The Huntsman at Bay

The Huntsman at Bay

The extraordinary doings that have been witnessed of late in several hunting districts are a sign, if not of a change in public opinion, as some think, on the subject of certain “blood-sports,” at least of a wave of feeling too strong to be overlooked. When a number of landowners close their properties to the chase, whether of the wild stag or the fox; when farmers begin to shoot not foxes only, but, as in a recent case, a trespassing hound; when public meetings of protest against hunting are held amid scenes of wild excitement in places where such views have never before found open expression; and when the columns of great newspapers like the Manchester Guardian are filled with correspondence and discussion on the question that is at issue, it is evident that something has been happening in the minds of men. What that something is, it is my purpose in the following article to make plain. Its title, The Huntsman at Bay, is a brief and quite correct description of the situation that has thus suddenly arisen: for it is the votaries of the sport who are now on the defence and seeking to justify their pastime.

But first let it be pointed out that the suddenness of the change is in seeming rather than in reality, and that the present outburst represents not so much a new protest against cruelty in sport as one which has for many years been pent up, and struggling to find adequate utterance. The opportunity has come at last through certain gradual changes in the habits, as well as in the feelings of our people; and the surprise which the sportsmen apparently feel at finding the situation thus reversed, and themselves filling the role of the hunted no less than of the hunter, is a proof that in their previous confidence they had not sufficiently studied the signs of the times. A shrewd forecast might have warned them, as far back as ten or twenty years ago, of the agitation that was to come.

It is at once obvious from a reading of the debates, whether in the speeches delivered at public meetings, or in newspaper correspondence, that sheer misunderstanding plays a large part in such encounters. In the Rugby Advertiser, for example, of December 14, 1928, there were no fewer than seven columns of controversy, from which the main fact that emerges is that the hunting folk did not clearly apprehend, and did not try to apprehend, the charge that their opponents were bringing against them. This is made abundantly clear both by the questions which they asked and by the Advertiser’s headings, e.g., “Lively scenes at blood-sports meeting,” “Hunting cries, and ‘John Peel,’ interrupt speakers”; and so forth. I think therefore, I may safely assume that whether my own views, which are those common to humanitarians, commend themselves, or do not commend themselves, to the majority of readers, nothing but advantages can result if I state beyond the possibility of misconception what those views are. I write as a partisan, but as one who would be as unwilling to act unfairly to the sportsmen as to take part in any of the sports which are under review.

The very first misapprehension that needs to be removed is the notion, which often embitters controversies, that a personal charge of cruelty is brought against men who hunt. It cannot be too clearly stated that this is a mistake. What is challenged as cruel is the practice of hunting animals to death, when they might be killed, if it be necessary to kill them, in a more merciful way: it is taken for granted that sportsmen who still adhere to that practice do so in belief that it is not cruel, or because custom and usage have prevented them from fully envisaging the facts. Our condemnation of those pastimes in which men seek amusement from the death or torture of animals lies in the fact that they are unnecessary, out of date, a relic of barbarous habits which are an anachronism in a so-called civilized age. The modern blood-sportsman may be a most amiable person in other departments of life, but, qua sportsman, he is still in the position of the savage, without the savage’s excuse. That is what is urged against hunting in all its forms; and now let me speak of the arguments by which the chase is defended.

Perhaps the commonest of these assertions is the plea that the hunted animals are themselves by nature “destructive.” Take the following extract from a letter addressed by Lord Tavistock to the Manchester Guardian of December 3, 1928:—

The fatal weakness in the protests of nearly all humanitarians who object to blood sports is that they seem blissfully ignorant of the destructive propensities of the animals whose cause they champion, and quite unable to suggest a practicable means, human nature being what it is at present, of keeping their numbers in check while inflicting little or no suffering. A red deer, for example, is a voracious and destructive devourer of both crops and plantations, and the havoc even a few can cause must be seen to be believed. It is also a regular breeder, and in England has no natural enemies. Unless killed down pretty hard it would quickly eat the farmers of Devon out of house and home, and ruin the young plantations that are not expensively fenced.

