When baiting bears and bulls was legal...

Nicholas Schoon
Tuesday 17 June 1997 00:02 BST

One of the first attempts to outlaw a cruel bloodsport in Britain was made in 1800, when MP Sir William Pulteney introduced a Bill to ban bull-baiting with dogs. It was fiercely debated, with the future prime minster George Canning declaring that ``the amusement inspired courage and produced a nobleness of sentiment and elevation of mind''.

The Bill was lost by two votes and The Times approved, saying that any law which interfered with how a man chose to spend his leisure was tyranny. Broadsheet columnists still take the same libertarian line today to defend fox-hunting with hounds.

Bull-baiting was eventually banned. Bear baiting largely died out in the 18th century, partly because it became so expensive to import bears - which had long been extinct in Britain and were becoming extremely rare in Europe. It was formally outlawed in 1835, thanks to a Bill introduced by South Durham MP Joseph Pease who was a member of the RSPCA committee.

Cock-fighting and dog-fighting were also banned under Pease's 1835 Act. But the legislation was not fully effective in ending cock-fighting, and the 1911 Protection of Animals Act made it illegal to keep a place for cock-fighting purposes. Furthermore, the 1952 Cock-fighting Act made it illegal to posses any instrument or appliance that can be adapted for cock-fighting.

Otter-hunting was only outlawed once the otter was given full protection from any kind of human persecution in a 1977 Government order. By then the mammal's English population had crashed and it was seriously threatened, partly due to hunting but mainly by organochlorine pesticides. The badger is also given full legal protection, although illegal baiting with dogs still continues.

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