THERE IS NOTHING SICKER THAN A HUNTING VICAR

"Christianity has nothing to do with wild animals." : Reverend Eric Wheeler, member of the Puckeridge and Thurlow Foxhounds.


Bloodsports have a long savage tradition in the United Kingdom, in particular the hunting and killing of wildlife with packs of dogs purely for entertainment. This included fox hunting, stag hunting, hare hunting and the hunting of otters but when the otter was all but wiped out in the 1970s the hunters switched to hunting the alternative animal the North American mink. The latter had been introduced to the UK by the fur trade in the 1920s but many had escaped from the farms or had been released by farmers whose businesses failed. As a result the mink became endemic in the countryside of the UK living in similar habitat to the otters.

Following extensive pressure by animal welfare groups and with support from all political parties the hunting of wildlife with packs of dogs was banned by law in England and Wales by the Hunting Act 2004. This did not ban hunting as such only the hunting of wild animals so the hunts are allowed to continue with humane alternatives such as drag or trail hunting. Since 2004 it has become a struggle for animal protection groups in the UK to have the Hunting Act effectively enforced by the police.

In the great hunting debates that raged over many years prior to 2004 the church played a significant role on both sides. There were many clergy on the side of compassion. The Reverend the Lord Soper (1903-1998), a leading Methodist Minister, played a key role within the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) for many years, including being its President from 1967 to 1997. The Reverend Professor Andrew Linzey, Anglican priest, theologian and leading figure in the Christian vegetarian movement is a vocal opponent of bloodsports. On the hunting side there has sadly been a long tradition of hunting vicars; that is not to say a sport of hunting vicars but rather of vicars who delight in hunting and killing our wildlife. It is said that many hunting vicars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries rode to hounds six days a week and then played their role in Church on the Sunday. The notorious Reverend John "Jack" Russell (1795-1883) (after whom the Jack Russell terrier was named) had a real passion for foxhunting and even wore his hunting breeches and boots under his clerical clothes when giving a sermon!

In foxhunting the worst of the cruelty always took place after the exhausted fox had sought sanctuary below ground, perhaps in a natural fox earth or in a drain or old badger sett. Then the hunt terriers would be brought forward and put below ground to do battle with the fox. Sometimes the aim was to bolt the fox so that he could be hunted again. On other occasions the idea would be to trap the fox below ground and then kill him. Whether there is a direct lineage from the Jack Russell terriers bred by the Reverend Russell to the modern day hunt terriers is open to debate. David Plummer in his book The Jack Russell Terrier writes: "True, there are many breeders who boast as to having the real Jack Russell blood, but without registration, no proof of this lineage can be accepted. One thing is certain the dogs shown in the Jack Russell classes in hunt shows are no more descended from Jack Russell's dogs than I am".

What is certain is that the Reverend Russell enthusiastically bred his terriers for hunting purposes and his name certainly passed on attached to these dogs. So, a man of the church gave his name to the most cruel aspect of this most cruel of pastimes.

For some of these hunting vicars from bygone days their hunting was more important than anything: some refused to conduct marriages or funerals on days when their chosen hunts were meeting. Other hunting vicars became Masters of packs of hounds, Huntsmen (i.e. actually had control and direction of the pack of dogs) or even formed their own packs of hounds.

This anomaly of men who preach the word of God to the general public yet actively sought to kill God's creatures was not lost on the public at large and certainly not on the part of those who actively oppose the hunting and killing of animals purely for entertainment. The Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) who confronted hunting in the field in the UK for many years, seeking to protect the hunted animals, also sought to highlight the involvement of hunting vicars in this cruel pastime.

One of the first demonstrations to expose this took place on Sunday September 26th 1976 at St. Andrew's Church, Boscombe near Salisbury. This was against the Reverend Robin Ray who was the Joint-Master and Huntsman of the local Courtenay Tracey Otter Hunt and also a keen follower of the New Forest Beagles (a pack of beagles were used to hunt and kill hares with the hunt supporters following on foot). Reverend Ray was a very keen hunting man having previously done most of his otterhunting with the Eastern Counties Otterhounds.  A large number of HSA supporters were in attendance armed with an array of suitable banners and placards proclaiming the likes of: "Only rotters hunt Otters" and "Do unto otters as you would have done unto you." A "Hounds off our Wildlife" leaflet was pinned to the altar cloth. This demonstration passed peacefully but far from being deterred the Reverend Ray carried on hunting, more enthusiastically than ever.

On March 20th 1977 on the other side of England there was a protest by some 50 supporters of the HSA at the Mothering Sunday service conducted by 69-year-old Reverend Eric Wheeler at St. Mary's Church, Steeple Bumpstead in Essex. This time the conservationists carried banners proclaiming: "There is nothing sicker than a hunting vicar" and "Hunting is a Clerical Error."  HSA Secretary, Dave Wetton, explained to journalists that his group felt that the Reverend Wheeler's sporting interests, in particular his lifelong passion for hunting and his membership of the local Puckeridge and Thurlow Foxhounds, were totally contrary to Christianity and to what the Church represents. Before the demonstration the Reverend Wheeler defended bloodsports saying: "Nature is a hard way to live. There has been an ancient order since the dawn of life and, though it may seem cruel, there are no geriatric hospitals out in the wild. I don't feel I have to justify anything. Christianity has nothing to do with wild animals."

