The words "Lions, Christians, snowballs and hell" came to mind when I first learnt that I'd been invited to debate foxhunting with the Countryside Alliance at the Game Fair at the end of July.
The Game Fair is the biggest "country sports event" in the UK and regularly attracts around 150,000 visitors over three days. As far as the League Against Cruel Sports is concerned, you would definitely think it to be "enemy territory".
But there again, it's no good just preaching to the converted so it was agreed that I should go and fly the good flag and face the beast in its lair...
The day was fine and the Game Fair turns out to be an enormous outdoor shopping mall with retailers from every walk of life. But there again, you don't usually find "Europe's longest shooting line" of people firing off guns in your average shopping mall.
The event was in the Game Fair Theatre in the middle of the Fair. The debate was between pro hunting ban organisations Hounds Off and the League whilst the anti hunting ban organizations were represented by the Countryside Alliance and the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management.
The (inaccurate) premise for the debate was that "English votes for English laws means a vote on repealing the Hunting Act will now likely happen".
The two anti ban representatives, Jim Barrington and Dr Lewis Thomas ran through what felt like old, tired and sometimes irrelevant arguments about why it should again be made legal to encourage packs of hounds to chase and kill wild mammals across the countryside.
Joe Hashman from Hounds Off made an impassioned plea and set the pro ban tone by opening his remarks saying "I've known enough of you over the years to realize that many of you are decent human beings. I know you love your families, your animals and your countryside. So, someone like me who feels profoundly upset by the suffering inflicted upon wild animals when being hunted by hounds, simply can't understand how you can't feel it too."
Foy my part, I explained that I would not be looking at the tired old arguments but at the political reality we presently face.
I pointed out that Fox hunting was banned 12 years ago and that ban has survived a Conservative Coalition Government and is surviving a Conservative Government. Polling shows that 84% of population have remained opposed to fox hunting for at least the past 15 years and that even seven out of ten people who vote Conservative don't want the ban lifted.
As the Director of League Scotland, I reminded the audience that the Scottish Government have commissioned an independent review of Scottish hunting legislation and have committed to strengthen the law if necessary. This has led Scottish MPs to say they would vote to stop any attempt to bring back hunting in England and Wales.
As for the spectre of English Votes for English Laws being some kind of pro hunting cavalry coming over the hillside I simply quoted Countryside alliance CEO Tim Bonner who on 31 March 2016 blogged: "The answer, I am afraid, is that those new rules are a misnomer, they do not restrict any MPs from voting on any Statutory Instrument which amends existing legislation, nor do they stop any MP from voting on the crucial final stages of any new legislation."
I then went on to quote the Independent from 15 July 2016 where a Number 10 spokesperson told an official briefing of journalists that bringing back fox hunting was unlikely to be a priority for the new Prime Minister. She said, "I think there is plenty of government business at the top of the agenda at the moment...so I don't think fox hunting is top of the in-tray."
In fact, MPs have had plenty of spare parliamentary time in recent years - with the Government bringing forward little legislation for fear of defeat on its slim majority. The truth of the matter on the hunting issue is that there are over 50 Tory MPs who are on record as supporting the hunting ban.
I asked the question: "Does anyone think it in the Conservative's interest to be the party that bought back a blood sport into the 21st century?" and I suggested that it's time to face facts - encouraging packs of hounds to legally chase and kill wild mammals across the countryside is a thing of the past.
Not wanting to dispirit the audience entirely, I reminded them that it is not illegal to meet friends and associates on horse-back dressed up in age old traditional pageantry. Neither is it illegal to watch the skill and dexterity of a huntsman controlling upwards of 40 hounds as he or she casts them expertly about the countryside. Drag hunting provides everything in a day's hunting except the chase and kill and It's the chase and the kill that I, and the vast majority of people in the UK, object to.
Many in the audience knew about trail hunting and how it's like drag hunting except that it uses a fox based scent rather than an artificial scent such as aniseed. But that scent can invite "accidents"...
Trail hunting was said to be needed to ensure that the hounds were still trained to follow foxes for when the ban was repealed, but that was over 12 years ago. Now trail hunting is dangerous - it carries the risk of prosecution if the courts don't agree the hounds chased a fox "by accident". I reminded them that one judge described Trail Hunting as "cynical subterfuge" when he found a hunt guilty of illegally hunting foxes.
I concluded by saying that drag hunting is the future and I appealed for us not to continue this seemingly endless squabbling about the rights and wrongs of fox hunting. It was banned and will remain so and likely be strengthened, at least, in Scotland. If hunts converted to legitimate drag hunting, the League would be able to concentrate on its new campaign to end dog fighting in the UK and I hoped that the people in the Game Fair Theatre would join the League in that campaign.
Joe Hashman and I were politely received by an audience that was clearly against the hunting ban. At the end of day though, about 150,000 people went to the Game Fair and less than a hundred came to the Fox Hunting debate. The debate has moved on and so should we all.Suggest a correction