After 13 years of Labour Government the prospect of the first hung Parliament since 1974 looms large and with some polls placing the Liberal Democrats in the lead for the first time in decades, the race for election has opened up.

Shooting Times asked the three rural affairs spokesmen vying for control of the countryside for their views on some of shooting’s big issues. Their answers reveal both shared and opposing views on a range of subjects from legalising target pistol ownership to whether shooters should notify police of their activities through to an extension of the game season and the reintroduction of native species.

Hopefully, their answers will help make up minds as to which candidate and party would best represent our sport.

FIELDSPORTS AND SHOOTING LAW

1. What are your views on David Taylor MP’s recent Early Day Motion (EDM) to ban the release of gamebirds for shooting?

Hilary Benn: Labour supports a responsible shooting industry.

James Paice: Unfortunately, a number of MPs do not understand or accept the conservation benefits from gameshooting. The EDM is definitely not Conservative policy.

Tim Farron: The poor conditions in which some gamebirds are reared continue to be a matter of concern. Rearing should be regulated more consistently and practices that are forbidden in poultry rearing should not be permitted.

2. Given the large number of other pressing environmental issues, should the new Lead Ammunition Group be a priority for DEFRA?

Hilary Benn: We need to deal with the issue of lead from shooting in the environment. I’ve always tried to build partnerships with people to tackle difficult environmental issues, just like we have done with the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, so I think we should work together in the Lead Ammunition Group, too. A responsible shooting industry shouldn’t be afraid of tackling difficult issues, by working in partnership we will tackle these challenges.

James Paice: This is not a priority but it is important that ministers are aware of the developing scientific knowledge of the use of lead in shooting sports.

Tim Farron: The purpose of the group is to provide advice on all the issues connected with the use of lead ammunition, which will then feed into future policy. With that in mind, and given the pressure of other issues such as bovine TB, it’s unlikely that the Lead Ammunition Group will be an immediate priority for DEFRA.

3. There have been an increasing number of incidences of police armed response units wrongfully arresting legitimate pigeon shooters. What should Government do to ensure that this does not occur in the future?

Hilary Benn: We would always advocate a common sense approach to such matters. What is important is that local forces are able to make informed decisions when they are made aware of shooting events. Event organisers should take steps to ensure beforehand that the local force is aware of a shoot taking place and those shooting have clearly visible permits.

James Paice: This is a matter of much better communication between the shooting community and the police. It appears that there are very different approaches in different police forces and the best solutions will be found locally.

Tim Farron: Irresponsible or illegal use of guns should be taken extremely seriously by the police, but there’s a need to find the right balance between cracking down on the illegal use of firearms and letting legitimate shooting enthusiasts pursue their hobby. Police forces should learn from these mistakes and do more to provide more specific guidelines and specialist training for police to reduce these occurrences.

4. Would you agree to firearms law being devolved in Scotland and Wales?

Hilary Benn: The devolution settlement was reviewed recently by Sir Kenneth Calman. There were no proposals to devolve firearms legislation. In Scotland this would be particularly difficult given the memories of Dunblane.

James Paice: My view is that the control of firearms is an issue that should be addressed on an all-GB basis given that lax laws in any one area could undermine attempts to tackle crime in other nations of the UK.

Tim Farron: The Liberal Democrats support the Calman Commission’s recommendations on devolution and as a result do not support the devolution of firearms law to Scotland. We support full devolution for Wales, but think that separate gun laws on one side of the border to another would cause confusion and lead to unnecessary burdens on the police.

5. Should private ownership of target pistols be made legal?

Hilary Benn: We don’t want to stop legitimate sporting activity but we have to be really careful about guns getting into the wrong hands. So we don’t plan to make private ownership of target pistols legal.

James Paice: We would look to amend firearms legislation to ensure that UK target pistol shooters can train and compete in this country. This will end the absurd situation where we use public money to support athletes to train abroad in an activity banned in this country.

Tim Farron: The Liberal Democrats supported the change in the law following the Dunblane tragedy and have no plans to amend it.

6. Should the gameshooting season be extended to 15 February?

Hilary Benn: I think the season works as it is at the moment, but I’ll always listen to reasoned, well-thought-through arguments.

James Paice: With climate change bringing earlier nesting seasons in most years it seems unwise to extend the season.

Tim Farron: We’ve no plans to extend the gameshooting season.

7. Should the Hunting Act be repealed? If so, in the event of a hung Parliament, should a pledge to lift the hunting ban be honoured?

Hilary Benn: I’m backing the ban. Three quarters of the British public agree that letting animals tear each other to pieces should not be part of a civilised society, so I’ve never seen any reason to change my opinion.

