The use of hounds in hunting excites great passions. Hunting deer is particularly hated by those who are opposed to it and ardently loved by those who support it. If you wept as a child at the death of Bambi’s mother, you know what it is like to be hunted. On the other side, the Hunt supporters have believed sincerely that very little suffering is involved in hunting with hounds. They regard this method of culling red deer not only as necessary for the protection of the environment but also as an entirely natural process. Wolves chase deer, the argument runs, so deer should be adapted to being hunted by hounds. The battles have raged for the best part of a century in terms that have changed not one bit.
In 1997 I submitted to the National Trust my report on a scientific study of the welfare issues involved in the management of red deer on Exmoor and the Quantock Hills. Among other things, I had been asked to examine the evidence for stress induced in red deer by hunting with hounds and to compare this with the stress resulting from other culling methods. The law is stringent about the use of animals in scientific work. Like hunting, scientific research involves great companionship, much skill and the thrill of the chase. However, as attitudes to animals changed, scientists have had to temper their enthusiasms for their work with concerns for the welfare of the animals they use. The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986 stipulates that: “If procedures used in research involve pain or discomfort, the investigator must consider whether the knowledge that may be gained justifies the stress and pain inflicted on the animals.”
Pain is clearly defined in terms of human subjective experience. So, for that matter, are fear, distress and suffering. Nevertheless, those who must obey the existing legislation on animal welfare have to project these unpleasant states into animals. They are required to make the same sort of assessment of another creature’s condition as they do implicitly and routinely when dealing with a fellow human being. In humans each unpleasant state is associated with observable behaviour and with identifiable physiological processes. A profile of these characteristics may be built up and considered when taking any particular case of questionable animal welfare.
Weighing suffering against human benefit is inherently unsatisfactory because they are not measured in the same terms. What can be done is to find an acceptable space in which suffering is kept to a minimum and humans maximise what they can get out of the use of the animals. When I started my investigation of the hunting of deer with hounds, I supposed that here again we should probably finish up with some notion of acceptable space. Hunting undoubtedly gives great pleasure to those who partake in this activity as sport. To many people, witnessing a hunt is to feel part of English history. I had supposed that, if the suffering of the hunted deer were contained, the positive aspects of stag-hunting could be supported. However, the science led my Research Associate, Dr Elizabeth Bradshaw, and me to a very different position.
Science can make contributions to the hunting debate at various levels. The movements of red deer may be monitored by radio-tracking. This method involves fitting a collar on the animal which contains a small transmitter emitting a regular signal which can be detected at some distance by a receiver. Apart from long excursions by the stags before and after the rut in the autumn, red deer on Exmoor spend 95% of their time within about half a mile of the same place. The ancestral habitat of red deer is woodland and, in such habitats, wolves do not chase them for long distances. Instead wolves rely on stealth, short bursts of speed and ambushing to catch the deer. Further, red deer are not equipped with sweat glands, easily over-heating when chased, and their muscle fibre type is not that of an animal adapted for endurance running. Armed with this knowledge, it is startling to discover that the average hunt with hounds last about 3 hours in which time the deer has been run 12 miles. The use of a standard technique in behavioural biology and the gathering together of some well-established facts about red deer suggested already that hunting with hounds is not natural. However, even this did not prepare Dr Bradshaw and myself for the astonishing changes in the physiology of the hunted deer which we discovered from their blood after they had been hunted.
The absolute levels of stress hormones are as high as have ever been found in red deer and do not differ from animals with very serious injuries. The carbohydrate resources for the muscles are totally depleted in animals that have been hunted for long periods. Acidity of the blood, resulting from great exertion, is very high at an early stage in the hunt. At an early stage in the hunt the level of haemoglobin in the plasma jumps to eight times what is found in undisturbed animals and then continues to rise. Much of this is probably due to the break up of the red blood cells. In longer hunts extensive leakage of enzymes from the muscles occurs. In some deer these levels are so high that they are likely to be due to actual damage to the muscles. In short, many of the physiological changes are seriously maladaptive and would not be expected to occur in normal conditions. The pattern of the data is entirely consistent with the view that the hunted animals are extremely frightened, pushing themselves as much as they are able and risking a great deal in their attempts to escape.
If deer are to be culled, the only realistic alternative to hunting red deer with hounds is to shoot them. We compared the suffering resulting from stalking with that produced by hunting with hounds. The critical issue is the frequency of wounding. While just over 11% of red deer are wounded when shot, the majority of these were then quickly killed. A maximum of 5% of shot deer are likely to escape wounded. At the time of assessment, which occurred immediately after death, the physiological effects of wounding by shooting are comparable to those of a long hunt. An important missing dimension is the length of time for which a deer has to endure its suffering. In this context, it should be appreciated that half the hunted deer escape. Some escaping deer may die from the effects of the long chase. Others are likely to experience the consequences of the long stressful chase for days afterwards.
Of the 130 or so red deer killed annually by the Hunts, we believe that all experience an unacceptable level of suffering because of the stresses and strains put on them. At least a further 100 that escape would suffer because of the distance travelled before they escaped. This makes a conservative total of 230 deer a year presenting a serious welfare problem. If the 130 or so animals killed by the Hunts were culled by stalkers instead, then on the basis of the 5% wounding estimate we obtained, less than seven deer would suffer because of their injuries. These are broad calculations but the great reduction in numbers of suffering animals is obvious.
Hunting with hounds can no longer be justified on welfare grounds given the standards applied in other fields such as the transit and slaughter of farm animals, the use of animals in research and so forth. This is the key conclusion of my report to the National Trust. The Trust had to weigh this conclusion against other issues, including their wider responsibilities, considerations about the social and economic benefits of hunting and the problems of conservation. At the time of writing this article, I was uncertain what the Council of the National Trust would decide. The result of a ban on hunting could be an increase in indiscriminate and inexpert shooting which might increase the proportion of deer injured from shooting and also reduce the overall red deer population on the Quantocks. The judgements involved are not easy ones and lie outside the realms of science. Even so, the application of orderly method has led to findings which are likely to change the perception that many people have of hunting.
Before the study was carried out, it was possible to argue that views about suffering in hunted deer were subjective and open to debate. I was convinced that supporters of the Hunts were sincere in their belief that stag-hunting was not cruel. This position is, I believe, no longer tenable. Both those who hunt red deer and those who are concerned more widely with the welfare of these animals will need to take the new evidence into account.
This article was written before the outcome of my report to the National Trust was known. The day after the report was published, the National Trust banned the hunting of red deer with hounds on their land. I was vilified by those who supported the hunting of mammals with dogs and the Stag-hunting organizations commissioned a second study by Professor Roger Harris and colleagues, hoping that this group would disprove what we had discovered. However, they obtained exactly the same physiological results as we had obtained. While they made no claim to study the welfare aspects of hunting, they concluded incorrectly that the deer ceased to run when they had exhausted their stores of carbohydrate. Later still, Professor Harris and I collaborated on a report for a Government Inquiry into the hunting of mammals with dogs. This Inquiry led eventually to an Act of Parliament that introduced radical curbs on the hunting of mammals with dogs in England and Wales.
Sir Patrick Bateson is a Fellow of the Royal Society, Emeritus Professor of Ethology (Animal Behaviour) at the University of Cambridge, and former Provost of King’s College, Cambridge. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Times Higher Education on 11 April 1997 and is used here with permission.