Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

The Sportsmen at Bay

by Henry S. Salt

EVERYONE knows the old story of the Wildgrave, that spectral huntsman who, for the wrongs done by him in the past to his suffering fellow-creatures, was doomed to provide nightly sport for a troop of ghostly pursuers.

"The Wildgrave flies o’er bush and thorn
With many a shriek of helpless woe;
Behind him hound, and horse, and horn,
And ‘Hark away!’ and ‘Holla ho!’ "

If we may judge by the signs of the times, a similar fate has now overtaken the modern sportsman, who finds to his dismay that his proud vocation no longer goes unchallenged, but that he is compelled to stand on his defence before the force of ethical opinion, and to play the part less of the pursuer than of the pursued. Nowadays it is the humanitarians who, in the intellectual discussion of sport, derive keen enjoyment from the "pleasure of the chase," and having "broken up" the Royal Buckhounds after ten years’ run, are hunting the sportsman from cover to cover, from argument to argument.

The sportsman, in fact, is now himself standing "at bay"; and it may be worth while to consider what value, if any, attaches to the excuses commonly put forward by him in justification of his favourite pastime. On what moral grounds are we asked to approve, in this twentieth century, such seemingly barbarous practices as the hunting to death of stags, foxes, and hares; the worrying of otters and rabbits; or the shooting of vast numbers of game birds in the battue? The hunted fox, as we know, has many wily resources for throwing his pursuers of the scent. What are the corresponding shifts and wiles of the hunted sportsman?


The first, perhaps, that demands notice is the frequent appeal to "Nature," and even (when the hunter happens to be a man of marked piety) to the savage instincts which "the Creator," it is assumed, has implanted. "Were not otter hounds created to hunt and kill otters?" asked a devout correspondent of the Newcastle Daily Journal. "Therefore," he continued, "let me ask the persons (the opponents of sport) what right they have to place their own peculiar faddism against the wisdom of the Creator?" In like manner a distinguished hunter of big game, Mr. H. W. Seton-Karr, has defended himself as follows in the Daily Chronicle:

"If a person experience pleasure in the chase, such as in fox-hunting or deer-stalking, or even in lion-hunting, the rights and wrongs of that natural instinct are a personal matter between that man and his God. That, in common with all carnivorous creatures, we do possess God-planted instincts of the chase is a fact. Why did Almighty God create lions to prey nightly on harmless animals? And should we not, even at the expense of a donkey as a bait, be justified in reducing their number, sacrificing one for the good of many?"

The answer to all this pious verbiage is, of course, very simple. In view of the fact that the sportsman of the present day professes to be civilised, and is at any rate nominally a member of a civilised State, it is quite irrelevant to plead that the propensity to hunt is natural to the savage man. We are continually striving in other departments of life to get rid of ferocious instincts, an inheritance from a savage past, which may or may not be "God-planted," but are certainly very much out of place in a society which regards itself as humane. Why, then, should it be assumed that an exception is to be made in favour of the hunting instinct? The charge against modern blood-sports is that they are an anachronism, a survival of a barbarous habit into a civilised age; nor can it possibly be any justification of them to show that Nature herself is cruel, for as we do not make savage Nature our examplar in other respects, there is no reason why we should do so in this. And as for the statement that a man’s treatment of the lower animals is a "personal" affair "between that man and his God," it can only provoke a smile. For man is a social being, and not even the sportsman, belated barbarian though he may be, can be allowed the privilege of thus evading the responsibility which he owes to his fellow-citizens in a matter affecting the common conscience of the race.

But the wild animals, it is argued, put themselves outside the pale of consideration because they prey on one another. One searches in vain for justice and mercy among the lower animals—such is the strange reason advanced as an excuse for showing no justice or mercy to them. But, in the first place, it is not a fact that these qualities are non-existent in the lower races, where co-operation is as much a law of life as competition; and, secondly if it were a fact, it would have no bearing whatever on the morality of sport. For why should we base human ethics on animal conduct? Still more, why, because some animals kill for food, should we kill for pleasure? The cruelty of Nature can afford no possible justification for the cruelty of Man, for, as Leigh Hunt wrote in that trenchant couplet which may be commended to the notice of the sportsman—

"That there is pain and evil is no rule
That I should make it greater, like a fool."

