What's so bad about fox hunting?

Tally-ho! Fox hounds on the hunt.
Tally-ho! Fox hounds on the hunt.
Travel Ink/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Here's a riddle: What do Nazi war criminals, British elec­tions, homosexuals and fox hunting have in common? Each is associated with the rarely used Parliament Act. The 1949 act was passed in Great Britain as a way for the House of Commons to bypass the House of Lords if that house was stalling on passing a bill into law. Since 1949, the Parliament Act has been invoked a mere four times: to give Britain the jurisdiction to bring Nazi war criminals to trial, to amend British elections and to change the age of consent for homosexuals [source: Alvarez]. The act was invoked for only the fourth time in 2004, to push through the passage of the Hunting Act.

Passing the Hunting Act was no easy matter; some variation of the bill had been kicked around for about a decade. The bill that passed and went into effect in 2005 made killing prey with dogs illegal. While stags and hares were also hunted with hounds in Great Britain, the animal at the center of this whole debate was the fox.

­Fox hunting has a long history, with fans as diverse as ancient Assyrians and George Washington [source: Yazigi]. But the sport, with its traditional uniforms and strict ritual, is most associated with Great Britain. The sport relies on hounds, whose keen sense of smell leads the way for hunters on horseback. The pack of riders follows the hounds for hours over the countryside. In some countries, such as the United States, the hunt is over when the fox is driven underground by the dogs, but in British tradition, the hunt ends when the hounds kill their prey, the fox.

While some people will always see hunting and killing an animal as wrong, it's reasonable to wonder why fox hunting caused such hullabaloo. What's so bad about fox hunting that it caused hundreds of hours of debate in Parliament and massive public demonstrations during a period in which seemingly more important issues, such as the war in Iraq and a national election, were at stake? On the next page, we'll look at both sides of the argument about fox hunting, an argument that some people believe will determine the kind of country England will be in the future.

Is fox hunting bad?

This painting by Peter Paul Rubens captures the chaos at the moment the fox is captured.
This painting by Peter Paul Rubens captures the chaos at the moment the fox is captured.
Peter Paul Rubens/The Bridgeman Art Gallery/Getty Images

To the untraine­d eye, a fox hunt may look somewhat bizarre. Costumes are involved, as are customs governing everything from when the food is served to how certain people are greeted. But as with any ritual, those who subscribe to it feel passionately about the importance of its tradition. With fox hunting in England, some of those elaborately costumed men would argue that while the custom and the spectacle of the hunt brings them joy, it also provides an important public service to country farmers. A fox hunt exterminates foxes, which are seen as vermin and a potential threat to farmers' sheep.

On the other hand, of course, are those who say that hunting a fox is cruel and inhumane, particularly when it's done in the style of a fox hunt. They claim it's unnecessarily cruel that the fox is chased for hours, until it's exhausted, at which point it's caught by the hounds. At that point, the dogs can do what they wish with the animal, and sometimes, by the time the dogs are done, there's absolutely nothing left of the fox [source: Cowell]. There was even some question of whether fox hunting was an effective way to control fox populations -- a temporary hunting ban had no effect on the fox population [source: Fountain].

Here is where the back-and-forth begins. In response to the cruelty argument, those who favor fox hunting contend that the fox dies at the moment the hound grabs it; the death is quick and painless as far as deaths go [source: Hoge]. It's seen as the greater crime to these people to shoot or maim an animal and not finish the job, to leave a creature limping through the woods with a bullet in the leg. The foxes, of course, are unavailable for comment on this matter.

Debate over which animals are socially acceptable to kill and how it's acceptable to kill them is nothing new -- while our ancestors may have gambled away good money at a cockfight, the practice is now illegal in some areas. But questions of ethics regarding fox hunting took on a somewhat larger import in the face of the Hunting Ban. To some, fox hunting became a symbol of conflict between urban and rural dwellers, between governmental regulations and personal liberty, and even between social classes.

To someone opposed to fox hunting, the choice is clear. The sport is unnecessarily barbaric, and as a pastime, it belongs firmly in the past. Polls showed that about 70 percent of British people agreed with a ban on hunting foxes with hounds [source: Cowell]. In Parliament debate, one speaker likened the fight to big government running roughshod over this 30 percent minority, though in this case, the minority was made up a somewhat unusual group: the upper class. Fox hunting, to put it bluntly, is seen as the sport of the aristocracy. For this reason, it makes sense that the Parliament Act of 1949 had to be used to get the measure through the House of Lords.

But what may have been surprising to hunting ban advocates were the many pleas from those of lower classes as well. People from all social classes take place in hunts now, and moreover, jobs associated with fox hunting and the rural economy were threatened by the hunting ban. For this reason, the conflict was also viewed as the city dwellers of Parliament making rules with a poor understanding of the traditions and desires of the countryside. And not just fox hunters would worry; such a ban seemed to have the potential to affect sports such as shooting and fishing.

It's been several years since the Hunting Ban passed, and as of press time, England was still standing. On the next page, we'll see what the ban actually said and what the fallout from the passage was.

Fox Hunts Today

This fox is safe -- for now.
This fox is safe -- for now.
Dennis O'Clair/Stone/Getty Images

After years of passionate debate, the House of Commons finally voted in 2004 to pass the Hunting Ban; the final count was 356 to 166 [source: Alvaraz]. The ban made the use of dogs to kill prey illegal. Basically, riders could still follow hounds on horseback as hounds chased the fox, but when the fox is found, all but two dogs must be restrained. Those two dogs aren't allowed to kill the fox, as before, but may flush it out so that the hunter kills it with a gun. So in the end, what's so bad about fox hunting is not that the fox died, but that the fox was dying at the claws of dogs.

But how do you retrain dogs whose natural reward for hours of sniffing, barking and running used to be a fox? For some hunters, it seems, you can't. There have been some "accidents" in the years after the ban; a pro-hunting group known as the Countryside Alliance warned that more foxes were killed post-ban than when hunting was legal [source: BBC].

Of course, you have to wonder how many accidents truly were so; at the time the ban was passed, hunters were already vowing to continue their fox hunting ways, regardless of what the government said [source: Alvaraz]. Citizens committed to the ban try to observe fox hunters in the act of an illegal hunt, but they sometimes face abuse from fox hunting supporters [source: Lyall]. Those opposed to the ban argue that otherwise law-abiding members of society are a persecuted minority, and public support for the hunts remains strong. At Boxing Day hunts in 2006, held just two years after the law went into effect, more than 300,000 people showed up to watch and participate in the hunts [source: Associated Press].

Some fox hunters have turned to drag hunting, which still involves dressing up in the traditional clothing and engaging in all the pre-hunt revelry. When it comes time to hunt, however, there's no fox to be seen. Rather, hounds follow a scent, such as fox urine. Drag hunting, as you might expect, is seen as much less thrilling as a real fox hunt; for one thing, the scent is spread in advance, leading to a much more controlled and less spur of the moment sort of feeling [sources: Yazigi, Lyall]. And even when drag hunting, it seems a fox can inadvertently cross the hounds' path.

It remains to be seen if the British ban will have any effect on the rest of the world. As we mentioned, the goal of fox hunts in the United States has always been just to chase the fox, and not to kill it. But after the debate in the United Kingdom, fox hunting is a sport with some serious image issues.

Follow the lead of your foxhound, who's sniffing out more great information on hunting topics, to the next page.

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Sources

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