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Thursday, May 11, 2023

How the UK’s 2004 Ban on Fox Hunting Led to a ‘Catastrophic Decline’ in the Fox Population

Britain’s foxes are victims of good intentions.

Image Credit: iStock

Every day the world over, good intentions cover up a multitude of sins.

A visitor from another planet could hardly fail to notice that humans seem to care more about motives than results, and when results achieve the opposite of the intended effect, we’re rarely as quick to reverse course as we were to embark on the wrong path in the first place.

“God save us from people who mean well,” wrote the novelist Vikram Seth in A Suitable Boy.

This is not to recommend bad intentions, but rather, to recognize that good ones can be even worse, depending on outcomes.

Among the latest victims of good intentions are the foxes of Great Britain (the four-legged kind). A story written by correspondent Hayley Dixon published in the The Telegraph on Tuesday reveals a “catastrophic decline” in fox populations since the 2004 passage of a ban on hunting them. Red foxes in particular face extinction in certain rural areas.

More than 100 veterinarians from around the UK have signed a letter which points out, “Advocates of the 2004 ban on hunting would not have expected their efforts to protect foxes to result in this catastrophic decline.” Oops.

Prior to enacting the ban, Parliament spent 700 hours debating it. That was more time than it deliberated over the invasion of Iraq the year before. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair went along with it but in his autobiography six years later, he revealed that the Hunting Act of 2004 was “one of the domestic legislative measures I most regret.” On a vacation in Italy a few years after its passage, he ran into a lady hunter who persuaded him that the ban was a mistake:

She took me calmly and persuasively through what they (the fox hunts) did, the jobs that were dependent on it, the social contribution of keeping the hunt and the social consequence of banning it and did it with an effect that completely convinced me.

Nearly 20 years since the ban took effect, and 13 years since Blair saw the light, the ban is exacting a terrible toll on the fox population.

What went wrong?

The activists and the “armchair authorities” in Parliament, it turns out, had commissioned no scientific research on the question. Fox hunts were bad, no fox hunting would be good. Such virtue-signaling beating of the breasts was enough to pass a law. But farmers, livestock ranchers and homeowners vexed by predatory foxes took matters into their own hands. Dixon’s article in The Telegraph cites the veterinarians in their recent letter:

The most humane method of controlling fox numbers should be based on selection for the weakest animals, minimizing the possibility of wounding and preventing the orphaning of dependent young. Perversely, hunting with hounds was much better at achieving this than any of today’s legal methods. The number of foxes killed in hunts was limited and the hunt dispersed the foxes that survived from sensitive areas…It is dispiriting that two decades ago, the debates on fox hunting were driven overwhelmingly by political instincts, and the need for scientific research was scarcely considered.

In the US, we’ve seen a similar effect from the Endangered Species Act of 1973. It’s called “shoot, shovel and shut up” because of the law’s perverse incentives. John Stossel provides details in this short but revealing video.

So before you embrace a course of action, no matter how emotionally convinced you are of its inherent virtue, it’s almost always a greater virtue to set your passionate intentions aside for a moment and consider what the results might be. Facts can be inconvenient and humbling too, but they trump intentions every time. To reinforce the point, here are a few further observations:

Without wisdom, all the good intentions in the world amount to nothing. Intending to do good without having wisdom is like intending to fly an airplane with no knowledge of airplanes or the laws of aerodynamics. Good intentions without wisdom lead to either nothing or to actual evil ― Dennis Prager

And good intentions? These scared him the most: people with good intentions tended not to question themselves. And people who didn’t question themselves, in the scientific world and beyond, were the ones to watch out for ― Shanthi Sekaran

Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth C. S. Lewis

For Additional Information, See:

The Economics of Good Intentions by Joe Cobb

3 Policies with Good Intentions and Tragic Consequences by Corey Iacono

Law and Good Intentions by Andrew P. Morriss

America’s Entitlement State and the Failure of Good Intentions by Joseph Sunde

The Good Intentions Fallacy is Driving Support for Democratic Socialism by Barry Brownstein


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.