But in other areas it should surely be possible, perhaps with a form of licensing, to enable the essential job of pest control or wildlife management to be done by hounds. The rules would need to be followed and independently regulated as well.
None of these ideas will please “The Old School” of the hunting world or the hard-line animal rights advocates, but times have changed and we must all change. But above all, what we must surely fight to keep is the rural community of which the Liberty and Livelihood March and the other rallies made us truly aware. Our bedrock is a love of the countryside, its landscapes, its wildlife and its people. Against that background the hunting community survives and indeed thrives with a new generation as keen as ever to make it flourish.
We were not finished in 2004. We are not finished now. Our packs of hounds, our friendships old and new, our love of the skill, the music, the beautiful pictures and the excitement are still here. As we know very well, hunting is not about death. It is about life in the countryside and living that life to the full.
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