I have had a long-standing opposition to blood sports, and was a regular protestor against hare-coursing at Crebilly in the 1970s. I still remember, one particularly cold Boxing Day, listening to the screaming as the hare was torn apart. North Down Members have had a long and honourable record of opposing blood sports. My former party colleagues Bertie McConnell and Lord Dunleath introduced Bills to abolish hare coursing in 1970 and 1982 respectively. Both Bills were passed, but fell when the Northern Ireland Parliament and the Assembly were prorogued.
The introduction of the 2004 Act has changed the mindset in the majority of hunts in England. They have turned to drag-hunting, which provides all the excitement, colour and tradition of the chase without the cruelty of a small animal being torn apart. The predictions of doom-and-gloom merchants who foresaw thousands of horses and hounds being put down and a massive increase in rural unemployment have not been fulfilled. As with many other issues, we should demand parity with the rest of the UK. This Bill will bring us into line with the rest of the United Kingdom and end this cruel and barbaric practice.
I know that some people would like to expand the Bill so that it goes further than the 2004 Act. However, that would involve total redrafting and major changes, which could not be implemented within this Assembly session. I accept that some will be disappointed that the legislation is not tighter and will think that there are too many exemptions, but it is not possible to make the appropriate changes within the legislative time frame.
Hunting foxes and other wild mammals with dogs is cruel. There is no debate to be had on that issue. All the evidence shows that foxes experience extreme trauma during the chase, and being ripped apart by dogs, if caught, is a horrendous way for an animal to die.
Dominic Bradley (Social Democratic and Labour Party)
The Member said “all the evidence shows”. Will he detail the evidence to which he refers?
Brian Wilson (Green)
Research was carried out at Oxford, I think, seven or eight years ago, that involved testing of animals. I am sorry; I will refer the evidence to the Member later.
There is no distinction between the cruelty that takes place at a fox hunt and that which takes place in badger-baiting.
Those are unsavoury activities whereby people set dogs on other animals to chase and kill them for human pleasure. Badger-baiting is rightly banned but the equally cruel practice of fox-hunting is still lawful, and it is time to put that right.
The question today is whether we, as Members of the Legislative Assembly, believe that it is right for people to take pleasure in the suffering of any animal. Any other arguments are just a smokescreen to hide the real issue. People hunt because they like it. I have no doubt that Members have received numerous letters from the Countryside Alliance and its members, stating that the issue is pest control, that my Bill is an attack on rural traditions and that a ban will be a disaster for the rural economy. Let us look at the facts and put those myths to bed once and for all. The first myth that I would like to tackle is that existing animal welfare legislation would ban hunting if it caused unnecessary suffering. It is true that the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 prohibits the causing of unnecessary suffering. However, the very next paragraph states that hunting is exempt from those provisions. Why? If hunting did not cause unnecessary suffering, that exemption would not have been necessary.
Roy Beggs (UUP)
Does the Member accept that there is also huge cruelty when a lamb is lifted by a fox? The reason why many people in the rural community are content that fox-hunting continues is that it addresses that pest and prevents cruelty to farmed animals, whether lambs, chickens or hens.
Brian Wilson (Green)
I do not disagree that foxes cause cruelty to other animals. However, this is not about fox control. There are much more efficient ways of controlling foxes. Getting a gang of dogs to chase a fox is not the most efficient means of doing that. If a fox disturbs hens or other animals, one cannot get out hounds out that night to chase it. There are other ways of dealing with that problem. Hunts take place only on certain days of the year. A hunt will not deal with a specific fox at a specific time.
Either the Countryside Alliance is ignorant of the facts or they read the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 right up to the point where it prohibits unnecessary suffering, or did not bother to read it all, but that seems unlikely. What is more likely is that the Countryside Alliance has deliberately misled its members, the public and Members of this House. Every single objection letter that I received during my consultation on the Bill opposed it on the basis that the causing of unnecessary suffering to animals is already outlawed. It is not. Therefore, every single objection was based on a falsehood.
I ask Members not to further propagate that falsehood in their speeches, and to look on the Countryside Alliance’s other arguments with a degree of scepticism. There are a few other myths that Members have been subjected to. The other nonsense is that fox-hunting is about countryside management. If that were the case, why the need for the pomp and ceremony? Why would people come out to watch it? If you have vermin in your house, you do not ask your neighbours to come round and watch you kill it. I do not deny that farmers view foxes as pests, but only 6% of foxes killed are killed by hunting. It is an ineffective means of pest control, according to the Burns report. I remind Members of my earlier point: people hunt because they enjoy it. It is a spectator blood sport that is an anachronism in the twenty-first century, and it is time that we banned it.
I would like to tackle the economic argument because I am aware that some Members received a letter from our esteemed former colleague and renowned animal rights defender, Jim “The Shooter” Shannon MP. Jim claims that hunting is worth £40 million annually to the rural economy of Northern Ireland, but he was not kind enough to point out the source of that figure, other than to say he was told so by the Countryside Alliance. I have done some research in that area. According to the Burns report, an independent report commissioned by the UK Government, the direct contribution of hunting to the UK economy before the English and Scottish bans, was almost invisible: £15·6 million across the whole of the United Kingdom. Therefore, the idea that hunting activities contribute £40 million to the Northern Ireland economy is a nonsense in a long line of nonsensical arguments.
