It is a debate very much in the headlines, with a hunting ban due to become law this month. Robin Buss traces the roots of an activity which some regard as sport, some as a necessity, and others as a brutal anachronism
Is it morally right to kill animals for sport? Is it right to kill them for food? There have long been those, like the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who believed that eating meat was unacceptable, and there are well-established vegetarian traditions in some religions. The English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in his essay of 1813, "Vindication of a Natural Diet", argued that vegetarianism was ethically and medically superior: human beings, he claimed, started as gatherers of vegetable food and only later took to eating meat, which brought with it violence and disease.
Shelley's view of a vegetarian golden age is appealing, but wrong. The remains of Homo habilis, the forerunner of our own species, who lived more than two million years ago, have been found along with butchered animal bones. It is probable that these pre-humans were more scavengers than hunters, eating meat from carcasses killed by other animals.
But Homo erectus, who flourished perhaps half a million years ago, was almost certainly a hunter; and by the time our species, Homo sapiens, emerged, human beings were meat-eaters who got their meat by hunting. A few societies - the Indians of the Amazon Basin, the Inuit, peoples of Borneo and central Africa -still subsist in this way.
Meat is a rich source of protein; but hunting may have brought social benefits, too. It is an activity that encourages co-operation: five or six hunters with spears and clubs can be more effective than one alone. This could have helped the development of language as well as crafts and skills.
Paleolithic humans learned to use spears, bows and arrows, and tools for cutting meat and hides.
The most successful hunters probably acquired special prestige in the group, helping to create social hierarchies. Much of the earliest evidence of human life on Earth seems to be connected with hunting: for example, the paintings of animals in the caves at Lascaux.
From collectors to producers
Then, in the Middle East, after 10,000bc, groups of people ceased to live a nomadic existence and began to cultivate crops and domesticate animals.
Human beings became producers rather than collectors of food. The change, sometimes known as the Neolithic Revolution, was arguably the most important turning-point in human development.
Hunting didn't stop, but its significance changed; it was no longer a necessity for survival. This is the point where distinctions begin between what is "tame" and what is "wild", between "meat" and "game", even between "human" and "animal". The hunters of old began to acquire mythical status.
Hunting was on the way to becoming the pastime of aristocrats and kings, a suitable occupation for warriors in times of peace.
And, although in Classical times it was represented by a female deity (Artemis for the Greeks, Diana for the Romans), hunting was and has largely remained a masculine activity, in early times going along with sharp distinctions between male and female social roles.
A royal pastime
Already, in ancient Assyria, killing the lions that were then common in the region became a mark of royal power. The most famous record of this is the series of bas-reliefs discovered in the mid-19th century, at the palace of King Ashurbanipal II. Made in in the 7th century BC, these beautiful sculpted panels (now in the British Museum) are the narrative of one of the King's hunting expeditions. Not that he had to look far for his prey: the lions are shown being released from cages so that the king can despatch them with his sword. There is no idea of fair play: this is a ritual, like a bullfight, to demonstrate the king's authority and strength.
A separate inscription records that, during his reign, Ashurbanipal killed 370 lions, 257 oxen and 30 elephants. Eventually, the Assyrian lion was hunted to extinction.
In Britain, since Norman times, kings loved to hunt deer. Even today, the English landscape bears the marks of this royal activity: whole areas were kept as hunting preserves: the most famous, the New Forest, was created by William the Conqueror in 1079, and this is where his son, the unpopular William Rufus, was to die in 1100, killed by an arrow. A hunting accident, or an assassination? No one knows.
British monarchs have continued to love hunting. King Edward VII, who reigned from 1901 to 1910, was responsible for the deaths of thousands of game birds and despatched 28 tigers in one visit to India when he was Prince of Wales. The tradition has not died: Prince Charles and his children have been willing to attract public disapproval by "riding to hounds" shortly before the hunting ban which comes into force in a couple of weeks.
Historically, the Mughal emperors, who ruled much of what is now India and Pakistan from the 16th to the 19th century, were among those who took hunting most seriously. They built luxurious palaces as lodges from which to set out on elaborate hunting parties in pursuit of tigers, leopards, wild pigs, deer and antelopes. These expeditions, recorded in many paintings, gave the emperors an opportunity to travel round and assess the state of the country, and the deer he killed were sometimes distributed to the poor for food. When the British came to India, they were happy to carry on the Mughal sporting tradition with tiger hunts and pig-sticking (hunting wild pigs on horseback with a hog spear).
