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Scottish hunt ban – one year on


THE EFFECTS of the Hunting Ban which became law in Scotland one year ago this week are being felt in many rural communities. Many on both sides of the hunting divide south of the border will be keenly observing these effects, if or when a total ban on hunting comes into effect in England and Wales.

A report by Gerard Seenan in last Monday’s Guardian newspaper told how hunting survives in what the huntsmen call a "mutilated form" in the Borders, where hunters ride to flush the foxes to guns, exploiting a loophole in the Scottish law.

Most hunters have given up their sport, whilst those who do not pursue the ‘flushing’ hunt travel to England where hunting is – for now at least – legal.

Before the ban in 2002, there were 10 mounted hunts before the act was passed; nine survive, for now.

Only one, the Dumfriesshire hunt, founded in the early 19th century, has gone completely. Its demise has taken jobs, a tradition and a way of life from a small part of rural Scotland.
The kennels no longer echo to the sound of barking; the hounds have been sent away. The pack, which took generations to breed, is scattered: some have gone to hunts in England, some to similar hunts in France. The kennelman, too, has gone - to begin a new life as a lorry driver.

But even the huntsmen admit that its effects resonate only for a minority. "I don't see why the ban should affect most people in Dumfriesshire," says Malcolm Bell Macdonald, a Dumfriesshire huntsman. "For us, it's the loss of a culture; it's something we sing about, paint, write about, and it's a major part of our social lives.

"The economic impact can be overplayed, but it's there. Farms are getting bigger and bigger and farm workers are getting fewer and fewer because of the advances in technology, and here's hunting, just working away, still employing people year-round in areas where jobs are scarce - and the rug is pulled from under us."

Neighbours William and Penny Hodge sit despairing in the kitchen of their farmhouse, as the ban has hit the equestrian business. For more than 15 years, the Hodges have run a stud farm in Waterbeck.

Threat

"The ban is a class thing," says Mr Hodge. "People think hunting is just for toffs. But I'm an ordinary working man, up at 5.30 and go to bed knackered at night, and this is crippling my business. It's thought up by people who think the countryside is somewhere pretty to visit for the weekend."

The Scottish ban and the threat of a ban in England has hit the Hodges hard. Their income has dropped by between 25% and 50%. They have laid off two of their staff and now do most of the work themselves.

A major part of their business was breeding hunters. A good hunter costs around £5,000, and nobody is buying any more.

"This time of year we used to get people ringing for a good hunter," says Mrs Hodge. "We would have orders for eight or 10. But we haven't had any calls for the last four years. We used to have 120 mares coming in. Now we have 60 or 70."

According to Seenan’s report, no official study has been conducted on the ban's impact on rural communities, so there are only anecdotes from opposing sides, and the testimony of country people.

In the bar of Lockerbie's Blue Bell Inn, where the hunt used to congregate, the lunchtime trade is ticking over. "The ban has not made any difference to most people's lives," says one local, who asks not to be named. "I'm glad it has gone."

"The ban hasn't ruined the countryside, but it hasn't made it a better place either," says her companion. "Foxes will always have to be controlled and one way is not much different to the other. In the end, the fox always ends up dead."

The way in which the fox is killed is crucial to the Scottish ban. The nine hunts survive because the act which banned hunting stipulates that hounds can be used to flush out foxes. But the foxes must then be shot, not killed by hounds. It is an unhappy compromise, designed to protect the method of fox control used in the mountainous north, where there are no mounted hunts. The huntsmen do not like it, and neither do animal welfare groups. It will not be repeated south of the border. "It's how the politicians wanted it," says Les Ward, of the anti-hunting group Advocates for Animals.

"We have always known we would end up with what we have: a hard core of people who continue to get their kicks from terrifying foxes. But the number of people hunting is way down, and it will die out soon."

The Scottish Countryside Alliance admits that most huntsmen are not prepared to take part in flushing the foxes to guns. According to them, the numbers taking part in Scotland's surviving hunts have reduced by 50% to 75%. Prior to the ban, the 10 hunts employed more than 30 staff directly, a figure which has fallen to six.

"There has been a direct loss of jobs in the hunts and a knock-on effect that has seen liveries, farriers, stud farms, the lot, all close," says Alan Murray, the director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance. "It has created a huge social divide, it's taken away a way young riders learned their trade. The countryside is sickened by it, but we will continue to fight the ban in the courts."
Mr Ward retorts with the dismissive brand of arrogance that anti-hunters accuse pro-hunters of using: "The ban has had no impact on the countryside whatsoever, other than on those who are no longer able to get their kicks watching a pack of dogs taking a fox apart."

Diversify

One year on and the message is clear: hunting in Scotland may continue, but it will never be the same. And the knock-on effects are plain to see. If a hunting ban is enacted in England and Wales where there are many more hunts, the effects will far greater.

The report concludes with another quote from the Hodges, who know it is time to diversify or close up. "We can't do drag hunting here, the farmers wouldn't let us," says Mr Hodge.

"It's also no use for bringing horses on. You can't teach young horse manners when all that drag hunting is concerned with is going full out. Things are done in the countryside for a reason. You can't just come in and change it and expect there to be no consequences. It's had a bloody awful effect on us."