Fox hunting is a low priority - there are more important questions of animal welfare to address

If only those MPs who care so much about countryside traditions would take a stand against factory farming

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Here we go again. This week our elected representatives will spend valuable legislative time talking about and voting on possible changes to the law on fox hunting. As we report today, it seems likely that the outcome will be to leave the ban on hunting unchanged.

The Government wants to allow more than two dogs to be used to flush out foxes to be shot, and it was assumed that it would get its way. A minority of Conservative MPs is opposed to changing the law, but it was assumed that, with 99 more seats than Labour, any Tory rebellion could be overcome.

That was until the Scottish National Party intervened. The SNP opposes hunting but does not normally vote on matters that affect only England and Wales, so it was expected to abstain. Now party sources claim that the Government’s changes might affect the situation in Scotland, where hunting was banned three years earlier than in England. If the SNP votes with Labour, the Government’s attempt to relax the ban is likely to fail.

The Independent on Sunday is not in favour of hunting. There is something unpleasant about making a sport of killing. And there is much that is specious about the argument that huntspeople are stewards of the environment. Equally, however, we are not in favour of banning things simply because we disapprove of them. These are all arguments that were aired at excessive length before the 2004 Hunting Act. At the time, The IoS recognised that foxes are a problem for farmers and do have to be controlled. But we argued that there were not only more important questions, but that there were more important questions of animal welfare. Eleven years on, our view is unchanged.

With the eurozone in crisis, the Chinese stock market in turmoil and refugees continuing to pour out of Syria and across the Mediterranean, it seems a strange priority of our legislative assembly to be discussing the precise number of dogs needed to flush out foxes. Of course, our MPs cannot debate only the most important subjects: there are secondary and even quaternary subjects that ought to be kept under review.

But before we get to reopening a debate that was settled more than a decade ago, there are other matters of animal welfare that are more pressing. Many of the opponents of hunting recognise this, while wanting to protect the gain they have made. Yet if only a fraction of the energy of campaigning for or against the ban on hunting had been devoted to higher standards of animal welfare in farming, more progress might have been made. Thanks largely to European Union legislation, standards for battery and broiler chickens have been slowly improving over the years, although the pace of change has been far too slow.

The existing law on the intensive rearing of pigs and cows needs to be better enforced, but our legislators, in Edinburgh, Westminster and Brussels, ought to be working towards an acceptable free-range standard for all food. As D J Taylor points out, our puritanism ensures that hunting attracts more attention than the constant market pressure on the food and farming industries to produce cheap meat.

If only those MPs and their supporters who claim to care so much about the traditions of the countryside that they want to bring back hunting would care enough to take a stand against non-traditional factory farming. And if only those MPs and their supporters who claim to care so much about the welfare of foxes would care enough about the welfare of millions of other sentient creatures that are eaten every day.

Let us make sure that all our food is produced in a compassionate and sustainable way. Then let us talk about foxes.