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Challenging attitudes is vital in preserving the rural way of life

This article, written by Tim Bonner, first appeared in the Shooting Times.

Probably the only bit of my job I really dislike is commuting. I am not going to bore you with my first world problems, however, because however unpleasant the experience it is critical to what I do for two reasons. Firstly, that the Alliance can only do what it does if it is looking politicians in the eye and our office, on the South bank of the Thames, is a short walk from Westminster and secondly because every morning I get on the train, change on to the tube at Tottenham Hale and surface at Vauxhall I remind myself exactly how distanced the lives and concerns of a minority rural people can be from the rest of the population. This is a huge challenge as politics is fundamentally about appealing to the masses, and because it is sometimes very difficult to communicate to or own supporters how irrelevant something that is fundamental to their way of life can be to the 90% of people who live an entirely different existence.

I often think that the most dangerous words in the English language are “everyone I know thinks…”. The people you drink with in the pub, your friends in the village, your shooting mates may all be of one view, but I can promise you that does not mean that is an opinion shared by a majority of the population. We often talk about ‘social media bubbles’, but long before Twitter was invented or even before Facebook was a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, ‘social bubbles’ existed and, in the countryside in particular, it is relatively easy to live a life where your attitudes are regularly confirmed and rarely challenged.

I remember a very long time ago during the battle over the Hunting Act, having a heated argument with a senior foxhunter. He was adamant that we should be leading the defence of hunting with the argument that hunting was of enormous benefit to the fox population and that hunting was in fact ‘the NHS for foxes’. We were equally adamant that this would be a suicidal strategy, that people generally liked foxes and having an argument about which was the best way to kill them would be playing into our opponents’ hands. He thought he was right because ‘everyone he knew’ thought the same. We knew we were right because we had run focus groups and polling of large numbers of people we did not know which told us conclusively that whilst we must always rebut any charge that hunting was ‘cruel’ by far the most effective arguments against the hunting ban were that it was a politically motivated infringement of the rights of a rural minority. The exchange finished with the senior foxhunter declining my invitation to attend Leigh Delamere services on the M4 to ask the first hundred people through the door whether they thought that hunting was the NHS for foxes.

The irony is, of course, that he was quite correct about the impact of the hunting ban on the fox population. It is no surprise to any of us that in lowland hunting countries the fox population has reduced in the last couple of decades, aided considerably by advances is rifle scope technology, but that does not mean that deploying those arguments 20 years ago would have been right.

As we sit on the cusp of renewed political battles over hunting in Westminster, with grouse shooting and game shooting facing direct political challenge in Scotland and Wales and those issues and gun ownership likely to come on to the national political agenda we need to remind ourselves regularly that our activities are reliant on the social licence we are granted by the population as a whole. More people commute through Victoria station every day than will go game shooting in an entire season. Everyone who hunts in the UK would fit comfortably inside an average League One football stadium. These are the realities of the politics of the countryside and we must always remember them if we are to successfully protect our way of life.

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