Now to say that humanitarians seem “blissfully ignorant” of such well-known facts is really not a helpful contribution to the controversy; for it has again and again been pointed out that destructive animals except in cases where for their beauty or any other cause it is deemed worth while to preserve them, should be put out of existence as painlessly as possible. The farmers of Devon may be trusted to see to it that they themselves are not eaten “out of house and home” by the red deer; and even if shooting were a less humane method than hunting (which is far from being the fact), it would still be much humane to exterminate the herds once for all in that manner, than to keep them, generation after generation, to be hunted and worried to death by the methods that are now known only too well. When, therefore, Lord Tavistock, after assuming the ignorance of “nearly all humanitarians” about a matter of which they are fully as cognisant as himself, goes on to liken them to the Puritans who objected to bull-baiting, “not because it gave pain to the bull, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators,” I think he somewhat oversteps the bounds of courteous discussion. And, after all, the ultimate question as to bull-baiting is this: Was it cruel? Would anyone wish to re-introduce it? Certainly Lord Tavistock would not wish anything of the sort; and for that reason it seems unwise on his part to suggest a comparison with stag-hunting.

A very similar defence of fox-hunting was advanced by a correspondent of the Rugby Advertiser. The fox, we were told, is a destructive animal, and to shoot is more cruel than to hunt him, because he might escape with two broken legs and so die of starvation! To avoid this possible contingency, it seems we must forever maintain a system of preserving, and even of importing foxes, in order to pursue and break them up with hounds. This sort of thing is gravely written, in a tone which indicates a belief that it is an original and impressive argument which the heedless and emotional humanitarian has hitherto overlooked! Its absurdity has of course been repeatedly pointed out, and its frequent repetition only serves to show that the real gravamen of the objections to hunting have not yet been squarely faced.

In the same category must be classed the many references to “a law of rapine” in nature. For first, it is not a fact that kindliness and sociability are non-existent among the lower races, where co-operation is at least as much as a law of life as competition; and secondly, even if it were true, it would have no bearing on the morality of sport. For why should we base human ethics on animal conduct? Why imitate the predatory rather than the sociable races? And finally, because some animals kill for food, why should we kill for pleasure?

At this point I will quote, without comment, the opinion of a great sportsman, as expressed in a letter which I received from Mr. F. C. Selous as long ago as 1905:—

I beg to thank you for your letter and pamphlet. At heart I think I am very much in agreement with you, and I regard pigeon-shooting, rabbit-coursing with whippets, and tame stag hunting, as degraded forms of amusement from which every element of fair play has been excluded. I led for more than twenty years the life of a primitive savage, constantly wandering over vast areas of wild country in search of game. I killed elephants, not for sport (though elephant-hunting is most exciting and offers very dangerous work), but to get ivory to pay my way, and great numbers of buffaloes, antelopes, etc., for food for myself and my native followers. . . .

Now, seeing that the taking of life is part of the scheme of creation, and that large numbers of human beings are just as dependent for their substance on the killing of animals as are all classes of predatory beasts, birds and fishes, I cannot think that the taking of life for a useful or necessary purpose can be a sin against the spirit of the inscrutable, impossible-to-be-understood power that created the Universe, and this world on which have been evolved so many waves of life since the beginning of time. However, as man has become more cultivated, a humanitarian sense has been slowly evolved and strengthened in him, which, although it is apparently wanting in nature itself, is yet caused by the working of a natural law.

This sense leads all thinking men to condemn cruelty; and in time no doubt all forms of sport which cause pain and death to beast, bird, or fish, will be condemned by public opinion. When travelling in a wild country where it is really necessary to kill animals for food, I have never had any qualms of conscience about killing game. I certainly enjoyed the excitement of hunting for, and getting within shot of them, but I have never killed animals for pure sport, or for the mere sake of killing. There is, however, much to condemn in all artificial forms of sport; and I understand all the arguments against such practices, and I often think that as I condemn pigeon-shooting from traps I might go a little further and not accept any more invitations to shoot pheasants which have been artificially reared to be shot for sport. After reading your pamphlet, I certainly think it would be better to substitute drag-hunting for the pursuit and killing of a hare. To see one of these animals worried and torn by a pack of dogs is not an edifying sight for a young boy.

