There is currently debate as to the number of dogs permitted to be used to flush foxes from cover to guns, particularly as there is a difference in the provision of national legislation within the UK. The Wild Animal Welfare Committee (WAWC) is not intending to comment at this time on the necessity or effectiveness of fox control using dogs, but aims to address how the number of dogs used might affect the welfare of the fox.
In a number of situations where fox population control is judged to be necessary, legislation permits the use of dogs to flush foxes from cover so that they may be shot. If any such control is deemed necessary, the WAWC view is that it is appropriate to use the method or methods that minimise suffering to the animal being controlled, so minimising poor welfare in the fox, and taking into account the welfare of others such as dependent young in the case of a vixen or other animals disturbed by the flush. Ideally lethal methods would be instantaneous in order to maximise humaneness and efficiency.
At the outset of the renewed public debate on hunting and the number of dogs that should be permitted when flushing foxes to guns, the WAWC was not aware of any new research that contradicted the findings of the Committee of Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs chaired by Lord Burns that published its report in 2000.
Nevertheless, the WAWC sought to discover any new scientific evidence that would allow a robust decision to be made as to whether the use of different numbers of dogs per se has an impact on the welfare of foxes being flushed to guns. As part of its evidence gathering, the WAWC published a call for evidence on its website and searched recent literature but found no new robust information to inform additional insight.
(The WAWC is currently conducting a review of anthropogenic impacts on wild mammal welfare and this may highlight situations from which analogous issues emerge.)
Our search has failed to find any robust peer-reviewed evidence that relates specifically to the welfare of foxes when flushed from cover by dogs. In the absence of hard data, the general approach suggested by the European Food Safety Authority (2012) when conducting a risk assessment for animal welfare is to use expert elicitation to form the best working position, which seems appropriate until such time as more information becomes available.
Given the recommendation of EFSA, the position of WAWC after reviewing available evidence is that the greater the number of dogs involved, the more difficult it becomes to retain good control over them, especially when working out of sight under dense cover. It is thus increasingly likely that a chase or aggressive encounters may occur, thus impacting on the welfare of the fox (or any other wild animals that are encountered). Also, there would be more risk to the dogs, and more likelihood of failing to get a shot at the fox, if more than two dogs were used. On this basis, and given the lack of new evidence since the Burns report, if flushing foxes from cover with dogs is to be undertaken, the restriction to the use of only two dogs seems in the best welfare interest of the fox, based on available evidence.
The Hunting Act, 2004 covers England and Wales and allows, in limited circumstances, the stalking and flushing of wild mammals with up to two dogs
The Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 in Scotland permits the use of a pack of dogs under similar circumstances.
European Food Safety Authority (2012), Guidance on risk assessment for animal welfare, EFSA Journal 10: 2513 30pp
Burns report: Committee of Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs, 2000 available at: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100512151544/http:/www.huntinginquiry.gov.uk/mainsections/huntingreport.htm