Ethics is a good thing. We can all agree on that. However, for those of us who can afford the luxury of middle-class morality, it is also, usually, an easy thing. We can take the cable car to fashionable areas of moral high ground (third-world poverty, animal welfare) and make impeccable moral judgements without losing a bead of metaphorical sweat. It becomes much more difficult when one is living in the middle of a moral dilemma and faced by the need to convert righteous thought into right action. In these circumstances, a little moral relativism may come in handy.
I made a sharp descent from the moral high ground when I agreed in 2000 to become a commissioner of the Independent Supervisory Authority for Hunting (ISAH). While the authority is supported financially by the Member Organisations, the Commissioners are wholly independent. Its purpose is to ensure that hunting with dogs is supervised and regulated by an appropriate authority that is independent of those engaged in the pastime and of any pro or anti-hunting groups. However, it is self-evident that if I simply subscribed to the view that hunting with dogs is cruel, therefore it should be banned, than I would never have accepted this position.
I accept at the outset that the death of an animal hunted by dogs will involve some degree of suffering. (I avoid the pussyfooting phrase of the Burns Committee ‘seriously compromise its welfare’). However, it is also fair to pose utilitarian questions such as ‘Does this form of killing involve more suffering than other forms of culling the quarry species, or other paths to death e.g. through starvation and disease, as a consequence of our doing nothing to control the population?’ These two questions parallel the legal definitions of causing unnecessary suffering ‘by doing, or omitting to do any act.’ There is also the much broader issue of the impact of the hunting community on the living countryside. One may argue that, on balance, this is good or bad, but one cannot ignore the question altogether.
ISAH is preparing a protocol for the supervision and regulation of hunting with dogs. The procedures need not concern us here, but the principles that underpin this protocol do meet these moral dilemmas head on. In setting standards for hunt policy and hunting practice ISAH acknowledges the need to achieve utility in controlling the quarry species while minimising cruelty. It recognises that most forms of hunting with dogs are conducted primarily as a country sport, the intention of which is to kill the quarry. Simply on these grounds, therefore, the regulation of hunting policy and practice should be designed to ensure that it involves no more, and preferably less cruelty than alternative, unregulated killing methods.
The protocol also acknowledges that any assessment of the utility of the hunting community should also include a measure of its contribution to the quality of life in the countryside. Obvious forms of this include issues such as the creation of jobs and protection of farm animals, which are not the business of ISAH. It is however within our remit to explore and promote ways whereby the hunting community can actively help to promote wildlife through conservation and enrichment of natural habitat. The potential beneficiaries of this are many: wild flora, ground-nesting birds and even the overall fitness of the quarry species itself. In a strictly utilitarian sense, hunting with dogs can seldom be described as ‘efficient’. Nevertheless the hunting community can and should, on equally utilitarian grounds, be entrusted with considerable responsibility for the conservation and enrichment of the living environment of the countryside since this is in their own interests. The ISAH protocol therefore requires that the policy and practice for every hunt should be directed towards these ends.
The principle that underpins the ISAH protocol for the supervision of hunting with dogs is the principle of respect for all life in the countryside. This is founded on three central pillars: humanity, utility and stewardship.
- Humanity: avoidance of unnecessary suffering
- Utility: effective control of the quarry species
- Stewardship: sensitive management of the living environment
Humanity: avoidance of unnecessary suffering
Hunting with dogs seeks to control population numbers or to kill individual animals that present special problems (e.g. to farmers). The killing of any wild, unrestrained animal is likely to cause some degree of suffering whatever the method; hunting, shooting, fishing, trapping or poisoning. The current ISAH position is that hunting with dogs does not, on balance, involve significantly more suffering than the alternatives. Nevertheless, we intend to keep specific hunting practices under review and may wish to revise our views in the light of new understanding.
Utility: effective control of the quarry species
This involves management of the population of the quarry species in a way that is appropriate to its situation within the living environment. Best practice will be defined both by the species (e.g. fox, mink, Red Deer) and by the environment (e.g. farmland, moorland). It may involve not only control of population numbers but also dispersal and selective culling designed to promote the overall fitness of the quarry species.
Stewardship: sensitive management of the living environment
When it is the long-term interests of the hunting community to conserve and enrich the natural habitat, it should also become the responsibility of that community to make a long-term commitment to this end. This may, for example, require the hunting community actively to encourage the enrichment of habitat for other wild species (e.g. ground-nesting birds) and to monitor the effects of habitat enrichment and hunting practices on these populations.
In putting my name to these proposals I expect to alienate many of the animal welfare community. I don’t feel too pure about them myself. Nevertheless, they are put forward with the aim of encouraging those who live in the countryside to do more to promote the overall quality of the living environment. If this can be given new life, then it matters little to me what is the view from the moral high ground.