Next we come to the kindred sophism drawn from "the necessity of taking life." To kill, we are reminded, is unavoidable; for wild animals must be "kept down," or the balance of Nature would be deranged. That, of course, is undeniable; but, unfortunately for the sportsman’s argument, it is a fact that the breed of foxes, rabbits, pheasants, and other victims of sport, is artificially kept up, not down, in order that there may be plenty of hunting and shooting for the idle classes to amuse themselves with. So far from securing the effective destruction of noxious animals, sport indirectly prevents it; more than that, it causes the killing to be done not only ineffectively, but in the most demoralising way, by making a pastime out of what, if done at all, should be done as a disagreeable duty. But here we must in justice mention a new and ingenious excuse for blood-sports which (to add to its zest) was put forward by a clergyman. It is necessary to take life, he argued, and what is necessary is a duty, and it is right, as far as possible, to make a pleasure of one’s duties, and therefore—but the conclusion is plain! Presumably the reverend gentleman, had he lived a century back, would have found the same pious justification for the practice of making up pleasure parties to see felons hanged.


Speaking generally, we may class the remaining arguments under two heads: those which aim at showing that sport is of benefit to mankind, or at least not a symptom of cruelty in the sportsman; and those which actually discover it to be a blessing to the animals themselves. In the former and more prosaic category must be placed the queer assertion that sport "adds to the food-supply" of the nation. We have all read how, after some aristocratic "shoot," a number of pheasants or other palatable game were presented to the local hospital. Sport, it is seen, goes hand in hand with the charitable and the philanthropic – truly a touching picture! But the fact remains that the cost of the animals thus reared primarily for sport, and secondarily for the table, is far in excess of their market value as food, and this at once knocks the bottom out of the sportsman’s patriotic contention. Every stag that is stalked, every pheasant that is mown down in the battue, and every hare or rabbit that is knocked over in covert-shooting, has cost the country much more to produce than it is worth when butchered; and the game-preserver, far from being helpful to the community in this respect, is a positive encumbrance to it, as wasting labour in the production of what is not a food, but a luxury. Game is reared not for the benefit of the many, but at the cost of the many, to gratify the idle and cruel instincts of the few.

Not less illusory is the plea so frequently made in sporting journals as a justification of sport that hunting and shooting "give employment" to a large number of people. "Do these hyper-humane faddists," asks the Irish Field, "ever consider how, by doing away with many of what they are pleased to call spurious sports, they would be taking the actual bread-and-butter out of the mouths of thousands of men and their families? Hunting, shooting, and other sports give employment to vast number of people, directly and indirectly, that it would be nothing short of a national calamity if they were discontinued for any cause." What is really proved by such apologists is that blood-sports are a terrible drain on the resources of the nation, and that millions are annually diverted from productive labour to be employed on the silliest form of luxury—the killing of animals for the mere amusement of rich people. It is the old fallacy of supposing that all expenditure of money, without regard to the nature of the commodities produced, is beneficial to the community at large.

Then there is the much-vaunted "manliness" of sport, so important a quality, we are told, in an imperial and military nation. Yet what could be more flagrantly and miserably unmanly than for a crown of men to sally forth, in perfect security themselves, armed or mounted, with every advantage of power and skill on their side, to do to death with dogs or guns some poor skulking, terrified little habitant of woodside or hedgerow? This is what Sir Henry Seton-Karr has to say on the point:

"Only those who have experienced it can realise the strength of the hunter’s lust to kill the hunted, though they may find it difficult to explain. It is certain that no race of men posses this desire more strongly than the Anglo-Saxons. . . . Let us take it that in our case this passion is an inherited instinct—which civilisation cannot eradicate—of a virile and dominant race, and that it forms a healthy natural antidote to the enervating refinements of modern life."

The obvious answer to this claim is that civilisation is eradicating the destructive instincts of sport— with extreme slowness, no doubt, as in the case of all barbarous inherited tendencies, but surely and certainly nevertheless; and the fact that blood-sports are already condemned by many thoughtful people is a clear indication of what verdict the future will pass on the profession of killing for "fun." That good physical exercise is provided by field sports none will deny, but it is just as undeniable that such exercise can be as well or better provided in other ways—by the equally healthy and far more manly sports of the gymnasium and the playing-field, which, be it noted, are capable of being utilised by a much, larger number of people than the privileged pastimes of the crack huntsman and "shot." There is no reason why the mass of the population should not, under a juster social system, have leisure to derive benefit from cricket, football, boating, hockey, and the other rational sports; but it is very evident that only a very few can ever find recreation in those blood-sports which are absurdly called "national." The rational and humane sports may be for the many; the "national" and cruel sports must be for the few: that is not the least of the striking differences that distinguish them.

