There they hide in the long grass. Waiting for their prey. Always ready to move. Telescopic lens at the ready. Their prey comes into sight. Closer and closer they skulk until within range. Out they spring, without warning, and begin to shoot. The prey stands no chance.

The scenario above was played out recently when two members of the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) shot video footage of a huntsman, Tony Wright, as he lead a hunt across the countryside. This video footage now forms the basis of a private prosecution brought by the LACS against Mr Wright under the terms of the Hunting Act 2004, introduced so as to ban the practice of hunting foxes with dogs (in England & Wales); and this case is the first to seriously test the law.

The fact of the matter is that this law was badly framed, with more holes in it than an old dart board (although I for one am extremely pleased that this is so). Since the law was passed it is estimated that there has been 25,000 days of hunting by 300 hunts, many of which have reported an increase in numbers and support from people giving a two-fingered salute to an evermore authoritarian government. What a beautiful illustration of good old British bloody-mindedness, a rare trait in these limp-wristed, guilt-ridden, politically correct times. There is good reason why this is the only serious case to go to court under the Act despite hunts being constantly monitored by animal rights nutters with bugger all better to do. Before the law was passed members of the pro-hunt Countryside Alliance had promised that there would be a host of “hunting martyrs” arrested for continuing to hunt regardless. However, they haven’t had much to worry about. As it turns out the Act is as loose as the panties on a cheap Bangkok hooker. In fact, the LACS is bringing this current case as a private action because the police figured that getting a conviction was highly unlikely. In fact, it has been widely reported that police forces in Britain have complained about the “impossibility” of enforcing the Act, since: (1) hunts take place over such a wide (and rural) area, (2) the Act contains a number of exceptions which hunters have fully exploited, and (3) the Act is full of loop-holes. But, when the thinking behind an Act is utterly flawed the practical outcome always suffers. This law came on the back of a surge of emotionalism and prejudice, and the sloppy logic and moral hypocrisy remains rampant.

The main line of argument in favour of the hunting ban was the welfare of animals, and this kind of argument will always find a ready home in the hearts of a largely fickle popular opinion. Who doesn’t have a soft spot for furry animals (Michael Moore excluded)? As a child I was myself very much the young animals rights extremist, and only a few years ago I toyed with the idea of vegetarianism, only to find that my palate over-ruled my feelings about animal killing, despite the pangs of conscience that would occasionally accompany the devouring of a huge steak fit for a puma.

Today, however, I am an unrepentant leather-wearing, animal product consuming, animal experiment supporting, meat-eater. This doesn’t make me a barbarian or a philistine, as some of the more extreme Fluffy Bunny Fascists hysterically shriek. In fact, my childhood obsession still has a small grip on me as I’m not totally untroubled by the thought of a cute furry animal being killed by savage hounds from hell. And, I’m certainly not the only person to entertain such emotions, a brute fact that animals charities are well aware of. Why else does most of the literature from animal charities contain picture after picture of cute furry animals gazing lovingly and pathetically at the camera, “please don’t kill me… I’m a helpless little seal pup…” In any event rationality must be our guide.

The leading argument of the anti-hunt lobby carries incredible emotional weight: hunting foxes with dogs is not essential and amounts to little other than conscious cruelty to a fox, who suffers the distress and terror of being chased and then the pain of dying (however brief that process is). To do this for “sport” is thus a brutal and barbaric activity with no place in the “civilised” modern world. I’m not surprised that this argument is the leading one, and I’m fairly sure that it has converted more people to the anti-hunt position than anything else. However, it is little more than the logical equivalent of a ghostly apparition. The ban on fox hunting with dogs has had a number of outcomes – but saving the lives of foxes and reducing cruelty are not amongst them. It is widely recognised by any one with functioning eyes and the will to see that foxes, to a great extent, are a pest to the countryside, destroying crops and killing farm animals. Foxes need to be controlled – not eliminated altogether – just controlled. If they aren’t hunted then they must be culled in some other way. How? The distinguished vet Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior stated that, “the alternatives [to hunting foxes with dogs] in many cases are certainly less welfare positive than hunting. Shooting, poisoning, trapping and other methods of control are much more insensitive.” A fox killed by dogs may experience the terror of the chase (although we have no access to the inner conscious world of a fox to confirm just to what extent this is the case), but when caught it dies in seconds, if that. A fox that is shot can lie dying for days. Poison ingested can make a fox violently ill without killing it for quite some time. Trapping is notoriously ineffective. When trapping fails to kill a fox, the animal can do itself untold damage in the struggle to get free. Thus, I think that the fact of the matter is clear to anyone with a mind that is half-open: fox numbers need to be controlled, and the alternatives to hunting with dogs are not less cruel or barbaric.

