War on wildlife

Foxes, seals and birds of prey are being legally and illegally slaughtered in Britain

21st September 2018

With the release of a People’s Manifesto for Wildlife, Chris Packham and a group of ecologists, conservationists and other experts have laid out around 200 proposals which seek to save Britain’s countryside, reconnect our society with the natural world and put an end to the persecution of many of our animal species.

From the twinning of primary schools with local farms, to the creation of a “new Environment Act, similar to the Human Rights act”, the proposals range from common-sense and low-cost-commitment, to sweeping reform which will require substantial government intervention.

For a document which contains so much detailed information, it’s highly-readable, even to the layman, and beautifully illustrated. You can read it here.

To oversee this wide-ranging set of proposals, the manifesto suggests the establishment of an independent public service body, LIFE UK, with its own ring-fenced budget and experts heading different departments.

Alongside the sets of proposals aimed at rewilding, natural education, farming practices and more – all of which contain ideas which may not currently enjoy broad, popular support – sit a raft of measures aimed at reducing the intentional harm done to animals in the name of sport or in protecting the profits of industry. Proposals which take aim at fox hunting, the badger cull and seal shooting will be almost universally popular. We’ve taken a look here at the main issues covered in this section of the manifesto.

The Hunting Act

Brought in more than a decade ago in 2004 and described in the manifesto as “one of the most popular pieces of legislation on the statute books” the Hunting Act aimed to ban the hunting of all wild animals with packs of dogs. The main type of hunting it aimed to stamp out was fox-hunting, but stags, hares and mink are also common quarry for many of the UK’s hunting organisations.

The years since this law was brought in have seen very little shift in attitudes toward hunting with hounds but the number of groups still actively doing this is shockingly high.

Many groups hunt under the auspice of trail hunting, a supposedly benign version of hunting whereby the hunters follow an artificial, pre-laid trail through the woods: in theory, no foxes or other animals should be killed during a trail hunt.

While fox hunting is technically illegal, it still goes on largely unchallenged by authorities

Even when these groups are found to have killed foxes and other wildlife, trail hunters claiming to have come across a fox accidentally which was then pursued and killed by the hounds are not in breach of the law. A majority of animal rights activists and conservationists believe that trail hunting is little more than a cover for real illegal hunting and that most hunts who claim to be trail hunting have every intention of killing animals.

Our investigation earlier this year found a hunting group in the North East were doing exactly this, and evidence suggests the problem is widespread.

Up and down the country trail hunting is continuing to lead to foxes being killed with hounds as well as other species such as badgers

Aware of this, the manifesto calls for the strengthening of the Hunting Act, by adding a “reckless provision” to prevent the trail hunting excuse being used. Opponents of the hunt often claim that the continued presence of terrier-men on supposed trail hunts — whose sole purpose is to bring and handle small terrier dogs which will pursue prey underground, hoping to flush them out for the main hounds — is clear evidence that the hunts are still out to kill foxes.

A further proposal in the manifesto, to introduce another part of the Hunting Act which would prohibit the use of dogs underground to flush out foxes and other animals, would seek to curtail this practice.

The National Trust is now seeing its reputation seriously undermined by allowing trail hunting to continue on its land

Dominic Dyer, an animal rights campaigner and author of the manifesto’s wildlife welfare section, says there’s a dire need for these proposals on hunting to be adopted.

He tells The Overtake: “Trail hunting should never have been allowed to develop, it’s simply a means of getting around the restrictions on hunting with hounds within the Hunting Act. Up and down the country trail hunting is continuing to lead to foxes being killed with hounds as well as other species such as badgers.

“The National Trust is now seeing its reputation seriously undermined by allowing trail hunting to continue on its land. The Act must be strengthened to outlaw this form of hunting and to prevent hounds entering Badger setts or hunt supporters filling in Badger setts.”

Last month, The Overtake looked into allegations the National Trust is turning a blind eye to illegal hunting on its land.

Grouse shooting and raptor persecution

Driven grouse shooting is considered one of the most prestigious and high-status rural hobbies, with some moors charging thousands per day to shoot. There are lots of arguments against grouse shooting, and they actually hinge less around the protection of grouse themselves — the numbers of which are artificially boosted to ensure enough prey for hunters — and are more about protecting other wildlife.

The manifesto lays out the harms done to the environment by driven grouse shooting, focusing on the damage caused to upland areas from the draining of moors, which often leads to flooding downstream, as well as the periodic burning of moors to better accommodate grouse.

Other species of animal suffer too in the name of accommodating grouse moors, including the mountain hare which has seen its number drop to 1% of previous levels in certain parts of Scotland; hares are killed off in huge numbers because they supposedly pose a risk of transmitting disease to grouse.

The red kite is a large raptor bird which has schedule 1 protection under the Countryside Act. Despite this protection — which means they cannot be hunted or killed — they, as well as other bird species which might prey on grouse, regularly go missing over grouse moors. Researchers and environmentalists suspect gamekeepers have been killing these birds of prey to protect the grouse they raise for shooting.