To contend that blood-sports have no injurious influence on the minds of those who practise them seems about as reasonable as to assert that effect does not follow cause. Yet it is frequently urged, in defence of sport, that the pleasure is found not in the "kill," but in the chase. That may be true in a sense. What humanitarians hold is not that sportsmen derive pleasure from the mere infliction of pain, but that they seek excitement without sufficient regard to the pain inflicted, and that this is apt, in some cases, to breed a positive love of killing, a real "blood-lust." Take for example, the following remark quoted from the Eton College Chronicle: "At the time we are writing, the Beagles have killed but twice, though by the time the Chronicle appears they may have increased this number by one." Here it will be seen that what the boys’ journal dwells on is precisely the killing—surely a significant side-light on the influence of the sport. There is no escaping this question, whether at Eton or elsewhere: Why, if the painful pursuit of a sentient animal be not an essential part of the amusement, is the drag-hunt refused as a substitute? And if the drag be disdained as not sufficiently exciting, how can the influence be avoided that the zest of the pastime is enhanced by the peril of the quarry?


But it is when he is demonstrating that sport comes as a boon and a blessing to the non-human races which are the victims of it that the sportsman is most entertaining. "They like it," he asserts, when any pity is expressed for the hunted fox.

"Happy the hounds, loud-baying on the tracks!
Happy the huntsmen with their murderous call!
But the spent fox, dead-beat before the pack—
His are the sweetest, strangest joys of all!"

This love on the part of certain animals for being hunted to death is surely one of the most curious facts in natural history, and makes it seem almost an injustice to horses, cows, pigs, and other domestic creatures, that they are denied a privilege which is so freely accorded to their wilder brethren. Why should deer, for instance, be specially favoured in this respect? The stag, as a noble lord once remarked, is a most pampered animal. "When he was going to be hunted he was carried to the meet in a comfortable cart. When set down, the first thing he did was to crop the grass. When the hounds got too near, they were stopped. By-and-by he lay down, and was wheeled back to his comfortable home. It was a life that many would like to live." It appears, therefore, that it is a loss, a deprivation, not to be hunted over a country full of barbed wire and broken bottles by a pack of stag-hounds. Life is mean and poor without it; for, to humans and non-humans alike, sport, as the same nobleman expressed it, is "the gift of God."

But the sportsman can be very "slim" when hard pressed in controversy by his implacable pursuers, and among his many devices for confusing the issue, the most subtle, perhaps, is the metaphysical argument which pleads that it is better for the animals to be bred and killed in sport than not to be bred at all, and that it is to the "preservation" which sport affords that certain species owe their escape from extinction. Mr. R. A. Sanders, late Master of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, has thus written of the stag (Nineteenth Century, August, 1908):

"He has lived a life of luxury for years, and has a bad half-hour at the end. From his point of view surely the pleasure predominates over the pain. For if it were not for the hunting, he would not exist at all."

When a Bill was introduced in Parliament in 1883 for the prohibition of the cruel sport of pigeon-shooting, it was opposed by Sir Herbert Maxwell on the ground that a pigeon would rather accept life, "under the condition of his life being a short and happy one, violently terminated," than not be brought into existence; and the same sportsman has since stated, as a "salient paradox," that one who takes delight in pursuing and slaying wild animals may claim to rank among their best friends. It escaped his notice, as it escapes the notice of all who seek refuge in this amusing piece of sophistry, that it is beyond our power to ascertain the feelings or the preferences of a pigeon, or of any other being, before he is in existence; what we have to deal with is the sentience of animals that already exist.

And as for the contention that animals are "preserved" by sport, it is sufficient to point out that it rests on a mental confusion between the individual animal and the species. It would be little comfort to the individual fox who is torn to pieces by the hounds to know, if he could know, that his species is preserved by his tormentors, and that the same process of death-dealing will thus be perpetuated. When it is asserted that but for fox-hunting the fox would have been exterminated in England like the wolf, the answer of course is that of the two methods extermination is far the more merciful. Can it be pretended that it would have been kinder to wolves to keep a number alive in order that sportsmen might for ever pursue and break them up?

And, really, if it is so kind to animals to preserve them that they may be worried with hounds, we ought to feel some compunction at having allowed the humane old sport of bear-baiting to be abolished; for, according to the same "salient paradox," the bear-baiter was Bruin’s best friend. It is sad to think that there used to be bears in many an English village where now they are never seen!

