I can’t fathom the Tory obsession with fox hunting

More than 600 people across my Stockton North constituency have written to me over the past month – on one subject: The Tory obsession with fox hunting. Very few were in favour.

Whilst I’ve answered every email, such was the passion on those opposed to blood sports of this nature, I thought something a little more extensive would be welcome.

I have long known that Stockton North cares deeply about animal welfare – whether it be the health of our bees, the well-being of live animals in transit, or the malevolence of the Government’s badger culls. Campaigns on each have motivated constituents to get in touch in their droves and ask me to defend animal welfare, and it is these causes that consistently trigger the largest public responses.

But the scale of the outcry against repealing the ban on fox hunting was overwhelming.

I have long felt that the humane treatment of animals is a benchmark for any civilised society. Importantly, I believe governments have a moral duty to safeguard animal welfare and I work closely with expert organisations to play my part in making sure the Tory government is held to account and fulfils that duty.

I’m not surprised recent events stoked uproar. David Cameron’s efforts to dismantle the Hunting Act – using a mechanism introduced to grant Henry VIII the power to legislate by decree – flew in the face of this responsibility. The Government’s proposed amendments would have undermined the very purpose of the legislation, seeking to authorise the cruelty that hunting with packs of dogs produces and rendering the Act next to unenforceable.

The Prime Minister, ahead of the General Election, spoke of his frustration at current restrictions on hunting and threw his weight behind repeal, backing country sports and the freedom to hunt while committing to a free vote in Parliament. It should’ve come as little surprise that efforts were made to force these changes through with minimal debate, such is the way this Government does business.

But the research informing the amendments is fundamentally flawed – as officials at Defra noted back in 2013 when voicing concerns about the “scientific robustness” of the paper. Not only is there a lack of evidence supporting the study’s conclusions, actual data on the outcomes of the instances of flushing being analysed is also absent.

Unsurprisingly, the paper has neither been peer reviewed nor published in a respected scientific journal. And we should not overlook that the study was funded by the Federation of Welsh Farmers Packs – a group representing gun hunting packs and with an economic interest in the use of packs of dogs for hunting.

More importantly, data from conservation groups such as the British Trust for Ornithology indicates that fox numbers have remained stable since the Hunting Act was introduced, rubbishing claims that the Government’s measures are needed for better wildlife management and more effective pest control. Empirical evidence even suggests that lethal fox control may, in fact, lead to increased numbers in areas where they are hunted as more foxes migrate inwards to contest vacant territory.

Similarly, predators and misadventure account for only 5% of annual lamb losses in the UK. Only 1% of losses can be attributed to fox predation with any level of confidence. Interestingly, the statistics suggest that such predation – of both lambs and poultry – is more likely on farms that practice lethal methods of fox control.

And advice from Natural England reflects this, with the body advising government on the natural environment in England having advocated good husbandry and livestock protection as preferable to fox destruction for those concerned about fox predation.

The case for the Hunting Act is an easy one to make and I am in no doubt that this is why an Ipsos MORI poll found at least 80 per cent of respondents in favour of hunting remaining illegal. This popularity has certainly been borne out in Stockton North in recent weeks.

While the immediate danger has been averted, David Cameron’s deceitful attempts to bypass the Act’s protections ought to provide a constant reminder that we must remain alert to the continuing threat being posed to animal welfare and the need to maintain momentum on this matter.

At a time when unemployment is up again, productivity is low and young people have been largely abandoned by the Government, it baffles me that the Prime Minister insists he wants to waste Parliament’s valuable time discussing the merits of rescinding legislation that the Ministry of Justice’s own figures show as out-performing all other wild mammal legislation in England and Wales – having the highest number of convictions and best conviction rate.

The Tories wanted to have the rules in England and Wales to reflect those in Scotland where larger packs are used, so the recent confirmation from the Scottish government that they plan to revisit Scotland’s rules on fox hunting with a view to bringing them into line with those in England and Wales is all the more welcome.

My constituents know I will be doing everything I can to defend, and indeed strengthen, this important legislation and put animals ahead of people who wish to indulge in a blood sport of the most horrific kind.