James Paice: We are fighting to win the election outright. A Conservative Government will give Parliament the opportunity on a free vote to repeal the Act.

Tim Farron: Hunting remains a free vote issue for the Liberal Democrats, so in that sense it will be difficult to reverse any hunting pledge. That said, I personally favour a repeal of the Act and a replacement with more balanced and comprehensive animal welfare legislation.

WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AND ANIMAL WELFARE

8. Should raptors and other protected predators be managed to agreed levels?

Hilary Benn: There are many pressures on our natural environment. We need more homes, we need to deal with the increasing risk of floods. We need to grow more food. And we need to protect and enrich our natural environment. In Labour’s manifesto we have committed to producing a plan that will do just that. Part of that will inevitably look at how we manage native and non-native species. But what I am absolutely dedicated to is producing a rich natural environment that we can all enjoy.

James Paice: In the longer term we need to take a broader approach to wildlife management and the interaction of species. We have no intention of changing the current arrangements.

Tim Farron: It’s important that any effort to manage the population of raptors and other protected predators is conducted according to the best scientific evidence available. The Liberal Democrats would authorise an Animal Protection Commission to investigate whether the levels of raptors and other protected predators have become unsustainable and would then act upon the Commission’s recommendations.

9. What are your views on reintroductions of “native” species such as the sea eagle?

Hilary Benn: See question eight

James Paice: There are more important conservation challenges with our existing wildlife rather than spending large sums on reintroduction.

Tim Farron: We are in favour of such reintroductions provided that they are based on sound science, International Union for the Conservation of Nature criteria for reintroductions and local consultation. They can benefit local and national biodiversity and help restore damaged ecosystems.

10. Should dark-bellied brent and curlew be returned to the quarry list?

Hilary Benn: See question eight.

James Paice: It is very unlikely that curlew numbers would permit its return to the list.

Tim Farron: The Liberal Democrats will establish an Animal Protection Commission, which will be tasked with providing the secretary of state with advice and recommendations on a range of animal welfare issues. We would authorise the commission to investigate whether dark-bellied brent and curlew should be put back on the quarry list and would act according to its response.

11. What are your views on the use of electric dog collars?

Hilary Benn: Recent events have shown that we need to take a fresh look at the protection we give dogs, and how we reduce the rare but tragic incidences where dogs hurt people. Labour’s Animal Welfare Act was the most comprehensive overhaul of animal welfare legislation in a century. And in March we published a number of options about how to tackle dangerous dogs. My overriding principle is that we should focus on the deed, not the breed of dog. But before we choose how to proceed, it’s important to listen to responsible dog owners about what would help and what wouldn’t.

James Paice: We view them as a last resort rather than the first choice for training. Their use must be carefully controlled.

Tim Farron: Electric collars are often used for violent or troublesome dogs as a means of subduing them, but unfortunately are sometimes used by dog trainers as the normal method of training. Pain and fear are not humane methods by which to train a dog so there can be no justification for the use of electric shock.

12. What are your views on the proposals to make microchipping of all dogs compulsory?

Hilary Benn: See question 11

James Paice: Microchipping is an important part of responsible pet ownership. We wish to find new ways to encourage owners to microchip their dogs but are not persuaded of the need for compulsion.

Tim Farron: The Liberal Democrats are in favour of introducing a system of compulsory registration for the ownership of dogs, involving clear identification, ideally through microchips. Discretionary rates would be provided for pensioners, guide dog owners and police dogs, so that these groups aren’t unfairly penalised. The scheme would be self-financing with the registration fee paying for the microchip, a national register and a dog warden network.

GAME AND GAMEFARMING

13. Given that DEFRA ignored the recommendations of its advisory committee in favour of last-minute changes to the gamebird welfare code, do you think the code should be suspended?

Hilary Benn: I think the decision Jim Fitzpatrick made on gamebird welfare was a good one; any decision that can bring together BASC with the RSPCA and the League Against Cruel Sports has probably got the balance right. I want a responsible shooting industry that will remain prosperous for the long term and I think this will help that remain the case.

James Paice: We will wish to study any scientific evidence used by DEFRA to change the code from that agreed by the advisory committee before deciding how to proceed.

Tim Farron: As I mentioned previously, the Liberal Democrats believe that the rearing of gamebirds should be regulated more consistently. We would suspend the welfare code so that we can bring together the existing Codes of Practice for the rearing of gamebirds so that consistent standards apply.

14. Do you believe that a cost-sharing levy on gamefarmers to pay for animal disease outbreaks is likely in the future?

Hilary Benn: We are committed to responsibility and cost sharing as a way to tackle animal health outbreaks, not least because Iain Anderson recommended it after foot-and-mouth in 2001, and when we were faced with bluetongue in 2007 it proved the best way to make decisions. Rosemary Radcliffe’s group are currently hard at it, working through the details, and we should listen to them in the first instance.

