Field sports at gun point

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What will happen if hunting with dogs is banned this week?

Duff Hart-Davis has some constructive suggestions.

On Friday, the second reading of the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill, brought in by Mike Foster, Labour MP for Worcester, will raise emotions in the battle over fox-hunting to fever pitch. Most observers believe that the Private Member's Bill will receive a substantial majority in the House of Commons, but that it will probably fail in its later stages because the Government will not allocate it time.

Whatever the outcome, the attempt to ban hunting has concentrated the minds of field sports enthusiasts as never before, because they fear that if the opposition - led by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the RSPCA and the League Against Cruel Sports, and collectively known as "the antis" - do manage to close down hunting, they will swiftly align their sights on other targets, principally shooting.

Hitherto, field sports organisations have been fighting their own corner, among them the Countryside Alliance (formerly the British Field Sports Society), the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the National Federation of Angling and the Union of Country Sports Workers. But these bodies are still far from united; as one observer put it, "the battle between shooting and hunting has been going on for 70 years". Now would-be reformers have floated a proposal that could prove to be of major importance: that the Government should take the initiative and set up a single, independent body to regulate all field sports.

The suggestion is that any such board should include both hunters and conservationists, as does (for example) the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers 700 million acres of federal territory; the hope being that it would reduce excesses in country sports and promote responsible management of the environment. One of its leading advocates is Edmund Marriage, a farmer and wildlife specialist, who has established a small agency called British Wildlife Management.

This, he believes, should be the title of the new umbrella body, which should be run "by grass-roots country people", and should consist not of civil servants, but of representatives from the various country sports and land-management organisations. "There should be a rule book, which includes all existing codes of conduct and statutory requirements, and the rules, based on science, should be continuously updated."

His aims are seconded by Mark Miller Mundy, the portrait photographer who conceived the idea of this summer's countryside marches. "A body of this kind would have to consist of reasonable people," he says, "not fanatics from either side. We need to find some middle ground." Miller Mundy believes that creating an independent board would defuse the current dangerously extreme attitudes.

Similar ideas are being put forward by Jim Barrington, Director of Wildlife Network, another small pressure group. Considering that he and his principal colleagues are all defectors from the League Against Cruel Sports - he himself was the League's director - it is quite something to hear him say: "What everyone should realise is that a ban on hunting would not save the life of a single fox, and could make things far worse for foxes in general if it drove persecution underground." At the moment his group is preoccupied with the hunting issue, but hopes to turn its attention also to shooting and fishing.

The idea of an independent regulatory body is by no means new. The Scott Henderson report, commissioned by a Labour government in 1951, recommended, among other proposals, that all country sports should be overseen by a "competent authority". Masters of foxhounds acted on the recommendations within their remit, but successive administrations failed to establish any supervisory board.

The latest report on hunting, by Richard Phelps, was published in July. This proposed restrictions on digging out foxes, and on "holding up" - the practice of lining people up outside coverts to prevent foxes breaking away during cub-hunting - and, once again, hunts have moved swiftly to implement the recommendations.

A longer-term suggestion was for some kind of supervisory body. The Campaign for Hunting (part of the Countryside Alliance) does not believe that a statutory government authority would be workable; instead, it is now drafting a constitution for a body which would include not only members of all the hunting associations, but also representatives of major land-managing organisations such as the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association. If everyone concerned can agree on its wording, the proposal will be put to the Home Office and the Ministry of Agriculture.

At the moment the heat is on hunting with hounds, but shooting men are already nervous that they will become the antis' next target. In particular, they fear that attempts will be made to prohibit the rearing and releasing of gamebirds.

Such a ban already exists in Holland, where a series of restrictive laws has made it illegal to rear birds artificially - with disastrous consequences for the environment. Organised shooting has practically ceased; the number of gamekeepers has declined dramatically; woods, copses and hedgerows are neglected; predators such as crows and foxes flourish, and other species are in decline. The government line is that if this is how nature ordains things, so be it.

That something similar should happen here - that there should be a similar abdication of responsibility - is the nightmare of British landowners, who, in recent years, have put immense efforts into conservation and positive wildlife management. The danger they see is that emotion, rather than reason or science, will dictate government policy, as it now does on this issue in Holland.

The British countryside is deceptively calm at the moment; but rural folk are certain that if the Foster bill does become law, it will lead to widespread civil unrest: roads will be blocked, plantations set on fire, water pipes blown up. Hundreds of people will deliberately solicit prosecution by committing newly created criminal acts such as allowing their dogs to chase rabbits.

Perhaps it is not too much to hope that the Government, seeing how much trouble it has stirred up on the fox-hunting issue, will grasp at the idea of an all-in-one field sports supervisory body as a constructive way out of an uncomfortable corner.