“The English country gentleman galloping after a fox – the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable”

It was over 100 years ago that the remarkable and multi-talented playwright, novelist, poet and critic, Oscar Wilde, uttered the brilliant caustic observation above in relation to those who participated in the ‘sport’ of fox hunting https://www.radicalteatowel.co.uk/blog/oscar-wilde-fox-hunting-and-gross-indecency/ . He was indeed an Irishman of courage, wit and wisdom born way ahead of his time in relation to love, homosexuality and the injustices of inherited privilege. He is a treasure trove of profound quips worthy of detailed examination but his beautiful take-down of the fox hunting brigade is precise and impeccably appropriate.

Another genius in the field of words and the performing art of comedy and entertainment is English born writer, actor, producer and director, Ricky Gervais. In common with Oscar Wilde he has also issued stern assessments of those who ride around on horses with fancy uniforms and packs of dogs ‘hunting’ foxes to physical exhaustion before cheering like hyenas when the trained hounds rip the fox apart in a cruel blood fest:

“Sheer barbaric psychopathic cruelty”.

“I don’t understand why loads of inbreds get the fucking horn when they see a fox cowering in fear.” https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/432697476688897791/?lp=true .

I already liked and admired Oscar Wilde and Ricky Gervais but reading their opinions on fox hunting enhanced my affection for them both.

Maybe it was the Basil Brush show (a legendary children’s show about a wee fox glove puppet called Basil) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basil_Brush that I watched throughout my childhood that influenced me but for as long as I can remember I have always despised fox hunting. Those born in rural areas and from farming stock will probably dismiss my hatred of the practice as ignorant and naive due to the livestock harm foxes can often be responsible for in their attempts to sustain the lives of themselves and their families. I reject these critics. I accept legitimate pest control is often required to protect sheep, hens and other livestock from hungry foxes but I don’t accept that hunting foxes with up to 35 hounds, horses and adult human beings amounts to legitimate pest control. It is no more and no less than a barbaric practice that those participating in it pathetically call ‘sport’.

Although practiced for several hundred years fox hunting has always had its detractors like Oscar Wilde concerned with animal welfare. During the early days of the anti-poll tax campaign in 1988 I met some guys in a friendly print shop who belonged to a hunt saboteur group. They were committed to physically disrupting fox hunts across Scotland. I was impressed by the commitment and courage these guys displayed in solidarity with the foxes. I wanted to attend an attempted disruption.

It was pretty cloak and dagger as the police often infiltrated hunt sab groups to prevent them from operating effectively but one early Saturday morning I found myself on forest land in Renfrewshire taking part in a hunt sab activity against a fox hunt in Houston, Renfrewshire. It was very cold, very wet and downright dangerous. The plonkers on the horses with their bright red tunics, light jodhpurs and big black boots cared as little for us as they did the foxes they were hunting. They rode their horses towards us and waved their whips in anger. They also gave us verbal abuse and called us scum and manky. I found that ironically funny given the posh accents they had. I wasn’t used to such accents.

We gave as good as we got but the police were soon in attendance and we found ourselves corralled into a section of the forest off the path of the riders. I was ‘huckled’ into a police Sherpa van, a common vehicle they used in those days, and had handcuffs slapped on me. Fortunately they didn’t formally charge me with obstruction and breach of the peace as they had threatened to do and I was released after an hour or so in the van.

The whole experience was a mixture of sadness, anger and satisfaction. Sad that we were shackled by the police and unable to properly disrupt the hunt that morning. Angry that the police took the side of the posh huntsmen against us but satisfied that at least we tried to do something in opposition to the barbaric practice of fox hunting.

I only attended one other hunt sab event shortly after that incident with the same outcome apart from being handcuffed but my admiration for the hunt saboteur movement grew and stays with me to this day. Many of us talk about being concerned with animal welfare but the Hunt Saboteur Association, the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland and OneKind actually take action in defence of animals and walk the walk as well as talking the talk. I respect them all.

Given my experiences in 1988 and my detestation of fox hunting it was a pleasure to be able to sign up in support of the 2nd Private Members Bill to be introduced to the reinstated Scottish Parliament in April 2000. I had introduced the first Private Members Bill of the reinstated Parliament in September 1999 so was able to give some advice to the sponsor of the bill, Labour MSP Mike Watson, about what to expect in promoting his proposal. We met and discussed his main aim which was to make it illegal to hunt other mammals with dogs. It was designed to ban fox hunting at long last.

My Abolition of Poindings and Warrant Sales Bill got a tough time from the Edinburgh based legal establishment who resented a wee working class guy from Pollok in Glasgow pontificating to them about the injustices of warrant sales. They denied these warrant sales were inhumane and maintained they were necessary. None of them had ever experienced poverty or debt. They were speaking through their proverbial bum holes. Despite their opposition, aided by the Tories and Liberals, my Bill got passed. However the opposition my Bill received was nothing compared to the whirlwind of anger that confronted the Protection of Wild Mammals Bill.

