What's so special about a fox?: Passions aroused by hunting obscure our complex relationship with animals, argues Anna Pavord

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AS KILLING machines, Britain's 194 packs of foxhounds and attendant hunts are grossly inefficient, compared with the mashing power of a 10-ton lorry cruising at 70 miles an hour. If the hunt saboteurs and their friends wanted a really efficient way to preserve foxes, they would be campaigning to reduce the speed limit on the country's roads. Badgers, rabbits, stoats and hedgehogs would benefit, too. So would the odd cyclist or child walking to school, though that, of course, is an entirely minor consideration.

You do not have to drive far on an A-road before you have to start weaving around animal corpses. On the 160-mile drive from Dorset to London this week I passed five foxes flattened on the road. If you ever have occasion to walk along a main road you get an even grislier head count. Submerged in the grasses of the verge are the bodies of the animals who have been hit on the road, but not killed, and which have crawled there to die, slowly. From figures gathered in his area, Roger Ranage, of the Surrey Naturalists' Trust, has estimated that more than a million animals are killed each year on Britain's roads.

Campaigning to lower the speed limit is boring stuff though, especially if you are under 25 and burning with a sense of mission, as the saboteurs are. You want to get out and do, not sit around and talk. And as the fox-hunting season gets under way this week there are many opportunities for action. To saboteurs, the attractive thing about the movement is that the objective is clear and constant: saving the life of the fox. Underpinning their mission, silencing the opposition is the coda - 'And nobody can argue with that'.

Taking a dispassionate view of the world at large, fox-hunting probably comes 99,999th on a list of things that need sorting out; but it is not surprising that the hunt saboteurs, along with the Animal Liberation Front, should focus their attention on animals rather than people. People have a disconcerting habit of not recognising a helping hand when they see one. 'Sod off,' says the tramp as you approach with your mug of nutritious soup. 'I want to go back,' says the child evacuated to safety among strangers. Animals, we can persuade ourselves, are so grateful for all that we do for them. The sabs can return to the cities after a morning's hunt wrecking, glowing in the knowledge that they have saved a victimised species.

But why, among these impassioned animal lovers, is one species preferred to another? Why, for instance, is saving a fox better than saving a lamb? Or a piglet? Or even my bantams, 32 of which were slaughtered in a single daylight raid by a determined fox? Why does the life of the fox matter more than the lives of the 20,000 foxhounds, most of which will have to be put down if hunting is abolished?

Perhaps the animal rights activists imagine that the foxhounds would be grateful to be given warm homes in Bristol, Bath and Stoke Newington, to be released from the horrors of hunting. Not so. Hounds are pack animals, country animals, working animals. They are used to the company and support of their own kind, trained for a particular purpose. That does not encompass padding, slow and solitary, on tarmac and concrete at the end of a lead. Pets can be victims, too.

Pity the poor animals, said John Cassavetes in his film Shadows, struggling under the burden of our love. Love kills more slowly than a pack of foxhounds, but you only have to spend a short time in a vet's waiting room to see how effective it can be. A recent survey found that a quarter of dogs in this country are overweight. Their legs give up. Their lungs give up. Their hearts give up. Last week saw the first Pet Slimmer of the Year competition, sponsored by Weight Watchers' Magazine and the pet-food company, Hill's Pet Nutrition. You can now call on animal agony aunts in the guise of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, to help pets work through aggression and lust.

Animal rights activists do not engage with any of the ironies of our relationships with animals. These are grey areas. They think only in black and white. And, like barrack room lawyers, they are always ready with well-used answers to the questions that any thinking person must put in their way. How would you control foxes, if not by hunting, asked Sandy Mitchell of Radio 4's The Farming Week, out with the Bath chapter of the Hunt Saboteurs Association. Foxes are at the top of their food chain, came the answer. They will control their own populations. Food will run out and breeding will be automatically curtailed.

But food is unlikely to run out for foxes, which are unfussy eaters. They have adapted quickly to the potential of city dustbins. The present trend towards keeping pigs free range has increased the fox's taste for piglets. And then, of course, there are lambs, the appearance of which usually coincides neatly with a vixen's need to feed her own young. Figures here are hard to come by. The National Farmers' Union suggests that about 10,000 lambs a year are taken by foxes, more being lost on hill farms than in the lowlands. In the hunting territory of one hunt, the David Davies in Powys, foxes took 310 lambs in one spring season. The hunt killed 46 foxes.

For those who accept that foxes need to be controlled, the argument is over the means. Hunting is perceived as more barbaric than other ways of killing. But how do we know that a hunted fox suffers more than an animal on a long journey to the slaughterhouse? Humane is a subjective concept.

Some argue for foxes to be controlled by shooting. If there were enough crack shots in the country this might work, but a fox is not an easy target. A wound can lead to gangrene and a slow and unpleasant death. Poisoning foxes is illegal, although it happens. Gassing is legal in theory, but no gas is approved for use against foxes. Both are indiscriminate killers. Neither kills as quickly as a hunt.

The hunts do have a problem finding reasons why they should continue. Farmers' need to protect their stock is one of the arguments they put forward. But the importance of hunting to the rural economy is over-estimated. Fewer than 10,000 people earn their living directly from fox-hunting. Perhaps as many again - farriers, feed merchants, saddlers, the owners of livery yards and bootmakers - would be seriously affected by a ban. In the ocean of unemployed, this would scarcely cause a ripple.

The conservation argument is stronger. Hunts prefer hedges to barbed wire, open bridleways to blocked paths, coverts to prairie. So do we all, but few of us put the effort or cash that the hunts do into maintaining the countryside in this condition.

An appeal to tradition puts the pro-hunt case on very shaky ground. It was not until the 18th century that hounds were entered solely to fox, and hunting in the modern sense was born. Records of the Chase, written at the time of Edward III, condemned foxes to be exterminated by any means, much as rats are still. Why are we not all leaping to the defence of the rat? It is an intelligent creature. Sensitive, too. But not handsome. Looks rather than logic govern our response to animals. The logic is certainly muddled: a 33-year-old anti-hunt campaigner will appear in court at Pwllheli this month, accused of causing criminal damage - the 'mercy killing', as she has described it, of a foxhound with a hammer. She claims the dog was caught in a wire fence.

In the absence of strong arguments for hunting, does one have to be against it? No. As a country person, I accept fox-hunting as a legitimate part of country life. The hunt saboteurs are well organised, well funded and at ease in their dealings with the media. They have an effect out of all proportion to their numbers. But I cannot persuade myself that it is morally more reprehensible to kill a fox by hunting, than to kill any other animal by any other legal means. 'What a pity,' said a friend who had watched me being verbally massacred at lunch by a trio of anti-hunters, 'that you did not point out you were the only person not eating meat.'

(Photographs omitted)