In conclusion, I may tell you that I am very sympathetic to animals. Dogs, cats, baboons and monkeys always make friends with me at once. Pray excuse this long rambling letter.

Let me know speak of the amiable pretext (for it is no more than that) from which many sportsmen seem to derive a sort of comfort, that such “preservation” as is afforded to hunted animals is a “kindness,” as saving them from extinction, and that it is, in fact “better for the animals themselves” to live and be hunted than not to be born at all. How a non-existent animal can be benefited by being brought to birth is a queer speculation on which I will not now embark; but it is difficult not to smile at such irrelevancies as the following taken from a defence of hunting by a former Master of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds:—

He is killed with as much speed and humanity as possible. 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.

But really, if it is so kind to preserve stags for hunting, ought we not to feel some compunction at having allowed the old sport of bear-baiting to die out? Have we not been guilty of an unkindness to the bears, who now, for lack of such opportunity, do not exist at all?

But nothing, perhaps, more clearly shows the haziness of the notions under which many sportsmen still labour than the questions which they put to their accusers at the public meetings of which I have spoken. Thus we find it recorded that, at the Rugby debate, one gentleman wittily inquired whether warm-blooded animals like the rat were to be protected from pursuit; while another exclaimed: “May I ask why you don’t include steeplechasing?” And yet another, in a Press letter, is anxious to know: “Which is the more cruel, to hunt the fox, or to work a draught-horse?” Questions about shooting and fishing are frequent, but for the sake of brevity and directness I will not deal with them here. For surely it is not difficult to understand that in the matter of sport, as in all others, the reform of the worst abuses must necessary precede the rest; everything cannot be done at once; and it is futile to offer as an excuse for one form of cruelty (if cruelty there be) that another is equally bad. No defence can be conceived in a less rational spirit than that which seeks merely to parry or evade the issue. To what extravagance an apologist of blood-sports may be carried is seen in a theory put forward, as I once heard, by a clergyman, who argued that as it is necessary to take life, and as what is necessary becomes a duty, it is right as far as possible to make a pleasure of one’s duties, and therefore—but the conclusion is plain!

No incident of the hunting field—not even the cutting of the stag’s throat, of the “breaking up” of the fox or hare—has caused greater disgust than what is called the “blooding” of children. Imagine a front-page illustration in a newspaper, showing a little child with blood-daubed cheeks, holding up a dead hare for the hounds, while a number of ladies and gentlemen smile approval in the rear! I speak of an actual case, from which the names are omitted.

It is, as I have shown, the cruelty of hunting that furnishes the chief argument for its discontinuance; but there are, of course, various other social and economic reasons which combine powerfully with the humanitarian one. The farmers are up in arms. To plead that these sports “give employment” is useless; for they produce no return at all. They are nothing but expenditure, with the additional disadvantage that they set able-bodied men to do work which, as regards society, is of no value. The huntsman is, in fact, a mere encumbrance on the community, wasting his own time, and that of those who serve him, in an unproductive as well as a cruel employment.

To conclude: the facts of blood-sports are notorious; they stare one in the face in every part of the land, and are recorded beyond denial by the sportsmen themselves: the only question at issue is how those facts are to be regarded. The ultimate verdict will be given not by the interested parties whose practices are arraigned, but by that force of public opinion which put down the brutalities of bull and bear-baiting, in spite of much the same arguments as those by which stag-hunting and fox-hunting are now being defended. It is to an educated public conscience, not to the folk who still find pleasure in killing, that the appeal is made; and for their own sakes, no less than that of others, it would be well if they frankly recognized what cannot be permanently evaded. The Huntsman, in brief, is at bay. He, of all persons, ought to be aware that in such a situation it is useless to shut one’s eyes to facts.

Henry S. Salt

The New Adelphi, Vol. 2 No. 3, June 1929