Christopher Hudson: Time to cry foul over fish

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I know that, in writing about field sports, a claim to neutrality is so rare as to demand credentials, so here are mine. I don't hunt. I don't fish. I am neither vegetarian nor an animal activist. If I have an axe to grind, it is in the belief that government should not legislate against traditional liberties.

I know that, in writing about field sports, a claim to neutrality is so rare as to demand credentials, so here are mine. I don't hunt. I don't fish. I am neither vegetarian nor an animal activist. If I have an axe to grind, it is in the belief that government should not legislate against traditional liberties.

But this is what the Government has done, and it is confident that having banned hunting with hounds - as from Saturday - it can leave it at that. The legislation has effortlessly sailed through the Commons, by-passing the constitutional obstacles of the Parliament Act. Many hunts will soon be killing or selling off their hounds, and it may be that within a year - a year marked by skirmishes between huntsmen and the police - the game will be up.

There is optimistic talk of fox-hunting by accident, in which a group of idly trotting riders are out exercising hounds when all of a sudden a scent is raised, the hounds take off and the anxious riders are impelled to gallop after them in case they come to harm. Then there are going to be trail-hunts, in which a dead fox is dragged through woods, ditches and coverts in the hope that the hounds will catch sight of a live fox and chase after the real thing.

These ploys will sooner or later fall foul of tightened legislation by this government of lawyers, which creates a new crime every three days. I suspect that the legal challenges of the pro-hunt campaigners seeking judicial review on constitutional and human rights grounds will be given short shrift. Even if the human rights appeal succeeds in the Lords and in Strasbourg, the Government is under no obligation to repeal the law, since in these matters UK law supervenes.

Nevertheless, I have a modest proposal to make. It has been demonstrated that fish feel pain. Experiments carried out on rainbow trout, involving the injection of bee venom into their lips, showed that the fish have pain receptors which make them react like mammals. This supports the findings of the RSPCA that "current practices in angling do involve the infliction of pain and suffering on fish".

This was always the criterion that counted. In the 18th century Jeremy Bentham observed the question to be asked about animals was neither "Can they reason?", nor "Can they talk?", but "Can they suffer?" Anglers have ducked the cruelty issue by arguing that the brains of fish are too primitive for self-awareness. But this, too, seems to be a delusion. Four months ago the Royal Society reported that tests on fish in aquaria at Oxford University show they possess cognitive abilities which outstrip those of some small mammals.

What difference is there between foxes and fish? None in law, only the difference which ministers won't admit: that Labour backbenchers would fight as fiercely to protect the working-class killing of fish as they fought to ban the upper-middle-class killing of foxes. The symmetry is underlined by the two tests that No 10 wanted to apply to hunting: that it could be licensed only if it served a useful purpose and was carried out in a way to cause least suffering.

Angling is a pastime, not a necessity. As for cruelty, the practice of livebaiting, in which anglers impale fish on double or treble hooks through their lips and body in order to catch predatory fish - letting them struggle in agony until they are eaten by another fish or left to die of their injuries - is at least as nasty as what happens to foxes.

Those tests of "utility" and "cruelty" were rejected by Labour MPs precisely because they would have applied in equal measure to angling - and there are three million coarse, game and sea anglers in Britain. So here's my proposal. If a human rights appeal succeeds, pro-hunt campaigners should then join with the RSPCA in mounting a legal challenge against angling, on the grounds that in all respects it matches the criteria used to ban hunting. Faced with banning three million anglers, the Government might suddenly discover that, after all, hunting constituted an infringement of human liberties.

Christopher Hudson is writing a book on white hunters. Joan Smith is away

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