Even were that true, a large proportion of that would come from drag hunts, which do not involve a fox, and which I am happy to advocate as an alternative. I will come back to that subject later. What is more, the Countryside Alliance’s own figures show that the participation in hunting has increased in England since the cruelty element has been removed. Therefore, if anything, the ban has increased economic activity in rural communities.
The Bill will end unnecessary cruelty in hunting, bring Northern Ireland into line with —
Dominic Bradley (Social Democratic and Labour Party)
Brian Wilson (Green)
Thank you for the intervention. I will come to that in a minute or two.
The Bill will end unnecessary cruelty in hunting, bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom and potentially increase economic activity in rural communities — so far, so good.
I now come back to the alternative to hunting. Drag hunting allows those who want to continue the traditions of the hunt to do so in a manner that does not involve cruelty. In a drag hunt, dogs follow an artificial scent rather than a fox. All the trappings of the culture can be maintained. In fact, many hunts are already drag hunts as opposed to fox hunts. Those who insist that hunting cannot continue without a fox being killed, again expose themselves as taking pleasure in the killing of an innocent animal.
This is not an urban versus rural debate; it is an animal welfare issue, on which the public agree with me. AMillward Brown poll in 2006 showed that 79% of people in Northern Ireland opposed cruelty in the name of the sport. A MORI poll conducted in England showed that 75% of the population would not support a repeal of the Hunting Act, including 70% of people in rural areas.
Just last week, I was contacted by a farmer from Armoy. He was vehemently against hunting and expressed support for the Bill. He does not want hunting dogs on his land. He said that he had little or no trouble with foxes and that he should be the one to decide how to manage his land. He assured me that there were more effective and humane ways of controlling foxes.
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
Will the Member detail specifically what he believes to be the more effective and humane way in which to kill a fox? Do not mess about: tell us how you propose to kill a fox humanely, as you said could be done. Tell us exactly what your policy is designed to do.
Brian Wilson (Green)
I have no experience of killing foxes, but I have talked to farmers who indicate that there are other ways of dealing with the problem.
As far as I am concerned, the issue is one of animal cruelty, not how one kills foxes. I will not be drawn into that area.
The farmer assured me that there are more effective and humane ways of controlling foxes, and he welcomed their presence because they keep down the rabbit population, which causes more damage to his crops. He also told me that neighbouring farmers were against hunting with dogs and did not want horses on their lands.
Lord Morrow (DUP)
I have listened to the Member trying his best not to answer the question. Does he accept that, from time to time, foxes need to be culled because they are predators? If he does, will he tell the House what he feels is the most humane, efficient and effective way of doing that? That is a straight question that needs a straight answer.
Brian Wilson (Green)
I repeat what I have said already: I am not here to tell people how to cull foxes. There are ways of dealing with the problem without fox hunting, and that is where I intend to remain. The problem has been resolved in many areas. The vast majority of farmers and people who have problems with foxes resolve those in a much more humane manner than hunting with hounds.
There is a belief that the rural community is all in favour of hunting with hounds. I have met farmers who do not want hunts going through their farms but who will not say that publicly.
The farmer from Armoy whom I talked to also referred to a recent incident in which a pack of hounds charged uncontrolled through a neighbour’s garden and caused physical damage to hedges, fences, and plants and frightened two young children who were playing in the garden. Given such incidents, it is easy to understand why some rural dwellers do not want hunts in their area. The fox does not know which farms have given permission for the hunt to take place on their land, nor do the hounds. It is no surprise, therefore, that hunts often trespass on neighbouring farms and cause damage to fences and hedges.
Members may recall the tragic case of Pip, the family pet that was ripped apart by hounds that were trained to kill; they did not distinguish between the family Jack Russell and a so-called pest. The poor children watched in horror as their much-loved dog was mauled before their eyes. The suffering of Pip was no different from the appalling death that foxes suffer to satisfy the bloodlust of the hunter. Pip’s case brought home to the public, and quite literally to that family, the brutality of hounds that are trained to kill.
The Countryside Alliance likes to present itself as the voice of the rural community. It shouts very loudly, but the numbers are clear: hunting is the tyranny of a vocal minority. Members from rural constituencies oppose the Bill against the wishes of most of their constituents.
This is a necessary piece of legislation.
The Scottish Parliament recognised that in 2002, and the UK Government recognised it in 2004. It is time that we in Northern Ireland recognised that there is no place in a compassionate society for hunting with dogs.
The legislation across the water is working. First, the ban acts as a deterrent. I agree with the Countryside Alliance that the majority of rural dwellers are law-abiding, and I have no reason to believe that they would be otherwise should we introduce a ban. However, those who chose to ignore the law will be brought to justice. By the end of 2008, 87 people had been found guilty of hunting offences in England since 2004. Yes, there were problems initially in implementing the ban, but they were overcome, and we can learn from experiences in England.
Members have raised concerns about the penalties in my Bill, and I am happy to discuss the issue in more detail at a later stage. However, Members should be aware that the penalties that I propose are in line with those proposed for animal cruelty offences in the Agriculture Department’s Welfare of Animals Bill. It is important that we have consistency in the judicial system and that we send a clear signal that we will not accept animal cruelty in our society. Cruelty, by definition, is wrong. Hunting with dogs is inherently cruel. People who hunt do so for pleasure, and, therefore, take pleasure in cruelty. In our legislation, we abhor badger-baiting, but we condone fox-hunting. Which is it? Are we for or against animal cruelty? The question is that simple. I urge Members to support the Bill to ensure that this form of animal cruelty is outlawed in our society.