The cost of a shotgun license is currently £50, whereas the cost to the taxpayer of administering and monitoring licenses and license-holders is approximately £200

Subsidies handed out to the ten largest grouse moors in England come to more than £3m every year, and most of these moors are owned by incredibly wealthy landowners. Going further, the shotgun licenses required to partake in grouse shooting — or indeed, many forms of hunting — are also subsidised. The cost of a shotgun license is currently £50, it hasn’t increased since 2001, whereas the cost to the taxpayer of administering and monitoring licenses and license-holders is approximately £200.

This issue has been raised by a number of police and crime commissioners, who see budgets slashed in real terms each year but must still set aside resources to manage this process. It’s also worth noting that David Cameron — an avid shooter himself — intervened as Prime Minister in 2014 to veto a proposed increase. As the manifesto points out, other hobbyists who require licenses to engage in their chosen pastime must bear the full cost of licenses, so why shouldn’t shooting hobbyists?

Considering all this, the manifesto calls for a ban on driven grouse shooting, measures to be put in place to protect mountain hare, increased protections for bird species and beefed up punishments for those who commit wildlife crime against them,and an end to the shotgun license subsidy.

Seal culling

Whereas most of us are familiar with the idea of fox hunting and know that tens of thousands of birds are shot for sport (and food) each year, it will likely shock many who read this to learn that hundreds of seals are culled annually off the coasts of Scotland — at least 1,500 have been killed since 2011, according to government figures.

Salmon farming and associated industries generate millions for the Scottish economy and, as seals can potentially interfere with the yield of these farms, they are permitted to apply for licenses to shoot and kill.

seal
Licences to hunt seals are handed out to Scottish fish farms

It’s on this kind of issue when the desire to protect animals runs directly counter to the needs of industries which generate serious revenue and provide employment that the right answer becomes less clear.

We are a self-proclaimed nation of animal lovers who – for some reason or another – kill a lot of animals

Indeed, even the RSPCA has come under fire recently for its “endorsement” of the seal cull. The question must be whether alternative, non-lethal methods are available to industry and whether these alternatives are actually viable.

Packham’s manifesto says alternatives are available, and industry should be supported in pursuing these methods by the Scottish government. To that end, the manifesto asks that the government stop issuing licenses for the culling of seals, and that funding should be made available to fish farms to cover the cost of non-lethal measures, such as acoustic devices and nets.

At the very end of the manifesto’s wildlife welfare section, Dyer highlights the weird contradiction at play when it comes to wildlife in Britain; we are a self-proclaimed nation of animal lovers who – for some reason or another – kill a lot of animals.

Grouse shooting is a status symbol

When most people don’t support these activities — and even feel particularly strongly that they shouldn’t be permitted — and when these activities offer little benefit to society, it’s worth considering how and why they’re still happening.

“I think people fail to understand the influence of powerful industry lobby groups on government policy when it comes to wildlife protection,” says Dyer.

“We are killing badgers and seals to appease the interests of the industrial farming and fish farming industries, that are polluting our environment at an unprecedented rate. The Hunting Act is being weakened as a result of the landowning and hunting sectors which are deeply connected to the political establishment in Westminster, Whitehall and the judiciary. We need to take back control from these interest groups and change the way our government works if we are to protect wildlife in the future.”

The way that Britain’s animals are abused in the name of so-called sport is a blight on our reputation as an animal-loving nation

But what can we do? According to Dyer, it’s time to act.

“People who read this manifesto should seek action to address the concerns it raises via their constituency MPs, via NGOs they fund and support, they should join the People’s Walk for Wildlife in Hyde Park and start to ask questions of the food retailers on farming and food production standards and the impact on wildlife from badgers to seals.”

Reaction

The manifesto’s release has been met largely with approval, and though it seems unlikely that a majority will agree on every measure put forward, those proposals which deal with animal welfare will likely enjoy the broadest popular support.

It is perhaps telling that in the government’s mildly encouraging official response, below, nor in the six bullet-point briefing which came with it, these particular proposals are not mentioned.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove says he will consider the report in depth, adding: “Chris Packham and his colleagues have successfully motivated the public to get behind many of these issues and I would like to thank everyone involved.

“Education plays a crucial part in developing our youngsters. Through our schools, we can develop the next generation of environmentally aware citizens and ensure wildlife and the natural world is protected.”

The many environmental and animal rights groups in Britain will likely be encouraged by this manifesto and will hope to see it bring conversations around these issues brought more into the mainstream.

Nick Weston, head of campaigns at the League Against Cruel Sports, welcomes Packham’s report. “It is reflective of the fact that illegal fox, deer and hare hunting is still rife in our countryside and millions of birds suffer needlessly at the hands of the shooting industry. The way that Britain’s animals are abused in the name of so-called sport is a blight on our reputation as an animal-loving nation, so it is only appropriate that a people’s manifesto calls for it to end.”

The Countryside Alliance — which lobbies to end the Hunting Act and is in favour of grouse shooting — failed to respond to our request for comment.

21st September 2018