A group of about 20 conservationists had joined the congregation for the service and had sat quietly for some 15 minutes. However when the Reverend Wheeler was about to read the first lesson the conservationists started to sing their own version of the well known hymn "All things bright and beautiful". This was as follows:-

All things bright and beautiful

All creatures great and small

All things wise and wonderful

Your vicar kills them all

At this members of the congregation shouted at the conservationists and the Reverend Wheeler summoned two police officers to eject them from the church urging the police to "pinch the lot" and saying: "Out you go. I will not have anybody in my church interfering with divine worship." He then explained to his congregation: "They have committed an act against the Lord", and the congregation chanted to the anti-hunting activists: "Out, out you dirty louts!".

After the service Reverend Wheeler was escorted from the church by police officers to the accompaniment of jeers from the conservationists and cheers from his parishioners. Reverend Wheeler later explained his views to journalists: "What happened today had no influence on me whatever. When they try and compare hunting and Christian teaching they are talking about two different worlds."

A local leader of the HSA, Tom Halliday from Cambridge said afterwards: "We can't see how a man can kill animals one day and next day preach about love and goodness. We hope the Church will put some pressure on this vicar."

In the Republic of Ireland the Church has been seen giving solid support to another bloodsport - harecoursing. This is another cruel ancient pastime in which pairs of greyhounds are released to pursue a live hare. After extreme pressure from conservationists in Ireland seeking the abolition of this cruelty the greyhounds are now muzzled. This was done in the expectation that it would prevent the hares from being killed or injured but that hope has proved futile. Even with muzzled dogs the hares can still be caught, battered and mauled on the ground and too many hares still die. For years, including long before the dogs were muzzled, priests have been seen attending harecoursing events and enthusiastically supporting the events.

Elements within the Church have supported hunting in other ways. There has been the tradition associated with hunting with dogs in various parts of the world of the blessing of the hounds every year to signal the start of the hunting season. This is particularly true in France where the blessing takes place on or close to November 3rd, the day of the festival of St. Hubert the Patron Saint of Hunting. The huntsmen and their dogs gather before the priest and the altar boys and the priest shakes Holy Water over the dogs.

The dogs of course are every bit as innocent as the animals that they hunt so blessing them is fine but one can but wonder why if clergy choose to be involved in this scenario they do not also give careful consideration to the ethics involved.

In the modern era there is no need whatsoever to hunt any animal with a pack of dogs. Vulnerable livestock can easily be protected by humane methods and it is the responsibility of every stock-keeper to safeguard their livestock humanely. Hunting wildlife with dogs always was purely for the pleasure of the hunter. Taking life just for the fun of the kill is a disgrace and it was disgraceful that elements within the church justified the killing, participated in the killing and even gave their blessing to the killing.

Of course animals suffer in many way beside bloodsports but in other areas of animal abuse the Church has far too often remained silent when it comes to condemning the most appalling cruelty inflicted on God's wholly innocent creatures. One might have expected that a moral institution would lead the chorus of moral outrage over the destruction of life in the most brutal of ways. Some have spoken out but most have remained silent. Worse than that some have actively participated in the cruelty or justified it by some twisting of theology.

One infamous example was the occasion some years ago when an order of Nuns in the United Kingdom were questioned by the media after they were found to be running a battery-hen unit. The media were keen to know how keeping chickens in such conditions of deprivation and environmental squalor could possible accord with their professed adherence to the teachings of God. The Nun spokeswomen had an easy and quick answer proclaiming along the lines that all was well and there was no suffering because as the hens had "no souls" they "could not suffer".

If that view is widely held, widely believed and widely followed it certainly explains why there is so much indifference to or enjoyment of animal suffering by some proponents of the Christian faith.

Claiming that your victim is from some kind of lower order and as such is incapable of suffering has been the ideological refuge for bullies, thugs and scoundrels over recorded time. Now in 2011 surely is the time to state emphatically and clearly that animals obviously can and do suffer and that we should do all that we can to avoid any suffering being inflicted on them.

Perhaps the last words should be given to a real man of the Church, to Lord Soper. Interviewed by Kevin Saunders for the LACS in 1997 he said: "I believe that we have an equal obligation to care for all God's creation and not to just concentrate on our welfare as human beings. I do not believe that Christianity should be expressed with an indifference to the welfare of the animal world because it hasn't got a soul. I think that is a nonsense. I'm not an expert in defining what a soul is, but I believe that there is a profound need to care for animals as precious in society as a whole, and that their welfare is part of our obligation".

AWIS archivist

England August 2011

References:

Billett, Michael : A History of English Country Sports, Robert Hale, London 1994

East Anglian Daily Times : March 21st 1977

HOWL (Magazine of the Hunt Saboteurs Association) Issue number 9 Autumn 1977

LACS Wildlife Guardian Issue 39 Winter 1997/98

Plummer, David Brian : The Jack Russell Terrier 1976, This Tideline Publishing edition 1981

The Sun : March 21st 1977