Yes, foxhounds kill foxes. That is what they are trained to do. But that aside, they are just big, sloppy, friendly dogs that don't deserve to live a painful existence, while possibly spreading disease back to the farms that supplied their diseased food.
The news that a major outbreak of bovine Tb had been found in the Kimblewick foxhounds has raised many more questions than answers.
The first question was, of course, how did the hounds get the TB?
The most obvious answer is that they are the victims of the cosy arrangement between farmers and their local hunts whereby the hunts remove any 'fallen cattle' carcases which are then fed, raw, to the hounds.
The hunts do this as a service to those farmers whose land they hunt on. The fact that they happily invade any other farmland without permission is ignored. They have done this for many years and neither side seemed to worry about fallen cattle carrying a notifiable and infectious disease.
TB is often diagnosed or confirmed after cattle are slaughtered, in a licensed slaughterhouse. It is doubtful, when the kennelman butchers a carcase, that he has the knowledge to recognise TB lesions for what they are.
It seems that this practice has finally, and publicly, come back to bite them, via the suffering hounds.
So a second and even more important question is: how many other diseases have been spread, to and via the hounds, because of this practice?
Defra says that bTB in dogs is not a notifiable disease. But, when you have up to a third of one large pack of 120 hounds culled because they had bTB, surely that should be notifiable? The rural population should know about it and Defra, instead of being silent about a problem that has gone of for years, should be investigating.
At least Defra has placed the remaining hounds in quarantine rather than destroying them. But whether there will be a full investigation and the results made public is anybody's guess. Like most government bodies, Defra does not have a good record when it comes to dealing with embarrassing problems.
Now farmers, once happy to rid themselves of dubious fallen cattle, are beginning to consider stopping hunting on their land, witness these comments on The Farming Forum:
"Heard about this some months ago and it got us worried around here , even though they don't hunt over us anymore they met at a few farms not far away with stock on to the point some are considering not having them on the place anymore. Let's be honest this could well be the death nail for hunting ..."
"If the source of this outbreak does turn out to be an infected carcass, then it could have ramifications for the whole fallen stock collection industry. Local hunts rely on this to feed hounds. Stop that and hunting stops too as hunts will have to buy in their meat."
"In the last couple of years we had an outbreak Tb4 area, the rest of us were on radius testing for 18 months, but the hunt still hunted in the outbreak area then came round us they just didn't care."
"Its cheaper to feed the hounds bought in food rather than fallen stock but who would let them hunt over their land if they didn't take fallen stock, I would think twice."
Bovine TB is very much in the news these days, but there have been other notifiable diseases to consider:
Foot and mouth disease. As the 2001 F&M outbreak showed, when many thousands of cattle, sheep and pigs were slaughtered, this is a major fear for farmers. Hunting was banned for the duration to help prevent the spread of the disease, but no worries. Hunts could still feed their hounds, and even be paid for slaughtering infected stock.
The government regulations, as reported in 2001 by the Telegraph, seemed to be so muddled or deliberately contorted, that hunt staff appeared to be slaughtering both F&M and bTB cattle, and then disposing of the bodies. What is curious is that, apart from the Telegraph, no other media apparently took up the story. Did the government sit on the news?
Bovine TB - responsible for the Kimblewick problem. Kimblewick is not in a High Risk Area for bTB, which leads one to ask: how many hunts in the High Risk Areas of the West Country, East and Southwest Wales are sitting on this problem, either unaware of it or hiding it? They certainly have every reason to be worried. Are they now contacting their vets, or is Defra contacting them?
BSE - Bovine spongiform encephalopathy or 'mad cow disease'. This disease can certainly infect other species and caused new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (JCD) in people, and FSE in cats.
At the time of the BSE crisis, scrapie, a disease found in sheep, was studied as having a possible link to BSE. So - have scrapie sheep ever been part of the 'fallen stock' deal with the hunts?
Another disease reported in hunting hounds which eat fallen cattle is Hound Ataxia. Ask yourself - have you seen any unsteady hounds lately?
The problem with all these conditions, which may or may not be linked, is that when BSE was finally recognised for the serious and dangerous condition it was, and its causes understood, too much time had passed. It is more than likely that hounds were fed on BSE meat. Surely, if infected humans died, hounds must have suffered. Has Defra thought of following this line of inquiry? Was any research carried out?
Brucellosis - an infectious disease, also known as 'contagious abortion'. It can infect cattle, sheep and goats, pigs and humans. Oh, and dogs. The difficulty with the last is that rare cases (in dogs imported into the UK), become known because they are pets taken to the vets by worried owners.
How much do we really know about the suffering of hounds?
To give you some idea, an Irish study found these conditions in just 52 autopsied foxhounds:
Bovine TB, lung cancer that had spread to lymph nodes, kidney disease, suppurative pneumonia (pus-filled lungs to you and me), hepatitis, peritonitis, various tumours and much more. Many of them had skin ailments, while 48% of the hounds had chronic kidney changes.
Disturbingly, the researchers concluded that these hounds had been culled for reasons other than the painful conditions they were suffering from. It is common practice for hounds to be culled if they persistently wander from the pack, show weakness, unsteadiness or an unwillingness to hunt. The fact that they might be ill and need treatment is not that important.
Hounds have also been found to carry salmonella and botulism. There is nothing like this level of disease in domestic dogs, or to put it in the words of the researchers: "this survey highlights different disease patterns in hounds than are typically observed in pet dogs."
The more you look, the more worrying things pop up. After my first article on bTB and foxhounds was published, a spokesperson for the Wirral and Cheshire Badger Group sent me this:
"I thought you might be interested to know that I was out and about in Cheshire West this morning and had a very informative conversation with a small holder (kept cattle years ago) re the hunt. I mentioned the recent revelations regarding foxhounds and TB and he said that the majority of the farmers around him hated the hunt and had tried to stop them from coming onto their land due to Neospora."
So what is Neospora? Cattle become infected by the ingestion of oocysts shed by infected dogs. That can cause the cattle to abort their calves. Nasty, and no wonder farmers are worried. A few hours later I learn that in Sussex there are posters warning of the dangers of Neospora, and recommending dog owners to worm their dogs. And that makes me ask: how often do hunts bother to individually worm all the hounds in their kennels?
You see what I mean when I say that the Kimblewick Hunt has produced many more questions than there are answers. And one of the most pressing problems that has come to the fore concerns the welfare standards for thousands of UK foxhounds.
Yes, foxhounds kill foxes. That is what they are trained to do. But that aside, they are just big, sloppy, friendly dogs that don't deserve to live what looks to be a painful existence, while possibly spreading disease back to the farms that supplied their diseased food.
For the sake of the hounds, hunting must stop. For the sake of the hounds, hunt kennel conditions and practices must be investigated. It is time to start demanding both answers and action.
Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer who writes for The Ecologist and other media on the badger cull and other environmental topics; and on political issues for UK and international websites.
Also on The Ecologist
- 'Bovine TB found in foxhounds - and nothing to do with badgers! Now what?' by Lesley Docksey.
- 'Official cover-up - are hunting hounds the 'cryptic carrier' for bovine TB?' by Jordi Casamitjana / League Against Cruel Sports.
Author's note: there was some UK research into foxhound diseases involving no less than 444 hounds, but it has never been published in full. More on this intriguing work in a future article.
Action: 'Contact Defra and ask them to urgently suspend hunting to prevent further outbreak' by League Against Cruel Sports.
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