The landed gentry rose in force to oppose the idea that ignorant ‘city folk’ should interfere in their god given right to organise fox hunts with packs of dogs and horses to ritually rip the trapped and exhausted fox to shreds. The Tories, of course, sided with the landed gentry and large farmers who wanted no interference in their ‘right’ to hunt with dogs. Despite eventually winning the day and passing the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act in 2002, after legal challenges and parliamentary obstruction, the truth is the rural hunting lobby secured some significant and fundamental amendments to the Bill proposal which has rendered it largely futile in relation to banning fox hunting.

Before the ‘ban’ was introduced in 2002 there were 10 operational mounted fox hunts in Scotland. Today there are still 10 such hunts. According to those hunts they kill 800 foxes a year. Since 2002 there has been only one single conviction for breach of the Act and last year a judge cleared two members of the Buccleuch Hunt of deliberately hunting a wild mammal with dogs due to the inherent weaknesses in the legislation https://www.onekind.scot/campaigns/a-real-hunting-ban/ .

The Scottish Government was so concerned by the evidence of continued fox hunting supplied by the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, OneKind and others that they ordered a review of the legislation to be conducted by a senior judge, Lord Bonomy. His 2016 Report is a comprehensive expose of the weakness of the legislation and illustrates how easily the loopholes and exceptions foisted onto the Bill during the various committee stages in Parliament have been exploited by the hunting lobby to continue their filthy practice of hunting foxes with packs of dogs to allow them to be cowered, exhausted and then ripped apart in the name of ‘pest control’.

Excerpts from Lord Bonomy’s Report are very instructive:

“Noting that the principal situation in which hunts will deal with foxes is to search for and flush them from cover to guns, Police Scotland suggest that the legislation needs to reflect this rigorously with emphasis on immediate despatch. Their submission goes so far as to state that the legislation “has become somewhat unworkable due to the exceptions available, the lack of clarity over key terminology and the lack of individual accountability.” https://www.gov.scot/publications/report-review-protection-wild-mammals-scotland-act-2002/pages/7/

“the aim of the legislation was to bring an end to the chase and the kill by dogs and yet there remains widespread suspicion that the chase and possibly even the kill continue to occur; the exceptions were intended to allow the use of dogs in connection with genuinely necessary activities and, in limited circumstances, certain sporting activities; there is a view, for which there is some supporting evidence, that the flushing from cover for pest control exception is a decoy for the continuation of some traditional hunting practices”; https://www.gov.scot/publications/report-review-protection-wild-mammals-scotland-act-2002/pages/7/

In other words the hunting with dogs brigade have successfully managed to flout the intent of the law with impunity up to now despite the passing of the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act in 2002. Under the guise of ‘pest control’ they hunt with packs of dogs as usual, exhaust the fox, corner the fox and then flush it out for execution. They are supposed to be shot instead of ripped to shreds by the dogs but ‘accidents’ are permitted, very regularly. It is a barbaric practice which has to end in my opinion.

Last week in the Scottish Parliament the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment, Mairi Gougeon, made a considered and welcome statement on Improving Animal Welfare in Scotland. It was wide ranging and positive including proposals to increase penalties for animal cruelty; improvements in abattoir safety and security; and measures to more readily detect and clamp down on illegally sourced puppies. On fox hunting there was a commitment to adopt the recommendations contained in the Lord Bonomy Report which should make the law much clearer and lead to proper regulation of legitimate pest control and facilitate easier investigations and ultimately prosecutions for those breaking the law http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=11873&mode=pdf.

These words are welcome and long overdue but action is what is required to deliver a real ban on the unacceptable practice of fox hunting. Groups like OneKind https://www.onekind.scot/campaigns/a-real-hunting-ban/ and the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland https://www.league.org.uk/news/scottish-governments-announcement-on-fox-hunting-legislation continue to do all they can in difficult circumstances to campaign against and expose the illegal practice of fox hunting but they need the police and legal system to back them up and act on the evidence they regularly produce. The landed toffs cannot be allowed to operate above the law any longer and those who require pest control in and around farms and other land must deploy legal and kinder methods which don’t include the cruel and barbaric practice of hunting with dogs.

The final words on this topic belong to the aforementioned Ricky Gervais whose work on, and promotion of, animal welfare is notable and very laudable:

The only way fox hunting would count as vermin control is if the posh twats fell off their horses and broke their neckshttps://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/229050331025551274/

Tommy Sheridan 

Posted in Tommy Sheridan's Columns.

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