In hot pursuit of the irrational

Ban fox-hunting, one of life's great weirdnesses? Never. The hunters would only find something more threatening to do
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The Independent Online
On Tuesday night the burgeoning intellectuals of the Cambridge Union voted three to one in favour of fox-hunting. At Oxford's equivalent in 1995, it was two to one, so it looks as though the brains of Britain are lining up nicely with the outdoors set. It is unclear whether Melvyn Bragg is an intellectual, as opposed to an engaging maitre d' to the ideas of others, but this week The Field was clearly thrilled that the thinking woman's crumpet was on side and quoted him at length on his views in favour of hunting.

Mr Bragg has become an increasingly complicated and valuable liberal, especially wherever Cumbria is concerned. But he didn't stress the best reason for supporting hunting, and the cleverest. Life's absurdities are a weirdly necessary part of its charm. Even if hunting were bad in every way, it would be necessary to defend its glamour - its magical uselessness - against the killjoys.

Sensible puritans, who never understand anything much, have not even noticed that there is plenty of socialist pleasure to be had from the sport. Labour may try to ban hunting, but it far outbids taxation as the most efficient way of divesting the rich of their money while affording the rest of us the innocent pleasure of watching them break their necks.

But enough of puritans. Along with falling in love, bending the knee in prayer, and going to the opera, hunting is one of the few genuinely irrational occupations left to us. Of the three, it is the one most dignified (indeed defined) by extreme risk. Romancing, after all, does have some moments of solace. Church-going is for the risk-averse. Opera, like the others, offers high levels of barminess but far too little danger.

Hunting is not merely very risky, but it has the merit of confining the risk-taking to volunteers. In this it differs from war, motoring or romance. People will go banging on about the fox's suffering, but this is absurd since God or nature has ordained a world in which foxes die hideous deaths anyway. At least a hunt ensures the fox dies on an adrenalin high.

Of course, any rational argument for hunting reduces its charm. Luckily there are very few. It is true that many of the countryside's small woodlands, and some of its hedges, have been looked after for the benefit they bring as cover for pheasants and foxes. But farmers might learn to look after habitat because it is lovely.

The real danger is in suggesting that there is an economic merit in hunting. To be profoundly irrational, and to maximise life-enhancement, activities should demonstrate a vast capacity for getting people's money out of their pockets and then seeming to waste it. In this hunting nearly matches gambling.

Hunting is both popular and expensive and so the sums do get to be quite large. Janet George, press officer of the British Field Sports Society, says: "My rough count is that every fox killed by hounds sustains at least one full-time job and contributes to at least two others." The sum is fairly simply done, and necessarily imprecise. Hunts kill about a tenth, or 20,000, of the foxes which man kills in the UK every year. The country's 189 hunts employ, on average, four to six people. Then there are the armies of people in the countryside who are employed by rich riders, or who work for businesses that look after horses at livery for the less rich. Janet George continues: "Livery costs pounds 80-pounds 100 a week, then there's shoeing every three to four weeks, at an average 35 quid a time. Every time the vet is through the gate it's pounds 25. Let's say it's something like pounds 5,000 a year for a horse, without the capital cost of buying it." She thinks perhaps 60,000 horses are kept in the country because of hunting.

One way or another, according to a back-of-the-envelope calculation done by Lord Onslow and me one winter's morning, every fox killed by a hunt has probably had expended on its demise something like pounds 25,000, as it is chased by people the least of whom will have spent several hundred pounds on decent attire for the occasion. All this is without the cost of running a charismatic but decrepit Land Rover, which will do 10 miles to the gallon, when it's working at all, and tow a horsebox costing pounds 3,000. "I don't think you can hunt for much less than pounds 7,000 a year", says his lordship.

Luckily, the money argument, which comes near to being boringly sensible, doesn't really help the cause. Here, hunting's likeness to war is useful. It is important to demolish the idea that the arms trade should be preserved because it provides jobs. This is not, in hunting's case, the issue (noted by among others Professor Paul Dunne, of Middlesex University) that HMG spends more of our money getting the deals than the deals are worth. Rather, the argument turns on the belief that when people and their talents become detached from one occupation, they quickly create or attach themselves to another. The arms trade is no more necessary to the country's well- being than canals, steam engines, or tweenies. Professor Colin Robinson, professor of economics at Surrey, and editorial director at the Institute for Economic Affairs, says: "What happens over time is that economies change and people find ways of doing things better and using less labour." Hunting is merely very inefficient pest-control and would on economic grounds be swept away. But the real point is that it ill-behoves a bunch of reactionaries and romantics like foxhunters to argue in favour of Soviet- style job creation, or even good sense.

If fox-hunting is banned, riders will switch to something more vulgar: say drag hunting, which is if anything more dangerous (because even faster than chasing foxes), though more predictable and less romantic. Riders are likely to fulfil the prediction of the risk analyst John Adams, who promulgates the view that everyone has an inbuilt taste for risk (and he might just as well have added: expenditure), which varies from person to person but cannot be circumvented. On this view, if you deprive a person of one avenue of putting himself at risk (or spending money), he will simply find another. So safer cars and roads simply produce worse driving: though the cocooned drivers may be contributing to thousands more virtual accidents to unprotected pedestrians whose response is to stop walking about - which is what most pedestrians have done.

If hunting were to be banned, risk-seeking horsemen and women might take to the highway on Kawasakis. They might take up winter yachting (an idea that seems improbable only until you recall the nature of the activity whose banning causes us to hypothesise on the matter). They might decide to have exotic affairs instead of chasing foxes, and that would hugely increase their phone, restaurant and hotel bills. They might hunt abroad, which would delight the poor people among whom they desported. They would have to get their kicks and spend their money somehow and it might as well be here where we can delightedly keep our eye on them.

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