Hunting turnips

What does the word hunting mean to you? A part of historic life which should stay in the past? Mindless butchery? Machismo? A necessary means to survive?

Ricky Gervais has declared war on sport hunting. He's not the first, not the last but is possibly the most famous and influential to make strong and consistent statements against those who kill for fun. I don't think I've ever seen such support for a cause and at the same time as many stoic defences of what many will see as indefensible. It's another matter altogether, but the attention that animal rights seem to receive often outnumber that which human issues do - curious to some and reasonable to others, especially in the animal-loving UK. Perhaps only the toxic and bottomless gender and racial debates attract more views – oh, those and Jeremy Clarkson's employment status.

My view is that when judging the rights and wrongs of something humans have been doing for their entire existence in one form or another, you must compare like and like. You may be of the view that killing anything intentionally is wrong, regardless of the reason for doing so. As plenty of people claim to have coined or paraphrase, 'you can have the right to whichever opinion you wish, but I have the right to think it's a pile of rubbish and say so'. I'd put this extreme all or nothing view in that category. Where do you stop? If cute, fluffy things are untouchable, what about a turnip; every bit as majestic a product of evolution as the giant panda? We have to eat something. If you want a more moderate discussion, read on.

It's really the purpose and the manner of hunting that tend to form most people's views on it. Is the dead animal to be used? Yes, good. No, bad. Does the person smile for a selfie next to the corpse? Yes, bad. No, good.

There are a few main ways that animal hunting, harvesting, production (or whatever your preferred term is) can be carried out:

  1. Farmed and production-line slaughter. The way your beef mince for your bolognaise gets to your fridge. This has a purpose – feeding a population (human overcrowding and meat overconsumption are branching issues but distract from clarity here). Do abattoir workers get a kick out of it? Hopefully not and if they do, they are a good reason for CCTV to be used by law in all slaughterhouses.

  2. Population management. Stalking and culling practices, usually planned and authorised by landowners or government departments. Does this have a purpose? Yes. Past human activity often removes vital species from the foodchain. These are usually predators and so their prey can spiral out of control in numbers and cause devastation to the environment. An example in the UK is that we have removed all large predators like wolves, so deer and rabbit populations get out of balance with nature. Our ancestors caused this, not us, and it's a problem we're left to deal with. Do people get a kick out of it? Yes, many deer stalkers and rough shooters volunteer for population management and it overlaps with sport hunting. Some take home trophies, some don't.

  3. Laboratory animal use. This is split up into animal use, usually involving eventual slaughter, for medical research and testing, and use of animals for cosmetic product tests. Both of these have a purpose and people need to make value judgements. I firmly support the heavily-regulated and conservative use of some species for medical research, and utterly condemn any use of an animal, lethal or not, for cosmetics. You may end up on a different part of the spectrum here based on the value you place on human health and appearance, versus an animal's life. Do these lab workers do this for fun? Surely only a sick individual would do so and my direct experience with those people who work in vital, underpaid and undervalued research suggests that they have utmost respect for those animals in their facilities. I wish there wasn't disease, a need for medicines and a need for testing, but there is. My simple response to the anti-research lobby is if the realities of medicine came home for them, would they deny their loved-one a treatment that could only have been tested and approved after animal testing? The theory and reality chasm of the situation in most cases, I hope, would spark an about-turn.

  4. Sport hunting. This could be the canned hunting of an African big game animal such as a lion or giraffe, or closer to home, pheasant shooting or fox hunting with dogs. The purpose of this type of hunting becomes much more dubious to justify. Whether or not the animal is used for food and products or thrown away, the animals are targeting for hunting as the main motivation. If an animal is wild or semi-wild (managed) and is old or infirm, there are experts who can humanely cull them. In many cases, the victims of sport hunting are either collected and presented for paying customers, or bred specifically for a commercial shoot. This is where trophies, selfies and the smiling faces that have so riled Gervais et al come from. My personal judgement is that the sort of personality who gains enjoyment out of an unfair duel with an animal who has no idea that they're playing a sport, is not one I wish to share a planet with. Dinosaurs (I suspect they'd hunt those too if available) and fragile egotists. On a humane note, the use of bows, incorrect ammunition choice and pure poor marksmanship of many sports hunters contribute hugely to unnecessary suffering.

  5. Historic commercial hunts. The annual Canadian seal harvest, reported to involve the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of young seals from the sea ice, commercial whaling ships and the Faroe Island pilot whale massacres. Rare footage and images from large scale harvests are often gruesome and form the backbone of anti-hunting protests. These hunts are usually aimed at a perceived need for products for human use – sometimes meat but usual furs, oils and other rare animal parts. Unfortunately, many hunts which would previously fitted into section 7, now reside here as modern techniques, an eye for profit and a more comfortable lifestyle skew motivations. A good example could be the summer narwhal hunts from small Canadian towns in Nunavut – in the past a traditional duel between man and animal which the animal often won, and now a one-sided melee of powerboats, guns and often, wasted animals.

  6. Poaching. The illegal, barbaric and selfish exploitation of animals, some plentiful, some critically endangered, for short term profit and often for hocus-pocus unproven remedies. The method is often brutal, lingeringly cruel and I cannot see how even the most desperate person could try and justify this practice. No purpose of any conceivable value and whilst not done for fun by most, it's carried out with total lack of remorse or humanity.

  7. Subsistence hunting. The ancient practice of skimming off small numbers of animals from a population without explicitly farming or managing a population of say, deer or fish, is as old as many human cultures. Most, including in my experience the Inuit culture of much of the Arctic, have not affected animal populations in thousands of years and as their own numbers increase, have to comply with quotas in order to not destroy that balance. If done well, like in the extreme north of Greenland, from dog sled or kayak, their quarry have a fair chance of escape and every single part of the carcass is used. The purpose is survival and I have never seen the same sort of reverence for the animals they share their world with as the Polar Eskimo hunters of the Thule region. The challenge is for this to remain so as they modernise.

  8. Fur/skin farming. The mass capture, breeding and slaughter of animals from mink to crocodiles for production of clothing could have justification if wool, cotton, insulation and synthetic textiles magically disappeared from the face of the Earth, but until then... Unless, like in much of the Arctic, the use of the furs from an animal otherwise killed for its meat is used instead of wasted, this is hard to get behind. You do not need fur in London, Milan or Sydney. You really don't. The actual 'hunter' of the fur might not gain any glee from the process, but the same cannot be said for their wallet thickness and the end users have no purpose for them save for vanity and mindless conformity. If you like the look of farmed fur or leather, there is faux. Use it. It's cheaper too.

For those who can see shades of grey in the huge topic of the use of sentient beings in our modern human world, much of it is down to sentiment and working out what you value most. I'm a biology graduate (specialised in animal behaviour, environment and evolution), a wildlife photographer , someone who has lived in a traditional hunting community, and someone who would label himself as pro-animal. I need to see a damn good reason to exploit an animal AND see a fair way of exploiting it before I can get behind it. I can't identify with those who end up on the extreme ends of the spectrum.

Uncontested free speech and 'each to their own', if used to defend the taking of a life, have no place in a civilised society. It's not something that affects just someone holed away in their apartment like many other issues boil down to; it affects other living things and everyone on Earth. Everyone who has eaten meat, worn leather or interacted with an animal should have an educated and passionate view on it. The fence is unacceptable. I think that most reasonable people accept the unfortunate need, but want to see some form of humanity, if not a 'fair fight', if we're to continue to play god with other living things.

Alex HibbertComment