29/07/2015 08:01 BST | Updated 28/07/2016 06:59 BST

Fox-Hunting Ban: What Makes Foxes So Special?

Earlier this month the Prime Minister saw his plans to relax the ban on fox-hunting scatter to the four winds as if themselves hounded by a pack of frenzied beagles. With a recent poll revealing that only 26% of Britons would support the reintroduction, and the SNP vowing to oppose it regardless of British opinion, it looks like Cameron will have to take up synchronised swimming instead.

[Right: a fox-hunter in action, by Beau Considine]

The foxes are in any case doomed: prior to 2004's embargo, fox-hunting culminated with the pack descending upon its quarry in a bloody display of teeth and claws, destroying the fox and leaving nothing by the way of its remains. Nowadays, however, it's deemed a great deal more ethical to instead lure the fox into open sight, where the creature may reap the rewards of human mercy in the form of a bullet. Whether or not this is truly the ethical alternative--and I don't think that it is--the Hunting Act is posed by activists as a moral bulwark set between humanity and the mindless bloodlust to which we are sometimes partial.

It doesn't take a moral philosopher to see the issues tied up with traditional fox-hunting: the fox is chased for several hours to the point of exhaustion, by which time it can no longer afford a spell of fatigue and is subsequently torn apart by its pursuers. It's a grisly spectacle, and one thought by most to contend with the modern notion of humane slaughter. Perhaps more pertinent, though, is the lack of necessity to this canine carnage: we neither eat the fox nor wear its fur; hunting it is an act of sport, of British culture, and certainly not one of survival. And thus the case against it is made: death and suffering are facts of life, but to provoke either without necessity is morally wrong.

As an isolated argument, this can be quite powerful. It acknowledges the inevitability of animal casualties without branding their death an act evil, giving us the freedom to work as moral agents from within our omnivorous confines. Traditional fox-hunting causes a great deal of unnecessary suffering, and it should as a result be banned. That's simple enough. But what if we consider this more broadly, as we should any moral-political theory?

A brief look at our everyday lives reveals the idiosyncrasy of these grand moral standards. Less than 1% of Britons are vegan, which means more than 99% of us are involved in an industry which, somewhere down the line, provokes animal suffering unnecessarily. The government recently cracked down on intensive farming, but this doesn't mean the meat and dairy industries are suddenly sporting halos. Chickens still live their lives in tiny cages; cows are still crippled by selective breeding; and pigs still die horribly as a result of sloppy slaughter. Even the free-range shoppers among us are in trouble, with the living conditions of 'ethical' farming still failing to offer anything but tokenism at a premium fee. It would seem unless you're spending half your food budget on animal products from your local farmers' market, you're roaming pretty questionable moral territory.

[Above: a drove of pigs after slaughter, by Watershed Post]

What about the unnecessary suffering of these animals, then? The wild lifestyle of the common fox seems rather luxurious beside that of the hen whose life is spent in a cage barely larger than an A4 piece of paper. And that's assuming the fox spends its final moments fleeing a ravenous pack of dogs. What is it about fox-hunting that pulls at our heartstrings but leaves cheap eggs and processed meat unquestioned? What about the chickens, cows, pigs, sheep, fish, turkeys, ducks, quail, and goats we subject to barbarism every day?

This is where we consider the necessity of their death and suffering. We are human beings, after all, and we have as such been farming our beastly neighbours for more than ten thousand years. But how much do we really need to consume vast amounts of meat and dairy every day? On average, an omnivore who lives to the age of eighty will in their lifetime eat 11 cows, 27 pigs, 2,400 chickens, and 4,500 fish. Which isn't to mention the 17 gallons of milk, 2 kilograms of butter, and 6 kilograms of cheese they and every non-vegan will consume each year. Even if we really did require this enormity of animal products to sustain a varied diet--and it's generally agreed that we don't--it's our strange sense of entitlement to this banquet that's the problem: we demand titanic quantities of meat, dairy and eggs at very low prices because we insist on including them in every meal. The fact of the matter is we eat a lot of meat and dairy because we like it, not because it's necessary; the cheeseburger is no less a product of needless cruelty than a fox savaged by dogs. And if it's possible to cut down on these things, shouldn't we do so according to our aforementioned argument?

So what's left to justify our defence of the fox despite our support of an industry just as cruel and only marginally more necessary? As demonstrated by those who opposed Cameron's plans, the thrust of this project is undoubtedly an emotional one. Foxes are fluffy and have the look of something that'd enjoy a cuddle, and it's this cuteness that protects it from the cruelty we inflict upon pretty much everything else that walks the earth. And this is fine when taken as an individual ethic--if you don't want to hunt foxes then don't--but we shouldn't give an emotive argument the weight of a credible moral principle. 'I have a personal affinity with foxes' isn't a statement fit for serious moral or political consideration; it's a defence adequate only in defending one's own preference not to kill them. Trying to defend animal welfare by opposing fox-hunting alone is like trying to defend human rights whilst owning a bunch of slaves: it's ignorant, lazy, and incredibly stupid.

[Above: a fox, by Peter Trimming]

In sum, the purpose of this article isn't to convert Britain to veganism--I eat cheese like a drunk and recently-divorced Parisian--it's to call out those 'animal activists' who oppose fox-hunting with a larder full of fish fingers and dodgy eggs. There's nothing worse than an advocate who supports a cause until it actually affects them; and frankly, unless you're either a vegan or a very careful shopper, you may as well invest in a pack of hounds and a decent saddle. I'd gladly take a rusty shovel to the next fox I see if it'd save a day's worth of pigs from slaughter--and if these 'activists' had half as much sense as they do frozen chickens, they would too.