Wildlife Management and Hunting with Dogs
The use of dogs is a unique and vital method of wildlife management. Dogs, unlike the other control methods, will:
- selectively remove the old, weak, ailing, injured and parasitic-burdened animals
- utilise a ‘search and find’ capability through their extraordinary scenting faculty
- either catch or lose the quarry animal, there is no wounding
- keep populations alert, thereby retaining fitness and health of the quarry populations
- disperse populations, thereby helping to avoid a build up of disease reservoirs
- be self-limiting in that, for practical reasons, hunts spend less time in areas of low populations
- give indication of low populations
- manage wildlife through natural means
For many years the issue of hunting with dogs has been seen as controversial. Numerous arguments against hunting have been put forward over decades, ranging from morality to class war. However, the most common accusation is that hunting is cruel. The chasing of a wild animal with dogs is automatically regarded as an act which causes suffering and the coincidental fact that it is also regarded by followers of the hunt as a sport only attracts further condemnation.
The Middle Way Group challenges both of these perceptions and seeks to produce scientifically sound information with the aim of genuinely improving animal welfare.
Most individuals and groups supporting the hunting ban agree that wild animals have to be controlled, one way or another. So the debate, both inside and outside Parliament, was about the method, rather than saving the lives of animals. The Government saw fit to limit the use of dogs by way of the Hunting Act 2004, despite the fact that there are no scientific grounds for prohibiting this activity (see The use, misuse and abuse of science in support of the Hunting Act 2004, published by the All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group and the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management 2007).
The use of dogs has an ‘all or nothing’ outcome and to restrict their use inevitably means more shooting and more snaring. As such, wounding and the capture of non-target species also rises. Wounding levels for foxes have been debated and disputed in recent years, but the only validated research on this subject was published by the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (see Wounding Rates in Shooting Foxes, N.Fox and others, Animal Welfare 2005) This study showed much higher levels of wounding than previously thought. Further, a wounded animal, whilst obviously suffering, is more likely to become the ‘problem’ animal as far as human interests are concerned in its attempts to obtain food.
Indeed it is worth highlighting the numerous ways in which the use of dogs in wildlife management can be highly beneficial to the various species that are/were hunted, in terms of the health of the individual animal, the health of the population and the wellbeing of local ecosystems, each of which is capable of leading to human health problems.
The Natural Chase
Dogs evolved from wolves and their hunting abilities and strategies are very much the same. It is also the case that the quarry species have developed various tactics to avoid being caught by hunting packs of wolves or dogs and, rather than being traumatised as is so often thought, is likely to be crucial to their survival, and consequently their health, in the wild.
The following quote from John Webster, Emeritus Professor of Animal Husbandry at Bristol University is relevant. In his book Animal Welfare - a Cool Eye towards Eden, Professor Webster says: “Fear is one of the most useful properties of the conscious mind because it is conducive to survival. Sentient animals are born curious because they need education to survive and acquire this education usually while under the protection of a parent or parents. They learn to discriminate between real and apparent dangers and, as they mature, become progressively cautious. Having lost the protection of a parent, they rely on their own sense of fear to direct their actions towards survival. When the gazelle learns that the charge of the leopard is truly frightening but once again, manages to escape, it may come to recognize fear as a constructive motivating force that produces its own reward, not as a source of suffering.”
While wild mammals have thereby evolved to cope with this natural form of pressure, the scenting power of the dog is much more than a simple tracking ability. This ‘search and catch’ capability enables the weak, old, ailing, injured or animals with a high parasitic burden to be caught – precisely the animals that need to be removed, not only for the sake of relieving the suffering of the individual, but also to keep the population healthy.
The use of dogs is likely to retain the fitness of a hunted species, not only by removal of those weaker animals, but also by keeping the population alert and thereby better able to cope with other pressures. Such natural selection is not achievable with any of the other methods of control or management.
In addition, the use of dogs can protect the wild populations which are hunted, as success is dependent upon certain levels existing. In other words, hunting is self-limiting in that, for practical reasons, hunts spend less time in areas of low populations. This is not the case with other control methods, such as shooting and trapping, which could be readily used until the last animal is killed.
The presence of natural predators causes certain quarry species to disperse, thereby helping to avoid disease reservoirs, their possible impact on human interests or the local environment. Again, this is not achieved by the use of any of the other legal control methods.