The rage behind this rural revolt

It seems as if there is the sense that life outside towns is marginal to the way of the real world and faintly ludicrous
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There was something unpleasantly appropriate about the blood-letting, fury, abuse and baton charges that provided a backdrop to the vote, passed in the House of Commons on Wednesday, to ban hunting. They seemed somehow to confirm that the arguments that have been raging across the media over the past five years or so were not just ill-tempered but were also, in the end, irrelevant.

No one's mind was changed. Nonsense - sometimes obvious, knowing nonsense - was spouted by both sides. The debate was never about logic, common sense or even morality. It began as a matter of emotion, of gut feeling shared with equal passion by both sides, and, as yesterday's scenes indicated, so it will continue until the law is passed, and beyond.

It would be hypocritical not to admit that, personally, I felt a surprisingly sharp sense of sadness at the vote. I have not hunted to hounds for years, and indeed have sometimes found myself wondering whether a sport of ritual and death had any place in this age of ersatz, hedgehog-loving sentimentality.

But the more I have heard of the debate, the more convinced I am that the desire to end hunting is not really about cruelty, and that the sort of people who gathered in Parliament Square yesterday are more likely to understand matters of animal welfare - many of them live and work with animals, after all - than their urban critics whose contact with wildlife consists of feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

The rage that we have seen this week, and will see in different forms over the coming months, is fuelled by a profound sense of alienation felt by many people in the country. It is not just that the arguments against a ban have never been given satisfactory replies, but also that the emotional force behind them has been generally misunderstood and mocked.

The only moral argument that matters, surely, is whether hunting represents a peculiar and unique form of unkindness to animals.

Is a fox, that lives its life in the wild until it is pursued by hounds across country and killed, suffering a different, greater order of anguish than, say, a chicken whose life is spent in a small cage under bright lights 24 hours a day and which is pumped full of water and hormones? Does a fox's swift death in the maws of hounds demean us more morally than the way we now transport cattle, often in extreme distress caused by being mixed with other herds, for hundreds of miles to a supermarket's giant abattoir in Cornwall?

These and many other casually unkind acts involved in the mass production of food leave a certain kind of bleeding-heart animal lover unmoved. They take place out of sight. They are industrially controlled. They produce cheap food. Morality and animal welfare have no place in that context.

The question of whether animal suffering for human sport can be justified has more force but only when generally and honestly applied. If it is wrong for a fox to die for our pleasure, then it is also wrong for a fish to be hooked and played, for birds to be shot. In fact, the only logical destination of the case against animals suffering for human fun is to ban the riding of horses to exhaustion and sometimes death in racing and eventing. In fact, is it really acceptable, now that we are all so sensitive to the feelings of animals, that children should be allowed to imprison luckless guinea pigs and hamsters in cages, playing and poking at them throughout their brief, miserable lives?

Repeatedly, and fruitlessly, it has been pointed out that methods of controlling foxes which will replace hunting are hardly models of humanity. To shoot a mammal the size of a fox requires a rifle - not only dangerous, as the tragic accidental death of 13-year-old boy proved only last week, but also a guarantee that the prey will often be wounded and will slink away to die a lingering death by infection, loss of blood or starvation.

Then there is poison, which is not only slow and painful but is environmentally harmful, and, of course, that old gamekeeper's friend, the metal-toothed snare.

It is not just the fact that these arguments have been made and ignored that has instilled a dangerous sense of frustration and impotence among people like those who demonstrated this week. Often it seems as if there is, if not exactly an attitude of willed ignorance about the countryside, then the sense that life outside towns is marginal to the way of the real world, faintly ludicrous. Hunting is characterised as the quaint, ridiculous activity of people, mostly toffee-nosed types, who are unable to let go of the past.

In one sense, this view is correct. The past is indeed an important part of rural life. Whereas towns are places of change, adaptability and progress, the lives of those in the country are more closely linked to the landscape and its history.

In this context, hunting is not just another hobby, an excuse to gallop across a few fields. It is the continuation of something that, for thousands of families, has been at the centre of their lives for generations.

In my mother's house, there are hunting pictures on the wall, books by Surtees, Snaffles, Lionel Edwards, Somerville and Ross on the shelves, old trunks full of boots, bowlers, stocks and britches in the attic. As in many other homes, hunting is part of the culture of the past. My grandfather, master of the Bicester, lived to hunt and would slip to a profound gloom when frost caused the cancellation of meets. My father, a determinedly modern soldier in many ways, claimed in his memoirs that it was cavalry officers' experience in the hunting field during the 1930s that made them, in wartime, courageous, resourceful and quick-thinking members of tank regiments.

Those attitudes have gone, but the ending of something that for generations has been not so much a sport as a whole way of life is no small thing. It is impossible to underestimate the strength of feelings of those for whom hunting still matters today and the lengths to which they are liable to go to resist its removal from their lives.

Beside the plonking moral certainties of those who wish an end to all this, these connections with the past and with the landscape may seem unconvincingly emotional and nostalgic. But those who live in the country will understand them and, for that reason, may well move from indifference to action over the coming months.

Like those who came to London this week, they are not by nature demonstrators or rioters but they will see in this struggle a confirmation of their own estrangement.

My guess is that there will be big, and highly unpleasant, trouble ahead as the police attempt to arrest groups of illegal hunters, as kennels are closed down and hounds destroyed.

What must originally have seemed a relatively simple matter - a rural anachronism overdue for correction - will become a focus of discontent and rage in the countryside, and one which could have profound social and political consequences.