And thus when the veil is lifted we can see that this leading argument of the anti-hunt lobby is little more than a noxious pile of puke. However, the argument does help to uncover the moral hypocrisy of many of those who oppose fox hunting. I’ve lost count of the number of people spewing this argument out who are meat-eaters. And what do they make of the similar cruelty involved in many modern farming techniques? Are they sure that animal products they consume didn’t come from animals held in factory farms, in which their movement is greatly restricted, in horrendous conditions? Many animals that make their way onto supermarket shelves had a fairly unsavoury end themselves, and not every member of the anti-hunt herd is vegetarian. Their concern for the welfare of one animal is in tension with their disregard for many others. If they really had a beef with cruelty to animals then fox hunting with dogs is not by a mile the best place to begin. The only reason to do so is because foxes are far cuter than pigs, cows and chickens. Cue soppy eyes. Cue emotion over-riding reason.

The real reason why the Labour government introduced this law originally was pure class prejudice. A number of labour MP’s – most notably Kevin McNamara, Gerald Kaufman and Elliot Morley – explicitly stated in the debate in the House of Commons at the time that since during the Thatcher years a great many miners and steelworkers were made unemployed, now the shoe is on the other foot the “toffs” of the countryside cannot complain that they are to lose liberty and part of their way of life. So, there you go. Nothing political, principled, moral, or even practical offered. The actual justification of the ban was naked sectarian class bigotry. So giddy were the members of the Labour party at the thought of sticking it to the “toffs” that some MP’s implied that this law was one of the greatest successes of the Labour government. But how successful is a law that doesn’t benefit one single citizen of a country of around 60 million people? Let me say that again because it is quite a staggering fact: this law did not and never will benefit one single citizen of the 60 million citizens who live in this country. It did not protect, uphold, enforce or defend the rights of any individual living in this country. Instead jobs have been threatened, liberties impinged, and resources spent on policing matters that have no bearing whatsoever on the rights and liberties of any other citizen, and this one of Labour’s greatest achievements? Well done.

Not only is this law as far from being a successful piece of government legislation as Saddam Hussein is from having sex again, the principle behind it is a highly dangerous one: “what we don’t like we ban.” But, the question must be asked: why should we ban any activity that doesn’t impinge upon the fundamental rights of other citizens? Whether or not hunts take place, whether or not foxes are torn to pieces, whether or not “toffs” run around the countryside shouting “Tally-ho!,” my life, and that of every other citizen in the country, will rumble on much the same as it has always done. When a fox is killed I don’t lose my life, or my job, or my property, or money, or anything. Nor does anyone else. Why then should this activity have been banned in the first place? It doesn’t matter that we simply don’t like the idea of hunting foxes with dogs. Should anal sex be banned simply because (most?) people don’t like the idea of it? If it doesn’t affect your life or the life of any other citizen there are no rational political grounds for a ban. Of course, if you think it is cruel you can argue against it and discourage people from participating in it, but why should government ban it?

Even if we grant that hunting foxes with dogs is unnecessarily cruel and barbaric there is still a massive gulf between finding a person’s behaviour vile to insisting that this person is banned from the activity in question. We must be incredibly wary of making a definitive link between disapproval and ban. Otherwise we open the doors to a ban on countless other activities: fishing, shooting, talking loudly on mobile phones in public, chewing gum, oral sex, political speeches, saying ‘fuck,’ watching violent films, drinking alcohol, visiting McDonalds, pornography, religious worship, eating meat, or, well, name it and I bet it annoys someone. All we need to do is get enough people onside and, hey-presto, we can slap a ban onto virtually anything we don’t like, regardless of the reason. I certainly don’t want to live in this kind of political climate, one in which some people want to force others to live a certain way even when their behaviour does not effect the rights and liberties of anyone else.

This libertarian principle is worth more than the life of every single fox on the planet and it’s a about time it found more willing defenders.

Stephen Graham