Deer hunters must call off the dogs

April 11, 1997

Red deer cannot sweat and are not designed to run for long distances, so literally hounding them to death cannot be justified, argues Patrick Bateson, author of a National Trust report published this week

The use of hounds in hunting excites great passions. Deer hunting is hated by many people, but its supporters believe that hunting with hounds involves very little suffering. They regard this culling of red deer as not only necessary for the protection of the environment but also natural. Wolves chase deer, the argument runs, so why cannot hounds be predators as well?

This week 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. I was 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 strict about the use of animals in scientific work. The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986 states 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 defined in terms of human experience. So, for that matter, are fear, distress and suffering. Nevertheless, those who must obey the law on animal welfare have to project these unpleasant states on to animals. Weighing suffering against human benefit is inherently unsatisfactory because these factors are not measured in the same terms. But an acceptable space can be found in which suffering is kept to a minimum and humans maximise what they get out of the use of animals.

When I started my investigation of the use of hounds to hunt deer, I supposed that I would find some notion of acceptable space. Hunting undoubtedly gives great pleasure to some. I had supposed that, if the suffering of the hunted deer were contained, the positive aspects of hunting could be supported. However, the science led me to a different position.

Apart from long excursions by the stags before and after the rut in the autumn, red deer on Exmoor spend 95 per cent of their time within about half a mile of the same place. The ancestral habitat of red deer is woodland where wolves do not chase them for long distances. Wolves rely on short bursts of speed and ambush to catch their prey. Further, red deer are not equipped with sweat glands in their bodies. They overheat when chased and their muscle fibre type is not adapted for endurance running.

Armed with this knowledge, it is startling to find that the average hunt with hounds lasts about three hours in which time the deer has run 12 miles. The use of a standard technique in behavioural biology and the collection of some well-established facts about red deer suggests that hunting with hounds is not natural. However, even these initial conclusions scarcely prepared me for the astonishing changes in the physiology of the hunted deer.

Using blood samples, I found that the absolute level of stress hormones in hunted deer are as high as have ever been found in red deer and do not differ from the level in animals with very serious injuries. The carbohydrate resources for the muscles are totally depleted in animals that have been hunted for long periods. At an early stage in the hunt acidity of the blood is very high and the level of haemoglobin in the plasma jumps to eight times that found in undisturbed animals. Much of this is probably due to the break-up of the red blood cells. In longer hunts, extensive leakage of enzymes from muscles occurs. In some deer these levels are so high that they are likely to be due to actual muscle damage.

In short, many of the physiological changes are seriously maladaptive and would not be expected to occur normally. The pattern of the data suggests that the hunted animals are extremely frightened as they try to escape.

If deer are to be culled, the only realistic alternative 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 per cent of stalked deer are wounded by being shot, most of these are then quickly killed. At most, 5 per cent of shot deer are likely to escape wounded. At the time of assessment, done immediately after death, the physiological effects of wounding by shooting are comparable to those of a long hunt. A key missing dimension is the length of time for which a deer has to endure its suffering. Half the hunted deer escape. Some escapees may die from the effects of the long chase. Others are likely to suffer for days afterwards.

All 130 or so red deer killed annually by hunts suffer too much. At least a further 100 that escape suffer because of the distance they travel. This creates a problem. If the 130 or so animals killed by hunts were culled by stalkers instead, then on the basis of the 5 per cent wounding estimate we obtained, fewer than seven deer would suffer because of their injuries. Hunting with hounds can no longer be justified on welfare grounds, given the standards called for in relation to other activities, like the transit and slaughter of farm animals and the use of animals in research. This is the conclusion of my report to the National Trust. The trust has to weigh this against other issues, including the economic and social benefits of hunting and conservation.

The trust's council has yet to decide whether to act on my findings. The result of a ban on hunting could be an increase in indiscriminate and inexpert shooting which might increase the proportion of wounded deer and reduce their population on the Quantocks. The judgements involved are not easy ones and lie outside the realms of science. Before the study was carried out, it was possible to argue that views about suffering in hunted deer were subjective. This position is no longer tenable.

Patrick Bateson is professor of ethology (animal behaviour) at the University of Cambridge and provost of King's College, Cambridge. His research associate on this study was Elizabeth Bradshaw.

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