It is for the fox, perhaps, that the sportsman’s solicitude is most touching and most characteristic. "If we stay fox-hunting," it has been said, "foxes will die far more brutal deaths in cruel vermin traps, until there are none left to die." How tender, how considerate, is this disinterested regard for the welfare of the hunted animal! The merciful sportsman steps in to save a noxious species from extinction, and in return for such "preservation" demands that the grateful fox shall be hunted and worried and dismembered for the amusement of his gentle benefactor. But are not our fox-hunting friends just a trifle too clever in making, at one and the same time, two quite incompatible and contradictory claims for their beloved profession—first, that it saves the fox from extermination; and, secondly, that it rids the country-side of a very mischievous animal? "For six good months," says the Sportsman, "he is allowed to frolic at his ease, with all his poultry-bills paid for him." The argument here is that there can be no cruelty in fox-hunting, because the fox is preserved; but, in that case, what about the following defence of fox-hunting by the editor of the "Badminton Library"? "The sentimentalist," he says, "does not consider those other tragedies for which the fox is responsible—the rabbits, leverets, poultry, and game birds that he devours daily. The death of a fox is indeed the salvation of much life."

So the farmer is to be grateful to the fox-hunter because the fox is killed, and the fox himself is to be grateful to the same person because he is not killed! It is obvious that the sporting folk cannot have it both ways; they cannot take credit for the destruction of a pest and also for preventing that pest being exterminated by the injured farmer. Let them choose one of the alternative arguments and keep to it.

"Hark ye, then, whose profession or pastime is killing!
To dispel your benignant illusions I’m loth;
But be one or the other, my double-faced brother—
Be saviour or slayer—you cannot be both!"

The more one considers it, one cannot but smile at the sportsman’s "love" for the animals whom he so persecutes and worries. Tom Tulliver, we remember, was described by George Eliot as "fond of animals—fond, that is, of throwing stones at them"; and so it is with this affection of the sportsman’s. "What name should we bestow," says an old writer, "on a superior being who, without provocation or advantage, should continue from day to day, void of all pity or remorse, to torment mankind for diversion, and at the same time endeavour with the utmost care to preserve their lives and to propagate their species in order to increase the number of victims devoted to his malevolence, and be delighted in proportion to the miseries which he occasioned? I say, what name detestable enough could we find for such a being? Yet if we impartially consider the case, we must acknowledge that, with regard to the inferior animals, just such a being is the sportsman."


Such, then, are the arguments which are advanced in all seriousness, and without a suspicion of twinkle of humour, to prove the blood-sports are a benefit to mankind and to the lower races alike. But before concluding I must mention one other piece of reasoning which is as amusing as any specimen of sportsman’s logic—the "truth the specialist" fallacy, which asserts that none but sportsmen can fairly pass judgement on sport. For example, when a memorial was presented to a former Prime Minister against the Royal Buckhounds, a certain paper gravely remarked that "what proportion of the protesting gentlemen had ever been on horseback, it was not easy to determine." The assumption, it will be seen, is that when any cruel practice is arraigned before public opinion, we are not merely to trust the specialist on technical matters that rightly lie within his ken, but we are to let him decide the wider ethical issues, on which, being no more than human, he is certain to have the strongest professional prejudice. It is an argument worthy of the Sublime Porte itself.

In like manner Lord Ribblesdale, when defending stag-hunting in his book on "The Queen’s Hounds," expressed the sportsman’s case as follows: "Most people will agree that conclusions founded on practice must always have a slight pull when placed in the scales with conclusions based upon theory, hearsay, or conjecture—even granting the fullest credit for sincerity and bona fides to the opponents of stag-hunting."

Now, it is, of course, absurd to represent the ethical objections to sport as "based upon theory, hearsay, or conjecture," for the methods of sportsmen are well known and beyond dispute, and many of those who most strongly condemn such practices have been sportsmen themselves and are thoroughly conversant with the facts. But what I wish to point out is that Lord Ribblesdale’s description of the sportsman’s defence of sport as "a conclusion founded on practice" might just as logically applied to the criminal’s defence of crime. To invoke the judgement of an expert on the morality of a practice in which he is professionally interested is an error similar to that of setting the cat to watch the cream.

On the whole, it is not surprising that the sportsman who can devise no cleverer modes of escape from his humanitarian pursuers than the sophisms above mentioned is already being brought to bay, and stands in imminent danger of being, controversially, "broken up." Indeed, considering the nature of the argument adduced in its favour, one is inclined to think that sport must be not only cruel to the victims of the chase, but ruinous to the mental capacity of the gentlemen who indulge in it. It can hardly be doubted that the ludicrous aspect of modern sport will more and more present itself to those who possess the sense of humour: and we may even hope that the poverty-stricken caricaturists of our comic papers will some day relinquish their threadbare jokes over the blunders of the hunting-field and the shooting-box, to discover that the subject of sport is rich in another kind of comedy—the essential silliness of the habit itself, and the crass absurdity of the arguments put forward by its apologists.

Published: The Humanitarian League, London, 1906