Man - the most ruthless predator of all

Do we need a world authority on animal behaviour to tell us that hunting deer by hounds is cruel, as Patrick Bateson of Cambridge University reported this week? Well yes, for it was not obvious to everybody. Indeed, many of the hunters are reportedly shocked by the discovery of Professor Bateson and Oxford biologist Elizabeth Bradshaw, that deer which have been chased are hideously traumatised; far more than those shot by stalkers or killed by traffic - or killed by predators in the wild.

Our conception of animals - and more broadly of the landscape in which they live - is still essentially medieval. Bateson and Bradshaw's report reminds us that it is time to nudge our thinking forward by a few centuries or so.

Deer-hunting is a sport for the gentry, the descendants of landowners if not now landowners themselves, and it has often been suggested that the campaign against hunting - of deers, foxes, pheasants or whatever - is in part a class war: not just pro-deer or fox, but anti- green welly and jeep. The gentry reply that they and their ancestors are the natural stewards of Britain's countryside; that they have carved our ordered landscapes from the rude forest and marsh; that they are guided by the moral principle of noblesse oblige; and that they understand the countryside and the creatures that live in it better than any townie parvenu, so kindly keep your upstart noses out of it.

Well, some of that is true. But class wars aside, the townie might well point out that Britain under this stewardship has, over the past 100 years or so, achieved approximately the worst conservation record in the world, vying with China and Australia and greatly inferior to, say, much-harassed and hugely populated India. The lowlands have been appropriated almost entirely for farming, and we take it for granted that in Britain "national park" means "hills" - that is, land too steep or infertile for growing crops. The bits that are not obviously commercial have been turned into a rich man's playground. Some of it is beautiful, to be sure, like the wild purple hills of Scotland; but it is the beauty of devastation none the less, like that of denuded Crete, only wetter.

In general the "stewards" of Britain have failed to recognise the importance or autonomy of any creature that is not human and have eliminated, or striven to eliminate, any species that is inconvenient, or has been rumoured to be so. For good measure they have transmuted the few creatures that remain into objects of fable, which in their various ways help people with the wherewithal to while away the hours. When the native animals don't provide enough fun, then others have been brought in from elsewhere. This medieval stewardship has never encompassed the notion that other animals matter in their own right, not simply as extensions of human fantasy. Still less have the alleged stewards considered that other creatures might have interests of their own, and emotions in line with those interests.

The underlying insouciance is clear in the raw facts. Before the Normans took over and feudalism entered its mature phase, Britain was well wooded virtually from coast to coast and its fauna were essentially what was left to us after the last Ice Age. Scotland had oak, ash and Scots pine where now it has rough grass and monocultural heather, as still can be seen on islands in lochs. Large mammals included bears and wolves, boars, wild cattle and beavers. The air was filled with birds of prey: black and red kites; a harrier over every stretch of rough pasture, as can still be seen in parts of eastern Germany where the farming is still medieval; golden eagles well down into England, in the lowlands as well as the high hills, and white-tailed sea-eagles.

Now most of those creatures have gone, mainly because they got in the way, or it was dimly suspected that they might. The last wolf was shot in Scotland as recently as the 18th century while the white-tailed eagle hung on into the early 19th - but then was wiped out because sheep were more profitable than crofters (and less given to uprising) and white-tailed eagles were presumed, because they are big and have sharp beaks, to eat lambs. The otter and the peregrine nearly followed the sea-eagles and the large mammals into extinction in the 20th century, while owls, stoats and pine-martens have survived only because they proved too elusive. To fill in some of the gaps, the Normans introduced pheasant from Asia, for whose dubious benefit vast areas are kept impoverished of predators; while, among the many vandalisms under water, rainbow trout from America have largely replaced the native browns. Apart from bats and seals, most of Britain's mammals are imported. Since the Middle Ages, in short, Britain's landscape has been maintained as a kind of theme park; a windswept Disney World for huntin', shootin' and fishin'.

Those few creatures that have survived the redesign have been mythologised in the Disney World tradition of anthropomorphism. Where Disney has irascible Donald and dumb but lovable Goofy, we have the Monarch of the Glen; apparently attracted to the hills by the same romantic urges that inspired the Victorians who conceived of him. In reality, red deer tough it out in the Highlands mainly because that is one of the few areas left to them. Up in the hills they are plagued by warble fly and the forage is so poor that, compared with the few that remain in the cossetted south, they are runts. The golden eagle soars so imperiously on high not because it actually has pretensions of empire, but because it was shot when it ventured into the more friendly lowlands. White-tailed eagles disappeared simply because they did not prove so adaptable.

How often have we been told that foxes - "Old Reynard" - revel in the chase? That they, and deer, and otters, and anything that anyone felt it would be fun to run after, like nothing more than to "pit their wits" against their human pursuers? Yet the curious idea that animals are pleased to act out their allotted role in human fantasies has lived side by side with the notion, first made respectable by Rene Descartes, that animals actually have no consciousness or anything that passes for sensibility. Our view of animals - the stewards' view of animals - has proved endlessly malleable, easily adjustable for our own convenience and peace of mind. Thus on the one hand animals were supposed to welcome the chase to the death; but on the other were supposed to lack the capability to care.

The last few decades of the 20th century have at last brought some enlightenment; the feudal conceits that sustained us for so long are at last being revealed as fables. On the broad front, ecological studies are showing just how astonishingly devastated Britain really is; how much of its natural post- Ice Age inheritance has been lost, and how much needs to be done to restore what should be here, or even to retain what we have. Animal psychologists have shown beyond all reasonable doubt that the smarter animals are conscious, that they do think, have feelings and experience stress, just as animal lovers have been saying all along - although, in contrast to what some animal lovers have been saying their thoughts and feelings are all their own and must be sought out, and should not simply be guessed. Psychologists and physiologists have shown how stress may be assessed. Such physiological insights have enabled Bateson and Bradshaw to discern the extreme physical distress of hunted deer; and we can reasonably infer that the physiological breakdown they have revealed was matched by fear and pain.

Bateson and Bradshaw's report is highly specific, as it was commissioned to be. It would be good to look with similar rigour at other forms of hunting and indeed at all our relationships with animals. We might eventually integrate the findings into the broader assessment of the way we regard other creatures, and not just the ones that are so obviously capable of suffering.

The writer is a Research Fellow at the London School of Economics.