The Russian nobility in the 19th-century could be as extravagant as the Mughal emperors, embarking on huge hunting expeditions, in some cases with hundreds of serfs. Baron Mengden kept special hunting serfs, with their own uniform, and set off on campaigns with carts full of hay and oats, a mobile hospital for wounded dogs and a field kitchen. A century later, in Communist times, President Brezhnev would organise hunting trips that involved having bears released to be shot in cold blood for the amusement of distinguished foreign visitors. This was hunting as the exercise and enjoyment of power.
Quite different is the pleasure described by the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, in his Sketches from a Hunter's Album (1852): "Has anyone but a hunter experienced the joy of wandering through bushes at dawn? Your feet leave green marks in grass heavy and white with dew... the air is full of the fresh bitter-sweet fragrance of wormwood, the honeyed scent of buckwheat and clover..." For Turgenev, hunting brought a feeling of oneness with wild animals and their environment.
"Oh, 'tis my delight on a shiny night in the season of the year" is a line from an old folk song, "The Lincolnshire Poacher". In reality, poaching was often not a jolly sport at all. Poachers are those to whom the law denies access to the countryside. The land enclosures of the 18th century had deprived the poorest country people of much of the land on which they had relied to graze a cow or collect wood for fuel. They were forced to become poorly paid agricultural labourers and many were close to starvation. The landlords who benefited from the enclosures saw the land as an investment.
They employed gamekeepers to patrol their estates and some even set mantraps to discourage poaching.
The Game Laws were tightened in 1816, so that anyone found trespassing in search of game was liable to up to seven years' transportation to Australia (which meant leaving England, home and family forever). Even so, convictions for poaching increased. Speaking in the House of Lords in 1825, Lord Suffield said: "The recipe to make a poacher will be found to contain a very few and simple ingredients... Give (a poor man) little more than a natural disinclination to go to work, let him exist in the midst of lands where game is preserved, keep him cool in the winter by allowing him insufficient wages to purchase fuel; let him feel hungry on the pittance of parish relief, and if he be not a poacher, it will be only by the blessing of God."
Poachers might eventually find work on an estate: landlords knew that they made the best gamekeepers. Some were politicised by their knowledge of the conditions that drove them to break the law in the first place.
Huntin', shootin' and fishin'
Foxhunting is the essentially English form of hunting. In fact, it only really took hold in Britain during the mid-19th century, encouraged by the growth of the railways which made access to the countryside easier; though it soon became an established feature of rural life, commemorated in numerous sporting prints. "Huntin', shootin' and fishin'" were the pursuits of the Victorian gentleman, but also of many Victorian ladies. As Oscar Wilde said: "The English country gentleman galloping after a fox - the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable."
But, as we see in the novels of RS Surtees, foxhunting was not solely the preserve of the upper class.
Hunt supporters insist that the appeal of the sport is not that of watching a small furry animal torn to pieces by savage dogs. The kill is actually the part of the hunt that you are least likely to witness. No, the appeal of foxhunting is in the chill air of a winter morning, the waiting in wooded lanes and on the edge of copses, the sound of the horn, and the sudden thrill of riding across open country, jumping fences and hedges in headlong pursuit of the huntsmen and the hounds. Above all, the pleasure comes from the sense of participating in a rural tradition.
To the poet Sigfried Sassoon, author of the autobiographical Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man (1928) and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), hunting was part of the essence of the England he was defending as a soldier on the Somme, during the First World War: "I was huddled up in a little dog-kennel of a dug-out (I) trying to forget about the shells which were hurrying and hurrooshing overhead. I was meditating about England, visualising a grey day down in Sussex; dark green woodlands with pigeons circling above the tree-tops; dogs barking, cocks crowing, and all the casual tappings and twinklings of the countryside. I thought of the huntsman walking out in his long white coat with the hounds(I). It was for all that, I supposed, that I was in the front-line with soaked feet, trench-mouth, and feeling short of sleep..." (from Memoirs of an Infantry Officer).
A rather different view was taken by Henry Williamson who, on his return to England after the same war, retired to the Devon countryside and wrote his masterpiece, Tarka the Otter (1928), recounting the life of an otter in the days when they were still hunted for sport, through the mind of the creature itself, and finding in the natural world an escape from the madness of the man-made horrors that he had seen in the trenches.
Humans and animals
Perhaps the wars of the 20th century have made us more sensitive to violence, and less able to endure the idea of killing as sport. The League Against Cruel Sports was founded in 1924 and has campaigned against hunting ever since.
At the same time, modern life has so cut us off from the natural world that few of us get any closer to wild animals than as onlookers, like television viewers for whom nature has become merely a spectacle, explained in voiceover by David Attenborough.
Inevitably, we sentimentalise. It upsets us even to see animals killing each other. How far we have come from the intimate involvement that the Victorian poacher or the medieval huntsman (let alone the prehistoric hunter gatherer) had with the processes of life and death.