A quiet day's pain infliction by the riverside

Are the Anti-Anglers out to lunch? James Cusick examines an embryonic movement
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Our Palaeolithic ancestors drew on their cave walls of catches that got away. Two thousand years before the birth of Christ, Egypt had a sort of angling club. And in China there are 4th-century BC writings referring to hooks made with needles and baited with rice. Now, however, one of man's oldest activities is under attack, with the start of National Anti-angling Week yesterday, coinciding with the opening of the coarse fishing season.

Our long-held assumption that fish, those cold-blooded aquatic vertebrates that have been around for 450 million years, do not feel pain when impaled on the end of a hook, is apparently wrong. So it would appear that publishers Wynkyn de Worde's 1496 classic The Treatyse of Fysshynge With an Angle is set become a subversive text.

Donald Broome, professor of animal welfare at Cambridge University and a member of the Animal Welfare Council, says research indicates that fish feel pain and distress through a complex network of sensory receptors and transmitters; they have something like a central nervous system, and as in other higher order species, neurologists have detected the presence of substance P, a compound necessary for the transfer of chemical information from one nerve cell to another. Experiments have shown that fish display avoidance behaviour, learning to keep away from painful stimuli. The action of being caught and the distress and fear this apparently arouses in fish, "shows that our assumption that cold blooded equals no pain is just obviously wrong".

The British Field Sports Association will have none of this "nonsense". Their spokeswoman Lucinda Greenwood puts it all down to a lack of understanding of the countryside. Hunters, shooters and ferreters, have all been targeted by saboteurs. Anglers, she says, "have tried their best not to be linked with the hunting community". But during the past decade, anglers have been low-profile victims.

"Anti-angling activists have plumbed the depths with a hate campaign that has terrified a schoolboy and driven a disabled angler from his own water club." So screamed the Angling Times last year. In March 1993 an elderly course angler was threatened by Loughborough sabs; in Cheshire the same year, it was saboteurs with baseball bats; in September last year, it was a frightened schoolboy subjected to a lakeside attack.

Hunt sabs have their own tactics; so, too, the angling sabs. The crucial difference must be the use of frogmen's outfits. In Avon in 1993 an angling match was disputed by saboteur activists in wetsuits and masks.

The organiser of Anti-Angling Week is Pisces, the group once known as the "Campaign for the Abolition of Angling". One of its founders, David Shephard, who was convicted of assault in 1993 during disruption of the Glamorgan Hunt, said "sabbing" had effectively ceased since the introduction of the Criminal Justice Act in November. The once notorious "hit report" bulletin was now showing a blank. It's a case of goodbye sabbing, hello "non-violent riverbank direct action" - NRBDA as they say in the trade.

Who will be NRBDA-d this weekend? Mr Shephard could not say. But the aim of Anti-angling Week is to achieve a total ban on angling and to persuade the public that angling is just another blood sport.

So is angling just another morally indefensible pastime? Serious sport, as George Orwell once said, is war minus the shooting. Do serious anglers have rods for rifles, hooks for bullets?

Steven Clark, professor of philosophy at Liverpool University and author of The Moral Status of Animals, believes angling is perceived as acceptable for two crucial reasons. "One, it is socially widespread, and two, fish, way down the evolutionary tree, are cold blooded and therefore don't feel pain. This is plainly ridiculous."

And for those who believe there is mileage in the fishing-to-eat-what- you-catch argument, Professor Clark replies: "This is no more a defence than saying you kill an animal to wear it. You have a choice in what you eat; only if there is no choice is there a case to answer."

The arguments are likely to continue because, as most anglers will tell you, fishing is a perpetual series of occasions for hope. They will simply hope that Anti-angling Week ends with a poor catch.