For the last six years I have campaigned against an absurd condition in the Hunting Act which bans my use of dogs to manage the wild deer on my farm at Whippenscott in North Devon unless I shoot them. The part of Devon where I live is home to a fantastic herd of native red deer. If the herd is allowed to congregate in certain ecologically sensitive areas they can do serious damage both to bio diversity and to the productivity of my land.
I have developed a completely humane non lethal way of dealing with this problem. I simply take my pet dogs round my property on a regular basis. Deer are naturally scared of dogs whom they perceive as predators. When the dogs encounter the deer the deer run off occasionally briefly chased by the dogs.
If anyone has encountered a red deer stag up close they will know they can be dangerous animals. This is especially true in the rutting season when they are pumped up with testosterone. My dogs however are accustomed to herding livestock and they flush the deer in much the same way, they can also get into dense cover where the deer lie up and are naturally far better at searching for them than I am. To attempt to flush these deer without the dogs would be both dangerous and impractical.
I first became aware of the absurdity of the Hunting Act in relation to my activities back in 2004. I wrote to Defra explaining the situation. Initially they insisted that to 'chase away' the deer would be legal but they then quickly changed their tune and maintained that the deer in these circumstances would have to be shot. I attempted to enlist the help of animal welfare groups such as the RSPCA and the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS). Surely these bodies would oppose the senseless destruction of wildlife just to satisfy a badly thought out law? I was shocked to find out that this was not the case.
Eventually I took my case through the courts as one of the claimants in the human rights appeal against the Hunting Act. In this case which went all the way to the European Court the government backed by LACS and the RSPCA successfully argued the case for the deer I flush having to be shot.
Since this case the courts have confirmed the law several times. It is perfectly legal to chase wild deer out of cover with two dogs as long as the running animals are then gunned down. In one ruling obtained by LACS the court ruled that ten guns should be deployed so the entire herd has to be shot.
In my opinion slaughtering an entire herd of deer as it moves away from my two lovable collies seems like overkill. However if one follows the perverse twisted logic behind the Hunting Act it makes perfect sense. When the law was passed the then minister Alun Michael justified the requirement to kill flushed out deer as it "prevented the possibility of an extended chase". If ten deer are flushed out and only one is killed then of course there is still the possibility of one of the other nine being chased. Even if nine are killed the remaining deer might be chased. The only sure fire way to deploy lethal force to prevent any possibility of the deer being chased is to kill the lot. This is of course utter madness from the point of view of either wildlife management or animal welfare. Prior to the passage of the Hunting Act only one selected animal from the herd would have been killed by the stag hunt and it would have been shot at point blank range.
In my opinion there are alternative means to prevent dogs chasing flushed out deer which are preferable because they cause considerably less suffering. For example why not use dogs that won't chase them very far, call the dogs off once the deer have been flushed or have the dogs on leads so they will flush but not chase the deer?
I've put these options to the government, LACS and the RSPCA but they simply refuse to consider them. Are these organisations so wedded to the idea of senselessly destroying wildlife or is the real reason that they will not countenance non lethal alternatives a political one. That they cannot admit the obvious flaws in the Hunting Act? It could be down to the professional vanity of their Chairman John Cooper who was largely responsible for the law's incompetent mis-drafting. I have recently sensed the beginnings of a change of heart. In letters to my MP Nick Harvey both the current minister Jim Paice and his predecessor Jim Fitzpatrick were clearly voicing doubts about the law. It is indeed hard to believe that it could be so utterly stupid
I passionately believe in the use of non lethal means of wildlife management where possible. My farm is a model example as to how this can be done. Why should I not be allowed to continue? My dogs interact in a naturalistic way with the wildlife that mimics in some respects the lost and beneficial ecological role of wolves and other apex predators.
All this may seem rather academic were it not for a recent letter I have received from the ACPO lead on wildlife crime and Leicestershire chief constable. He tells me that not only am I breaking the Hunting Act by refusing to comply with the conditions for exempt hunting but I am doing so in a pre-meditated and 'aggravated manner'. He has contacted my local police force. I have to feel a little sympathy for the police. It is after all their duty to enforce the law. Ensuring the law make sense is meant to be the job of politicians.
I have also taken soundings on the method of deer management that the Hunting Act allows in lieu of my current technique. The International Fund for Animal Welfare clearly state that to shoot running deer would be cruel. I showed a video of deer being flushed and shot to a shooting journalist and he stated that it was 'pretty despicable stuff'. The only people I am aware of who have voiced support for such cruelty are LACS who stated in a parliamentary briefing in 2009 that the Hunting Act allowed for 'humane pest control'. However I believe their motivation is supporting such slaughter is highly dubious. In a completely hypocritical statement their last chief executive said that shooting free running badgers would be cruel because of the high risk of wounding. Deer running from dogs hop, leap and zig zag. There is a far higher risk of woundjng them so why is this not also cruel?
If using dogs to flush out deer and then shooting them is 'humane pest control' surely not shooting them is more humane as it hurts the animals less. It's not only the deer I am concerned for. Shooting so many animals in such a manner would be deeply upsetting to me.
It is simply not sporting to kill wildlife in this manner.
The simple fact is that what I do is not cruel in any way. Complying with the Hunting Act would be. Those who oppose the badger cull should also oppose the Hunting Act requiring me to kill deer and support my non lethal and humane means of dispersing them.
There is currently a golden opportunity to get the Hunting Act changed as David Cameron as called for a free vote on it. I very much hope that it is before the police finally take action against me. Until that point I shall continue proudly refusing to kill any wildlife on my property as I believe should be my right.