TELEVISION / Tally-ho! Once more into the fox-hunting debate

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The hoo-ha about fox-hunting purports to be a moral argument when it is just as much a social one. Deep down, what really fuels the abolitionists is that the majority of the sport's practitioners, uniformed in pink coats and mounted on pricey pets, are ostentatiously well-to-do. The sight of the posh killing for pleasure, and protected from their nose-studded enemies by policemen funded by the taxpayer, couldn't be more calculated to enrage the rabble.

Initially, therefore, there appeared to be something rather evasive about the contribution of Countrymen (BBC2) to a debate. The programme was made by John Peel Productions, a rare case of film-makers taking an editorial line in their company title. It took as its focus the work of Barry Todhunter, the huntsman of a pack in the Lake District. A man so grimly named (Tod being German for death) ought not have been so personable: they must have scoured the nation for such an articulate spokesman.

But his real value to the cause is that, though he wears all the gubbins, the hard hat on his head looks distinctly redundant without a frisky steed between his legs. The Blencathra Foxhounds is one of the few hunts where, because of the craggy terrain, horses don't figure.

It would have been much harder to make this film in Leicestershire or the Cotswolds, localities where the vowels aren't so flat. Remove the nags from the picture, and hunting just looks like another classless rural pursuit. Without the class angle, the case for preserving the status quo came across with reasonable clarity. You've heard them all before but, to summarise, does your red menace get a kinder death by either poisoning, shooting, trapping or snaring, or being ripped to shreds by two dozen bloodthirsty predators after a thrilling cross-country chase? Passing away in their sleep surrounded by grandchildren in comfortable old age doesn't seem to be an option.

One fog patch in the argument in favour of hunting is that it imposes human morality on animals. Todhunter expressed anger at the "dastardly" way in which foxes enter fields full of lambs, chew off and then bury their heads. "Why they do this one can only guess," he mused. Why man expects the fox to share his values one can only guess. And why man himself mounts the head of his prey on his wall one can, also, only guess. Our species has had a thing for trophies for as long as it's been eating meat, but isn't it more civilised, more humane (to use that absurd, irrelevant word) to bury a dead head than decorate your dining-room with it?

Another crack opened up when Todhunter described the sight of a decapitated lamb as "sickening". It's a curious moral system that is not also nauseated by the picture of a fox being torn to pieces. One is presumably more sickening than the other because a lamb is a source of human sustenance and a fox, as Wilde so neatly said, is not. But this is Darwinism, not morality.

What their predators cannot accept is that foxes have rituals too, and the point about ritual is that it isn't rational. Nor is much of this debate. The exclusive paraphernalia of fox-hunting, the ornamental, preening, clubby display of wealth, the making-a-day-of-it that attends the seedy business of pest control, may be socially divisive but it shouldn't belong to an argument about how you contain the fox population.

But it does. The weakness of this programme, one that ought to be addressed in another, is that it bypassed the distinction between fox-hunters and anglers. Anglers kill for pleasure, but not in such conspicuous livery, and no abolitionists have yet picked up their scent. Track down the politician who proposes to ban the hobby of 6 million voters, and next to him you'll find the fox-hunter who eats his prey.

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