National Trust faces split over ban on stag-hunting

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The Independent Online
THE NATIONAL Trust is in danger of a split over its stance on the banning of stag-hunting on its land. Its ruling council meets this week to debate a study which challenges the organisation's prevailing view that the sport is cruel.

The report, which was funded by the Countryside Alliance and stag hunts, also concludes that the suffering of the stags would be curtailed by the simple remedy of shortening the length of the hunt.

The meeting is likely to see battle lines drawn up ahead of the trust's annual meeting in November, when the leadership's position on stag-hunting will be openly challenged by pro-hunting members.

The trust acted swiftly to implement a ban on stag-hunting last year after a report which concluded that pursuit by dogs and people on horseback was "grossly stressful".

The two-year study by Professor Patrick Bateson, professor of animal behaviour at Cambridge University, found that hunting was exhausting and agonising for the red deer of Devon and Somerset.

But two weeks ago, a study by Roger Harris, of the Royal Veterinary College, was submitted to the trust, saying that the stresses encountered in hunted deer are found in many sports that people find acceptable, including long horse races and football.

Dr Harris's report suggested that hunted stags may suffer intense stress for no more than 10 minutes, and that by reducing the length of the hunt the stag would suffer less.

Both he and Professor Bateson will give their views at Thursday's meeting.

"I think it's asking for the moon for scientific evidence to take precedence over emotion," Professor Bateson said. "The debate has become polarised and even the scientists have found themselves disagreeing partly because of the positions they have adopted.

"There is nothing in Dr Harris's study which makes me question my own findings. Both studies show that, as far as we can be sure, hunting can be very stressful.

"If the evidence shows that stags suffer, then the people who pursue the 'sport' know they are causing suffering. By most standards of ethics that amounts to cruelty. The hunts are welcome to try to see if they can hunt while reducing the amount of suffering, but I don't see how it can be done."

For its part, the trust is confident that the ban will remain in place. "I think there would have to be some pretty strong evidence that hunting was not cruel for our members to change the policy," said its spokeswoman, Caroline Audemars. "Both studies are quite similar. They both suggest that hunting involves a degree of suffering and in some cases extreme suffering. I don't think there is enough difference to suggest we change."

But the trust will face a bumpy ride at its annual meeting, when a broadly pro-hunting group, the Friends of the National Trust (Font) calls on members to vote on three resolutions, one of which criticises the ban on stag-hunting.

Font, whose leadership includes a surgeon and several QCs and says it has 3,000 supporters, has put up several candidates for election to the 52- member ruling council. It says the stag-hunting ban is the "last straw" in its dissatisfaction with the trust.

"There's a lot of debatable information with regard to stag-hunting," a spokesman said. "We are concerned about the management of deer. We believe the ban will have a detrimental effect on the herds in the long run."

It is a view for which the trust leadership has little time. "There are healthy herds of deer in East Anglia and Cumbria where there has never been a hunt," retorted Mrs Audemars.

Irrespective of the hunting ban, which was introduced in April last year, the trust remains committed to the culling of deer. The culls kill considerably more deer than the three stag-hunts on its land, and the trust employs a stalker to keep deer numbers from growing so large that they destroy their habitat.

Many farmers are unhappy about the ban. Last November more than 50 stags and hind were shot by farmers in Somerset who said they would no longer tolerate deer damaging their crop in what was described by anti- stag-hunt campaigners as "a monstrous, spiteful act".