Animal-lovers who have campaigned to get blood sports outlawed in Britain are claiming a significant victory. The National Trust, which administers huge tracts of land in Britain, has decided to ban the ancient sport of stag hunting with hounds on its property.
But although Kevin Saunders, spokesman for the League Against Cruel Sports, says he is "over the moon" at the trust's decision, the British Field Sports Society, which favors the hunting of game with horses and packs of dogs, is vowing to fight it.
'Hunt saboteurs' on the move
For the past two decades in many parts of Britain, groups of self-styled "hunt saboteurs" have been campaigning against blood-sport enthusiasts who deck themselves out in traditional riding gear, mount horses, marshal teams of specially bred hounds, and pursue deer and foxes through country areas.
There have been many violent confrontations as the saboteurs placed themselves in the path of the stag-hunting and fox-hunting groups and tried to halt the chase.
Sometimes they succeeded. At other times, the hunters broke clear. Stag-hunters were then able to chase deer for up to 12 miles across the countryside. When the deer collapsed from exhaustion, the dogs closed in, and one of the hunters dispatched it with a rifle.
Charles Nunneley, the trust's chairman, says his organization became "increasingly angered and frustrated by these confrontations." He decided to test the saboteurs' claim that stag hunting causes deer great suffering.
The trust invited Derek Bateson, an animal behavior expert at Cambridge University, to conduct a two-year study. Mr. Bateson's report, released last week, concludes that stag hunting is "unnatural and cruel," causing physiological harm to the animal even before the dogs catch up with it. The report asserts: "The results are utterly unambiguous."
Bateson says deer are essentially "sedentary animals" and that if they have to be culled in areas of overpopulation, the humane method is to stalk them on foot with rifles.
The National Trust's 52-strong governing council has unanimously supported Bateson's report.
The outcome is bad news for blood-sports enthusiasts, estimated by hunting groups to number more than 200,000. They point out that over the centuries, stag and foxes have been hunted by King Henry VIII and other monarchs, using much the same methods as today.
Diana Scott, leader of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, a hunting club in the west of England, broke down in tears when she heard about the trust's decision and refused to answer questions. Dennis White, spokesman for another stag-hunting group, said: "It looks like the end."
But other hunters were more feisty. Sir Robin Dunn, a former appeal court judge who says he "retired early to spend more time deer hunting," insists, "The deer do not suffer unduly. There should be more research to test Bateson's conclusions." Sir Robin notes that the ban applies "only to National Trust land" and that "hunting on private land will continue."
Political support on the wane
The pro-hunt packs are not so sure. They know the blood-sports issue is squarely in the domain of national politics. The opposition Labour Party, which says it is confident of winning the May 1 general election, has promised, if elected, to hold a free vote on blood sports in the House of Commons.
Many Labour supporters are hostile to blood sports, and there is a good possibility that a total ban on hunting with hounds would be supported by Parliament. Such a ban would apply to both stag hunting and fox hunting.
The League Against Cruel Sports estimates that up to 20,000 foxes are killed by hunts each year. The League says it will step up pressure on the National Trust to order a scientific survey of the impact of hunting on foxes to follow up the report on deer.
Pro-hunt groups claim that without stag and fox hunting, both species would multiply to unacceptable numbers. In addition, the British Field Sports Society estimates that about 60,000 full-time jobs would be lost if there was a total ban on blood sports. Some 15,000 hounds might have to be destroyed, a spokesman said, and there would be "a glut of horses."