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To ban or not to ban? Confusion reigns...

Environmental writer Charlie Pye-Smith attended the Alliance Party annual conference in Belfast as an observer on Saturday 2 March. Here, he reflects on the day's events and what they could mean for hunting.

First, some background.  Over the past two years, Countryside Alliance animal welfare advisor Jim Barrington and I have explored the impact of the 2004 Hunting Act on the quarry species in England and Wales. Our findings are described in the book Rural Wrongs: Hunting and the Unintended Consequences of Bad Law. The ban, we discovered, has made life much worse for the fox, red deer and brown hare, not better.

The Alliance Party pledged in its manifesto that it would introduce a bill to ban hunting with dogs in Northern Ireland. Their first attempt to do so a little over two years ago failed. Now that Stormont is sitting again, they plan to have another crack. Gary McCartney, Countryside Alliance Northern Ireland director, was hoping that Jim and I would explain to the Alliance Party Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) that a straightforward ban in Northern Ireland could be just as disastrous for wild animals as it had been in England and Wales.

Being a conference virgin, I was expecting a fair amount of confrontation. There was none. We began with a very civilised conversation with Robbie Marsland of the League Against Cruel Sports and all the interactions we had with the MLAs and delegates were conducted in a friendly spirit, even if our views differed.

The first person I sat next to in the conference hall told me he was astonished to see the Countryside Alliance stand. “You wouldn't want to be seen carrying one of their bags with its logo!” he said. He was in favour of the party’s plan to ban hunting. “For me it's a class issue, and the hunts are so arrogant.”

He was astonished when I told him that I had recently read a study which suggested that over half the people who hunt in Northern Ireland earn less than £20,000 a year (admittedly, the study was over a decade old) and many come from a working-class background. That certainly wasn't the image that hunting projects, he said: “Maybe they should do more to get those people into the public view.” Maybe they should.

Three of the other delegates and one of the MLAs told me a similar story. They were particularly aggrieved by what they saw as the arrogance of certain hunts and they claimed that they sometimes trespassed on private land, ignoring the wishes of landowners. But the interesting point here is that most of the people I spoke to seemed more concerned with poor behaviour by the hunts than with the crucial issue of animal welfare.

During the course of the day, Gary, Jim and I spoke to several MLAs. Some were prepared to have lengthy conversations and listen to the arguments we put forward. Others were keen to hot-foot it to other stands promoting less contentious activities. John Blair, the architect of the original bill, was generous with his time. “I hope I'm smiling in that photo!” he said at one point. “I don't want to look angry!” He didn't, but he was adamant about pushing forward with his plans for a ban. “I want to be absolutely clear, I am opposed to any form of killing for sport.”

So here we are, once again: the ban is as much about proscribing certain sorts of human behaviour, rather than furthering the welfare of the wild animal. As far as the hunted fox is concerned, it makes not the slightest odds whether the people pursuing it are enjoying themselves or not, are upper or working class, are on horseback or on foot. As the fox might say, channelling Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind: frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

The main hall was packed for the speech by Naomi Long, the Alliance Party leader. I wondered whether we were actually going to get away without a mention of fox hunting when some two-thirds of the way through her speech, Ms Long said that John Blair was pressing on with issues that he was passionate about, “like banning hunting with dogs.”

So there you have it. The banning bill will be back on the floor of Stormont before too long. But as Gary McCartney and Jim Barrington pointed out to visitors to the Countryside Alliance stand, things have changed. With Rural Wrongs, we now have evidence that the hunting ban has been bad for wild animal welfare. Hopefully, its arguments will be used in Stormont in the debates to come.

Not everybody in the Alliance Party is obsessed with what should be a trivial issue when compared to the great problems we face today. “Surely, we've got more important things to worry about than fox hunting,” said an Alliance counsellor. “I think this idea of banning hunting is just stupid. It would be the thin end of the wedge.” Once hunting is banned, you can be sure that the animal rights lobby will turn its attention to fishing and shooting.

As an outsider, can I suggest that the hunts themselves could do more to convince politicians that they will respect the laws of trespass? It would also help if they took a belt and braces approach to abiding by the law, codes of practice and memorandum of understanding. There should be an agreed mechanism for punishing those who transgress, as there is in England and Wales, where the British Hound Sports Association (BHSA) has been swift to suspend hunts that have acted illegally. From a purely personal point of view, it was good to see Rural Wrongs being put to good use. Let's hope some of the MLAs read it, rather than throw it in the bin.

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