Forms Of Leisure In The Rural Landscape - Can Fox Hunting Still Be Classed As A Sport In The 21st Century?

 Rebecca Miller

This essay will examine the above question with reference to class polarisation in the countryside and how foxhunting has become synonymous with middle class dominance in rural areas. Media representations of rurality will be briefly explored, and the pros and cons of the wider foxhunting debate will be considered. Research carried out by Ward (1999), Baker and Macdonald (2000) and Philips et al. (2001) will be used as a means for discussing some of the issues of concern.

Heyd (2005:339) discusses the ‘culturally structured gaze’ that guides perception and interpretation of both nature and the countryside. This ‘gaze’, it can be argued, is partially based on class preferences and so forms of leisure in the rural landscape can be said to reflect cultural patterns of consumption and lifestyle choices. Such an argument can be supported by Parker (2006:1) who claims ‘countryside politics is changing to reflect both a productivity and post feudal countryside’ therefore positioning this essay into context.

The countryside way of life is traditionally seen as middle class and as such is represented so in the media via television, radio and newspapers. Philips et al. (2001:5) state ‘the rural idyll is seen as a socially dominant and dominating way of conceiving - cognitively, emotionally or aesthetically - and presenting rural space’. Thus the countryside can be described as signifying a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle (Philips et al. 2001:20). This lifestyle is indicated by a variety of ‘class icons’ (Philips et al. 2001:15) which include Range Rovers, country houses, Barbour jackets, brogue shoes and, in many cases, fox hunting.

Such representations of rurality form a class hegemony which has manifested itself quite clearly in the recent fox hunting ban and accompanying debates. Ward (1999:389) traces the origin of such debates thus:

 ‘First has been a moral argument about animal rights and welfare, and the infliction of suffering upon wild animals in the name of sport. Second has been a discourse about cultural traditions and the contribution of hunting to “the country way of life”. Third has been an ecological discourse about effective pest control and the management and conservation of valued habitats and species. Finally (…) [there] has been a set of economic arguments about the livelihoods of people in rural areas, and the economic contribution of hunting to the rural economy’.

Notions of hunting as a sport have altered considerably, just as rural areas have become important aspects of wider political change throughout Britain. The Labour manifesto in 1997 quite clearly set out the party’s intention to ban hunting with mammals in England and Wales, a law that was finally passed in February 2005. Baker and Macdonald (2000:186) state ‘Fox hunting originated as a sport (…) but in defence of its continuation, many now claim that it provides a useful form of pest control’. This argument will be referred back to shortly, however it is important at this point to introduce the changing tactics of the pro-hunt lobby.

Ward (1999:390) writes ‘what has been distinctive about the hunting debate in the late 1990s has been a rising profile of a set of claims about the importance of hunting to rural employment and the rural economy’. Pro-hunt campaigners seem aware of the declining support of hunting as a sport throughout the wider community, especially in urbanised areas. Thus a clever decision was taken to argue for hunting as an important economic benefit to countryside inhabitants.

Ward (1999:390) continues:

 ‘it was overwhelmingly pro-hunting MPs who raised the economic argument (…) to widen the appeal of pro-hunting arguments and present the (…) [ban] as an attack on the rural economy, and thus the countryside as a whole, rather than an attack on an activity pursued by only a small minority of people’.

However, Ward (1999:390) discusses how the pro-hunt campaigners massaged their data so that fox hunting appeared much more important both economically and socially to the countryside. Thus their claims that country sports expenditure in rural areas amounted to £3.8 billion in 1997 failed to clarify that the majority of this spending was actually on other sports such as angling and falconry, fox hunting accounting for just 0.3% of the total money spent (Ward 1999:391).

Ward (1999:392) is highly critical of the pro-hunting campaigners methodology which was supposed to provide results identifying just how crucially important fox hunting was to the economy. Instead the way the research was carried out only managed to undermine the pro-hunting movement. Ward (1999:393) claims that ‘hunting must be viewed in the wider context of a changing rural economy’. Such a context should be inclusive of the following factors: total labour force has declined in rural areas generally and not just because of the ban on hunting, job losses from the closure of coal mines have had far more detrimental effects on rural communities than from the ban on hunting, and government support for rural development is now more dependent on developing tourism in rural areas than by sustaining more traditional forms of countryside recreation.

Already mentioned in this essay is the idea that fox hunting was a form of pest control on British farms. However, research carried out by Baker and Macdonald (2000) appears to suggest that such a notion of pest control is actually a misconception. The impression is given that many of the debates surrounding fox hunting are misconceived, politically guided and juxtaposed with dominant media images of the countryside as previously discussed by Philips et al. (2000).

Baker and Macdonald (2000) conducted research on farmer’s opinions towards foxes in Wiltshire. Rabbits and badgers were seen as more of a threat to farms than foxes, however there are no hunts that justify their existence because they control such pests. Two thirds of farmers did not see foxes as pests and actually argued that foxes can be seen as ‘beneficial by consuming rabbits and other pests of agricultural crops’ (Baker and Macdonald 2000:189). Foxes are mistakenly identified as carriers of disease when in reality ‘foxes pose no significant threat to the health of humans or domestic animals’ (Baker and Macdonald 2000:192).

Baker and Macdonald (2000:199) conclude their research by discussing how the fox as a pest that needs to be controlled is a rural myth and that ‘improving sheep husbandry would have a much greater impact on lamb survival than would fox control’. Foxes as a nemesis of sheep and poultry is a fable that foxhunters have used for many years as a means of justifying their sport.

Consequently it seems plausible to state that fox hunting can no longer be justified on the grounds of pest control or farm protection as previously argued by the pro-hunting lobby. Neither can the argument be upheld that fox hunting is essential to upkeep the rural economy. Fox hunting has and always will be a sporting tradition which acts as a metaphor for the middle class way of life in the countryside.

Fox hunting, it can be argued, acts as a symbol of the middle class values associated with rurality. Therefore the whole fox hunting debate can be linked to the traditional values and class hierarchy that has previously dominated the way of life in the countryside. Fox hunting is not just a sport, but the symbol of a system based on social dominance and membership to a higher order. This higher order is related to the middle and upper class majority of specific rural areas. As such, fox hunting’s main function appears to be as a signifier for the nostalgia intrinsic to the established rural elite and their whole way of life, both politically and socially.

Therefore to conclude this essay it is possible to argue that foxhunting can no longer be classed as a sport in 21st century Britain. The rural economy can be developed via other means such as tourism or more contemporary countryside leisure pursuits although all of these pastimes cannot be warranted as sustainable. More research is needed to examine the pros and cons of other forms of leisure in the rural landscape. However, the fact that the fox hunting ban has been in place for more than a year and that the countryside is still intact goes far enough to validate the reasons why the ban was introduced in the first place