In modern Britain, the quickest way to prove that you’re a good person is to show that you love animals. People share cat videos and pose with dogs in pictures for dating websites. Anyone who is seen to hurt animals — like the Danish zoo that culled a giraffe or the lawyer who clubbed a fox — is sent to a special circle of social media hell.
Those who participate in field sports reside in this inferno: the men and women who shoot, stalk or hunt. They are killers in a society that doesn’t like to see death. When polled, around 85 per cent of the British public are in favour of keeping New Labour’s hunting ban, and a majority want to extend the ban to shooting and stalking.
I consider myself an animal lover. I am vegan because I find modern farming cruel and inefficient. But I can’t join in the activists’ all-out war on field sports. I oppose hunting — in the proper English definition of hounds chasing a live quarry, usually a fox — but I support shooting and stalking under certain circumstances. Put bluntly, it’s less cruel to kill a free-living deer than a confined pig; it may even be necessary.
What matters is how animals live, and if they have space to do so. I am more affronted by chickens and cows being industrially reared, kept indoors and then slaughtered than I am by deer living wild before being killed instantly. (Good stalkers shoot only when confident of a clean kill.) Modern livestock farming takes up a third of the world’s habitable land. In contrast, field sports can protect the natural world.
Animal rights activists don’t like to hear it, but stalking can play an important role in population management. Britain and America have recently seen explosions of deer numbers — Britain’s population has perhaps doubled since 1999. In Scotland, the result is barren hillsides. The deer browse so heavily that other species cannot thrive. As their numbers have risen, the numbers of some woodland birds — such as nightingales, willow warblers and chiffchaffs — have fallen by as much as half. Uncontrolled deer populations are bad news for peatlands and for forests; they aren’t great for the deer themselves, the weakest of which starve in the winter. Either we reintroduce the deer’s natural predators — an impractical solution, at least in most areas — or we have to fulfil their role.
In Scotland around 100,000 wild deer are culled each year, yielding 3,500 tons of venison. That is probably still not enough to bring the population under control. More-over, venison has piled up unsold due to Covid-induced restaurant closures.
Of course what critics of field sports really dislike is the idea that someone would take pleasure from killing. And it’s even worse that it’s a minority pursuit, caught up with ideas of class. But the animals don’t care whether they’re killed by a delighted toff or a reluctant abattoir worker.
I accompanied a wild boar shoot in Poland in December 2019. It was not bloodthirsty. It involved a quiet, focused connection to the surroundings, a fragmented woodland. Amid the male bonhomie, there was an understanding that lives have beginnings and ends, that actions have consequences and that humans must manage the natural world on which our existence depends. It was still not for me: I have other pretexts for getting drunk. But I felt closer to the land than I had for months.
And what about big game hunting? The comedian and animal rights activist Ricky Gervais says the sport is ‘humanity at its very worst’, and likens hunters to psychopaths. The public is on his side. Eighty-five per cent of Britons would ban trophy hunting for lions and rhinos.
Yet banning trophy hunting doesn’t stop animals being killed; it probably just means they’re killed away from social media, by locals who lack an economic incentive to protect the animals’ populations. In Namibia and Mongolia, revenue from hunting has led to rebounds in the numbers of rhinos and argali sheep respectively. In Kenya, which has banned big-game hunting, wildlife populations have fallen. If rich people want to pay tens of thousands of dollars in a way that protects wild spaces, that’s fine by me.
Take the famous case of Cecil the Lion, killed by an American dentist in 2015. He’d been named Cecil by researchers at Oxford, and his death caused a global outcry. But the Oxford group who named him isn’t in favour of ending trophy hunting. One researcher, Amy Dickman, argued that a ban would jeopardise large areas of animal habitat.
This is not to say there aren’t aspects to field sports that I think are unethical. I believe New Labour was right to ban fox-hunting, because the sport had taken precedence over any environmental function. There are more humane and effective methods to control fox numbers. (Predators like foxes would be also less of a problem if we farmed fewer livestock.)
Around 47 million pheasants and ten million partridges a year are released in Britain for recreational shooting, all of them captive-bred. In Scotland, many landowners seem content for deer numbers to remain unsustainably high, so that killing them is easier. No thanks. Shooting should have an ethos of respect and responsibility.
We vegans are mocked for being naive. In fact veganism is pragmatic. How else can ten billion humans feed themselves, without deforesting swaths of the planet? We’re not trying to abolish death. We’re trying to abolish cruel, unsustainable farming. Give me a deer stalk over an abattoir any day. A world without factory farms is possible. A world where humans don’t have to control the populations of some other species is not.
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