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Hunting: a proxy political war

The issue of fox hunting is back on the political agenda. With a General Election looming, the timing demonstrates how politicised hunting has become.

May 2017

For many people, the fox hunting question isn’t about the ethics of the kill, or the effectiveness of hunting with dogs as a method of protecting livestock. It’s more whether we should be allowed to. It’s about who gets to call the shots in the countryside: is it the “traditional” custodians of the countryside (characterised as a wealthy landed elite) or the “progressive” advocates for change (characterised as an urbanite intelligentsia, detached from the land)?

Of course, few people would place themselves in either of these categories and they bear little resemblance to reality. But this kind of coarse characterisation makes easy rhetoric and quick political points, so the caricature endures. This politicisation can lead to entrenchment of positions that can mire a debate in mud-slinging and leave little room for reasonableness or evidence-based thinking. We see the same polarisation freezing sensible debate in other rural issues like bovine TB, or the future of farm payments.

At WWT, our focus has been on another countryside pursuit: shooting with lead ammunition. Most people don’t shoot, so they think of lead poisoning as a problem of the past—paints, petrol, pipes, make up and model soldiers. Unfortunately, lead remains a serious threat to wildlife and welfare across the countryside.

Each year, 2,000 tonnes of lead shot is used to shoot game and pests. Most misses and is left on the ground or in the water. Birds mistake shot for grit or food, grind it in their gizzards, and the lead enters the bloodstream. Typically the gizzard ceases to function and the gut can become paralysed, allowing ingested food to back up, essentially causing the bird to starve and poisoning the kidneys and liver. Death is slow and traumatic.

Our evidence suggests that many tens of thousands of birds die in this way every year.

There may be human health implications too. The Food Standards Agency has warned that eating lead-shot game on a frequent basis can expose consumers, particularly children and pregnant women, to harmful levels of lead.

Yet alternative ammunition is widely available. Steel shot is a similar price to lead and works well. Lead shot has already been phased out by law in Denmark and across UK wetlands with no evidence to suggest any economic or cultural harm. Even in the UK, many in the shooting community know that lead ammunition is unlikely to be part of the future of the sport and that politics, not practicality, is the biggest barrier.

Unfortunately, the lead ammunition debate has become another proxy political war. When the question was debated in the Commons in 2015, MPs lined up along political lines to defend or condemn the use of lead. This tribalism can also come to characterise the positions of NGOs and interest groups. And the same, it seems, is true across the world. Within weeks of the election, the Trump administration overturned an outgoing US Fish and Wildlife Service’s bill to ban lead ammunition on federal land. All too often, the badges and banners eclipse the cause.

This needn’t be the case. When Sacha Dench recently flew the migration route of Bewick’s swans on a paramotor, she spoke to many people who were completely unaware of the problem - or the politics - of lead ammunition. Without the baggage, many were more than willing to consider alternatives.

The UK enjoys a joint reputation as a country of rich rural heritage, and also a leader in animal welfare and conservation. However, when it comes to countryside life, these two important traditions sometimes hold one another at bay and political animosity prevails over animal welfare and wildlife.

It’s surely time that all parties put aside the politics of rural life and made a cross-party commitment to what works for enforceable, ethical, evidence-based action.

Richard Benwell

Head of Government Affairs, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

Find Richard on Twitter @RSBenwell

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.