So, election time is here again, the time when big issues such as the economy, the future of the NHS, taxation, immigration and the like are all thrown into the melting pot and packaged up into headlines and soundbites that try to appeal to each and every one of us. But, there's another contentious issue that affects hardly anyone, yet apparently 'divides the nation'.... fox hunting.
But, with fox hunting, it's not all what it seems, and that's why today sees the launch of a controversial new advertising campaign from animal welfare charity IFAW. 'The Sly Ones' campaign aims to highlight that 10 years since the ban on hunting with hounds, foxes are still being hunted and it's high time to strengthen the Hunting Act.
With just around 300 active hunt groups, involving roughly 50 people each, we're talking just 15,000 people at any one time taking part in hunting - a miniscule 0.03% of the UK population! When you think that home games at Manchester United average over 75,000 people, and that numerous polls have shown that around 80% of the public are against fox hunting and want to keep the ban in place, no matter where they are from, the fight to keep fox hunting seems all the more strange.
So why then, election after election, do the Conservatives always pledge to attempt to repeal the Hunting Act? Why does a group called Vote OK (run by pop star Bryan Ferry's son Otis Ferry), offer pro-hunt candidates an army of free volunteer canvassers (and far more than just canvassing if rumours are true) if they promise to vote for repeal of the Hunting Act? And why oh why does anyone listen to the continuous pro-hunt spin of the Countryside Alliance about hunting being good for foxes, being an effective form of pest control, an irreversible tradition and a God-given right for those 0.03% of our population who want to challenge or disobey the nation's laws?
The answer is simple - because the rural vote is important, and the rural lobby are one of the most powerful there are. Plus, to their credit the rural lobby are certainly good at what they do.
With regards to other parties, the Conservatives are out of kilter when it comes to their call for a repeal of the Hunting Act. Labour wants to defend the ban on hunting with dogs, the Lib Dems and UKIP don't even bring it up, the Greens want the Act strengthened and the SNP say they oppose hunting as an inhumane practice with no place in modern Scotland. What is interesting though, and always worth bearing in mind, is that many individual candidates go further than their own parties in their support for animal welfare, including an increasing number of anti-hunt Tories.
The current law, the Hunting Act 2004, is good but it isn't being treated in the spirit in which it was designed. It is being purposely manipulated by people hell bent on breaking the law in order to have their 'fun' by pursuing and ideally killing a fox or two. Concepts such as 'trail hunting', created after the Act came into force, do nothing more than act as a mask and a false alibi for old fashioned pre-ban hunting, and as a result of all of the above, charities like IFAW are finding the law increasingly difficult to help enforce.
Even before IFAW's new advert was launched, IFAW was accused of playing to class stereotypes, but the honest truth is this isn't about class - it is simply about abiding by a law which was put in place to protect our native British wildlife - a law, just like any law, that must be abided by and respected by all.
The changes IFAW is pursuing are simple and logical - and they bring back the spirit of the Act:
• The introduction of a recklessness clause to prevent 'trail hunting' from being used as a false alibi;
• The removal of the 'observation and research' exemption, which has been abused by stag hunts to avoid prosecution for illegal hunting;
• An increase in the penalty for illegal hunting to include custodial sentences, in line with other wildlife crime legislation.
Only with these changes can we end the sly abuses of the Hunting Act.