Fox hunting: a review of the evidence
The hunting of foxes is back on the table as the UK's Conservative-majority government hopes to bring back the controversial country sport. Their argument for doing so is based on the perceived ineffectiveness of the current law. At the moment in England and Wales, the hunting of foxes can be done legally but with only two hounds, which are used to 'flush' the fox out of hiding so that it can be shot. Groups such as The Countryside Alliance have always maintained that fox hunting is an essential means of pest management and that the current law makes it too difficult, claiming that two dogs is not enough to find a fox in a large area. The new bill, which has in fact been postponed due to the Scottish National Party's recent decision to oppose it, intends to scrap the two hound limit to improve the effectiveness of the hunt as a means of pest management.
This is what they say, but during the debate there has been a stark lack of evidence used to support the claims that fox hunting actually helps to keep foxes from running amok. A giant pack of hounds is undoubtedly a more effective means of hunting foxes compared with having two, but the question still remains about the role of the hunt in general as a means of pest control.
To investigate this, let's start off in Wiltshire. At the turn of millennium, Sandra Baker and David MacDonald from the University of Oxford
published the results from a series of questionnaires of over 200 local farmers and 13 interviews with Wiltshire's Masters of Pack Hounds in the Journal of Rural Studies. These questions centred around whether or not farmers believed foxes were pests and on the pest control methods that were in use. Only a third of farmers in this area regarded foxes as pests and far fewer believed foxes were responsible for domestic livestock loss. Those that did were more likely to own chickens, which the majority farmed domestically and non-commercially. In terms of control, more foxes were shot by farmers themselves in areas where there were concerns for farmed livestock than in areas of the county where the hunt occurred, with evidence suggesting that the hunt contributed to as little as 5% of fox deaths in the county. Most interesting of all, the areas where fox hunts tended to take place were not those in which the fox was considered to be a pest, but in those in which the landscape favoured the accessibility for horses and presented fewer challenges. Farmers in this area concluded that fox hunting was recreation first and pest management second.
Another survey, this time by Stephen Harris and colleagues from the Universities of Bristol and York published in 2003, also failed to find a link between areas where foxes were considered to be pests and where fox hunting tended to take place. This survey also highlighted the general public's opinion that hunting foxes with dogs was among the least acceptable methods of pest control presented. Most practitioners, and indeed the authors of this paper, concluded that a ban on fox hunting would have a minimal impact on the maintenance of foxes as pests.
Whilst these studies provide an insight into why and where fox hunting is taking place, the conclusion that a ban on fox hunting wouldn't have an effect on fox numbers is purely speculative. Such a conclusion could only be drawn from an experimental removal of fox hunting.
In 2001, the unfortunate and devastating outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease initiated a temporary and total ban on fox hunting from February through to the December. This provided scientists with a rare opportunity to measure the changes in fox numbers during a period with no fox hunting. Charlotte Webbon, Stephen Harris and Philip Baker from the University of Bristol,
looked at changes in fox numbers based on the amount of their poo at 160 sites up and down the country, before and towards the end of the temporary ban. They then looked for a relationship between the difference in fox numbers in an area and the decrease in fox hunting pressure which that area experienced during the ban, which was greatest in South West England where hunting is most common. What they found was that whilst there were the sorts of slight differences between individual sites that you might expect from wild environments, on the whole, in every region of the UK, far from the surge predicted by pro-hunting groups, there was no change at all in fox numbers and even slight declines in some areas.
The authors of this paper make reference to the number of foxes in the UK and their breeding rates to suggest that in order to keep the number of foxes from increasing, you would need an annual death rate of around 64%. The evidence from their research would suggest that pest management in the form of fox hunting with dogs does not make a significant contribution towards this figure of 64%.
There is evidence to suggest that, away from the actual hunting of foxes, the wider actions of the groups that take part in fox hunts can be beneficial for the local environment.
A 2006 survey of hunting groups found that wildlife management activities such as planting trees and perimeter management actually boosted plant and insect diversity. These actions are often overlooked in the fox hunting debate, however their limitation by the current hunting restrictions is probably unlikely and therefore uninfluenced by the new proposals.
The current debate on whether or not to allow an unlimited number of dogs during fox hunting is entirely based on the practise's efficiency in acting as, in the words of the Countryside Alliance, "a legal wildlife management service". Whilst these studies are in no way conclusive, they do raise the question as to what extent the hunting of foxes with dogs is a legitimate means of pest control, as well as also bringing into question how much of a rural pest the fox even is. It's important to remember that this is not a question of wildlife management. The way in which modern humans have changed our environment, particularly in the UK with the removal of most top predators, has created a need to maintain wild populations at reasonable levels to prevent overpopulation, a process that is damaging to a species and the environment around it. There are other elements to the debate, such as fox welfare and 'class war', but this current government proposal is a simple question of how valuable fox hunting with dogs is at contributing to wildlife management.