The triumph of sentimentality over morality

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The Independent Online

The Scottish parliament proved its usefulness to the Government this week. It reached a decision which will have a profound effect on the whole of the United Kingdom but, because it is nothing more than a regional body, the fuss has been minimal. In some newspapers, the passing of the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Bill received scarcely more coverage than the announcement, nicely timed, that Basil Brush is to have a new series on the BBC.

I have had mixed feelings about hunting in the past. From a relatively young age until I was 22, I spent many days riding to hounds. Some were boring, many were uncomfortable but quite a few – notably across the double-banks of Limerick and the wall country of County Galway – were among the most exhilarating experiences of my life.

But later, when fox-hunting first became a serious political issue, I was among those who concluded vaguely that it was one of those rural pursuits whose moment had passed. Suddenly there seemed to be something inappropriately atavistic about pursuing a mammal across the countryside. It was out of keeping with the new sensitivity to the rights of animals.

Now, a touch uncomfortably (who, in their right mind, would want to be shoulder to shoulder with Freddie Forsyth and Roger Scruton?), I find that I am convinced that a ban on hunting would be the triumph of sentimentality and political point-scoring over sense, consistency and morality.

Only if you are a fundamentalist when it comes to animal rights does the humanitarian argument carry any weight. Those who believe that using any animal for human pleasure is wrong are entirely justified in supporting the decision of the Scottish parliament.

Anyone else has a problem. They need to be able to prove that a fox hunted by dogs suffers more than, to take one of many examples, a herd of animals packed alive into a container and transported without food and water to be slaughtered in a foreign country, an activity we have just resumed. They have to be certain that a swift death by hounds is crueller than the slow effect of poison or the virtual certainty of being wounded by a 12-bore shotgun.

This is an area of sentimental, subjective reaction. I happen to dislike the idea of a fish being "played" with a hook through its mouth. I'm not wild about plump, semi-domesticated pheasants being slaughtered in their hundreds. But unless one legislates against all exploitation of animals for sport – and that would include the sadism of dressage, the heartlessness of horse-racing, the bloody pleasures of ratting with terriers – a decision to ban one of them raises serious implications for civil liberties.

More immediately, there are practical considerations. It is an uncomfortable fact that landowners retain woodland and hedgerows for sport. If these are destroyed or reduced, as they will be at a time of hardship for farmers, the current serious decline in habitats for wildlife caused by intensive farming and loss of land to building will be accelerated.

Nor should the reference of a Welsh huntsman to "rivers of blood", his threat that "we are prepared to fight for our way of life and even die for it", be taken too lightly. Anyone who lives in hunting country will know that, while the language may be extreme, the passion it reflects is no exaggeration.

The idea that anyone who hunts could soon be criminalised and face a six-month jail sentence may cause delight in some quarters but, once the police are obliged to enforce the legislation, rounding up an entire field of hunt supporters for arrest, pony club members and all, the position will become messier, more morally complex.

Trouble lies ahead. What must once have seemed to the Government like an easy way to appease its Old Labour wing may yet turn out be its biggest vote-loser.