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Posted 1 April 2001
Below is the letter Roger Scruton wrote to The Ecologist magazine following the publication of his debate on animal rights with Andrew Tyler, director of Animal Aid. He complains that he was misquoted by Andrew. We say he's embarrassed by what he wrote and is trying to cover his blushes. See his full review and judge for yourself.
'Andrew Tyler quotes from a review that I once wrote of a book by Laurence Catlow about shooting and fishing, saying that I 'wrote approvingly of "his [Catlow's] defiant celebration of the act of killing fish and birds in quantities that far surpass his gastronomic capacity '". This quotation out of context is typical of Andrew Tyler's arguments, which are entirely ad hominem. What I actually wrote is that 'his defiant celebration of the act of killing fish and birds in quantities that far support his gastronomic capacity may lose him a few readers'. And I went on to argue that Catlow does not succeed in persuading those who lack his religious faith that there really is no moral objection to shooting and fishing.
Review of Confessions of a Shooting Fishing Man by Laurence Catlow. Published in The Times, December 19,1996.
This is is a curious book, latest in a long tradition of curious books, from Isaac Walton's Compleat Angler to Seigfried Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man, dedicated to the rural pursuits of eccentric Englishmen. Some of the most imaginative prose in the English language has emerged from this tradition - witness Surtees, Trollope and T.H. White; there is no doubt that our perception of the English countryside and its meaning has been shaped beyond measure by those who have tried to capture in words the mysterious joys of hunting, shooting and fishing.
The sportsman, unlike the farmer, looks on the countryside as an end in itself rather than a means of profit. His soul runs out into woods and streams and fields with the untroubled joy of a child, and around his immediate aim of catching fish, fowl or fox, there grows a passionate love of the natural world, a sense of his own situation within it, and a vivid attachment to a place and a time.
Those are the feelings that Laurence Catlow tries to convey in this diary of his sporting year in Cumbria, where he is resident Classics master at a minor public school. It is the work of a very unmodern person, with a romantic attitude to nature. The diary gives no evidence whatsoever of human relationships, other than those which are the normal lot of the old-fashioned bachelor schoolmaster. Apart from wine and fives, Catlow's emotions are entirely expended on the natural world, which he describes with the same conviction of its miraculous and consoling character as an Edward Thomas or a Richard Jefferies.
His detailed and loving description of fishing are particularly good, and will be a joy to anyone who shares his passion. His defiant celebration of the act of killing fish and birds in quantities that far surpass his gastronomic capacity may lose him a few readers. But he makes quite clear that they are not the readers he would want. If you are looking for a Christmas present for a friend who shoots or fishes, then you need look no further than this book.
But Catlow has another and deeper purpose, besides that of sharing his sporting pleasures. He is a pious Catholic, who believes in an absolute distinction between human and animal life. It is, in his view, not just wrong but in some way sinful to extend to animals the protection afforded to people, and to behave as though animals had some absolute right to life and liberty of the God-given kind that we enjoy. He is therefore deeply vexed by the new urban morality that seeks to forbid us from killing animals, or from taking pleasure in the warm pursuit of them.
I do not share Catlow's passion for shooting and fishing, although I find nothing strange in the fact that these activities should be the high point of someone's life, and the object of powerful religious feelings. I think he is right, and there is no sound moral reason for condemning most normal fieldsports. But I wonder how many opponents would be persuaded by his approach, depending as it does on religious and metaphysical convictions which are, for the mass of urban people, no longer available? Catlow himself has difficulty in reconciling his tender feeling towards his dog with a philosophy that denies that a dog is capable of either understanding such feelings or returning them.
The issue is an important one, for two reasons. First, the life of our countryside - both wildlife and human life - is intimately bound up with the hunting of wild animals. Any attempt to forbid hunting will unravel centuries of careful management, and destroy both the social and the natural ecology of our landscape. Secondly, there are many people who either don't see this, or don't care about it, or who are so deeply opposed to killing (or at least to the killing of certain species in certain ways) that they are happy to encourage adverse legislation and to let the future look after itself.
The Labour Party expressly condones angling, an activity which Catlow's vivid descriptions show to involve intense and long-drawn-out suffering. But it promises, with characteristic inconsistency, "a free vote to ban hunting". This interesting piece of Newspeak presumably means a vote in which Labour MPs are free to vote according to their conscience, providing their conscience favours a ban. As someone who hunts, I know, as clearly as I know the axioms of Set Theory or the themes of the Beethoven symphonies, that hunting with hounds is the kindest way of controlling foxes, and the best way to achieve a modus vivendi with this endearing pest. I therefore regard with alarm the prospect of a Parliament whose members are as ignorant of this issue as they are of virtually everything else, pronouncing my sport to be a crime. For then I should be, for the first time in my life, obliged by my conscience to become a criminal.
Surely, however, the correct response to all this is not to fall back on a religious philosophy which few MPs believe in, but to protest against the dangers of legislation designed to impose majority attitudes on law-abiding minorities. Outside the lunatics of the animal rights movement, there are few British people who believe that the test of a crime should be the strength of the feeling opposed to it - especially when opposition is based in ignorance and self-deception. Meanwhile I sincerely hope that Catlow's thought-provoking book will awaken those who shoot and fish to the dangers that they too will face, should intransigent sentimentality succeed in outlawing the sport of kings.