Re-enchanting the farm: Learning lessons from the past about human-animal relationships

Leading animal studies scholar Professor Erica Fudge (pictured below) has written an exclusive article for the Centre about how the social history of farmer/animal relationships affects and illuminates contemporary debates about intensive animal farming.

Professor Fudge, from the School of Humanities at the University of Strathclyde, examines extensive small-scale farming before the industrial revolution, a world which soon vanished as farming became more mechanised and commercial. Studying the wills of 17th Century Essex husbandmen, she finds that farm animals such as cows and sheep were perceived as more than objects or purely financial value. For example, the common practice of bequeathing lambs by deceased god parents to their godchildren was about passing on religious lessons about care and responsibility, rather than a mere material legacy.

Of course, we cannot simply recreate the conditions of pre-industrial animal farming. But the notion that animals matter more than just as economic units is reflected in modern thinking of them as not just sentient in the sense of experiencing pain but as individuals who benefit from the opportunity to exercise choice or agency over how they live. In other words, we should recognise animals – socially and politically – as beings with their own complex experience of, and emotional responses to, their world.

New report analyses fox hunting debate

Our CASJ-funded PhD researcher Dr Lucy Parry has successfully completed her project at the University of Sheffield investigating the political battle over fox hunting and has had her work published in eminent academic journals and conferences.

Obviously, the whole point of our research is that it leads to better protection for animals. So on 10 May 2017 we organised a symposium in London attended by Britain’s leading animal protection organisations where Lucy presented her critical research findings (below).

We have published a report entitled Analysing the Foxhunting Debate: Implications for Animal Protection which summarises Lucy’s PhD thesis for a non-academic audience. This publication helps to fulfil our Centre’s mission to communicate its research findings to the public, animal protection NGOs and government policy-makers in order to increase understanding of the social and political factors that have a decisive impact on the progress of animal protection.

Dr Parry explains that despite the enactment of the Hunting Act over a decade ago, fox hunting remains arguably the most controversial animal issue in British politics. The debate over fox hunting is highly politicised and contentious, as indicated by the prominence of the topic in the current General Election campaign. In the past few years there has been growing interest in the political aspects of animal ethics, with an increasing number of academics offering theoretical approaches rooted in politics and philosophy to enhance animal protection (see Garner and O’Sullivan 2016).

Dr Parry’s research takes up this challenge; she argues that deliberative democracy has the potential to improve animal protection. Deliberative democracy is a prominent strand of political theory that argues for a ‘talk-centric’ approach to democracy. It puts deliberation, a specific type of communication, at the heart of democratic decision-making. Deliberative democracy is known for helping to achieve environmental goals and Dr Parry argues that it could also enhance animal protection.

The report is a summary of the thesis, highlighting the key findings for animal protection. She uses deliberative democracy as a lens through which to evaluate the fox hunting debate. She first identifies four different viewpoints on hunting in the public sphere, and examine how animals are represented within these narratives. She then follows these four viewpoints into Westminster and examines the parliamentary fox hunting debate. Dr Parry finds that despite considerable entrenchment and hostility, moments of reflection and geniality can be found in the hunting debate. However, her analysis of Westminster reveals the distortive influence of party politics and the intractability of the hunting debate. This undermines the potential for meaningful deliberation and animal protection.

Her research suggests a key role for animal protection organisations in holding the government to account for animal protection decisions. Animal protection organisations should adopt a more deliberative approach, but currently the British political system is a significant barrier to this. If we want substantive, feasible policies to support animal protection in Britain, we must pay attention to the political system we are dealing with, as well as individual animal issues.

Dr Parry’s last point identifies the historic gap in animal protection research and advocacy that the CASJ’s unique work is focussed on. Dr Parry’s research was part-funded by the CASJ in conjunction with the University of Sheffield. We are grateful to the University of Sheffield’s Department of Politics and her supervisors, Dr Alasdair Cochrane & Dr Hayley Stevenson for their invaluable help and support.