James Paice: We are not committed to Labour’s proposals and await the outcome of the independent review led by Rosemary Radcliffe.

Tim Farron: We are completely opposed to the Government’s proposals to introduce a costsharing levy, which would leave all farmers to pick up the tab. They wouldn’t ask communities affected by swine flu to pay to cover the NHS’s costs, so why should an innocent farmer have to pay because of the Government’s negligence over animal diseases?

15. What should be done about the rise in poaching and rural crime?

Hilary Benn: Everyone should rightly expect the police to tackle crime and people in rural areas are no exception. Accountability is the key to dealing with difficult issues such as rural crime. Not by electing an individual Police Commissioner, who will more then likely ignore minority concerns, but by ensuring the local force responds to local concerns. That is why we are ensuring that members of the public can call meetings with their local command units to discuss local crime and anti-social behaviour and seek solutions to deal with them. In this way rural communities can hold their police to account in exactly the same way as urban communities

James Paice: This is a matter for local police which is why we want people to elect the civilian head of their police force to ensure local priorities reflect local concerns.

Tim Farron: It is vital that we have a tailored response to deal with the increase in rural crime, which is why the Liberal Democrats will make police work better by giving local people a direct say in policing and the authority to tackle outdated or bad working practices.

16. What future initiatives do you propose to encourage the public to eat game?

Hilary Benn: I want Britain to produce more food, and I hope that British consumers will eat more British food. Last year we took some of Britain’s unique products to No 10 for a great afternoon celebrating British food. We’ve already worked with the pig and pork sector and with fruit and veg producers to help them make themselves more productive. I’ll continue to fight for high-quality, affordable British food and to work with all those who want to improve the productivity and attractiveness of their sector.

James Paice: We strongly support initiatives to promote British produce and will encourage efforts which seek to convey to the public the benefits of eating game.

Tim Farron: People often recognise the label “British” as a mark of the quality of the meat, but more often than not the labels used by supermarkets are deliberately misleading to convince shoppers they are “buying British”. The Liberal Democrats will make honest and fair labelling one of our main priorities and will work within Europe and at home to ensure British farmers aren’t undermined by cheap foreign imports.

THE OLYMPIC LEGACY

17. What will be the lasting legacy of the Olympic Games for shooting sports?

Hilary Benn: We have published an Olympic Legacy strategy to ensure that all sports, including shooting, maximise the opportunity that the Olympics present. In the run-up to 2012 we will work with sports organisations to ensure the maximum benefit post-Olympics for sports and communities across Britain.

James Paice: I hope it will be to encourage more people to take up shooting sports, inspired by British success.

: Everyone involved with shooting sports in the UK wants the Olympics to provide a lasting legacy for future generations. I’m convinced that the Olympics will introduce shooting sports to a whole new generation of youngsters outside of the countryside and show everyone how accessible and enjoyable the sport can be.

EXTRA QUESTIONS

1.The vast majority of the public has shown support for protection of our native red squirrels, should Natural England, therefore, support and fund the eradication of grey squirrels in the last remaining strongholds of the UK’s reds?

Hilary Benn: See answer to question 8 (above).

James Paice: We are examining the whole role of Natural England as part of our review of all quangos. We certainly wish to take whatever action is necessary to protect our remaining red squirrels.

Tim Farron: Grey squirrels are undoubtedly a pest, as not only do they drive out red squirrels but they destroy trees and rob birds’ nests. They are not a protected species and people can destroy them but the present focus must be on protecting those few remaining areas where we have a significant red squirrel population.

2. Should herring and black-backed gull put back on the General Licences?

Hilary Benn: See answer to question 8 (above).

James Paice: There needs to be regular reviews of all species populations before considering changes to license.

Tim Farron: Great black-backed gull are listed on the air safety licence, while the Herring Gull is listed on the air safety licence and, for egg and nest destruction only, on the public health and public safety licence. We believe there is sufficient scope to control these birds and therefore have no immediate plans to put either of these birds back on the General Licenses.

3. Given the current pressure to restrict public spending, will there be cuts to funding for entry level and higher level stewardship schemes in the next parliament and if so how deep will those cuts be?

Hilary Benn: It’s no secret that there will some tough decisions on public spending after the election and as politicians we have to be honest about that. But agri-environment schemes have proved that they can help farmers and land managers look after the environment and if we are going to produce more while impacting less, then they will be part of the solution.

James Paice: We do not intend to reduce expenditure on stewardship schemes although we do wish to make some adjustments to the schemes themselves to make them simpler and introduce and element of outcome management.

Tim Farron: The Liberal Democrats will not cut the funding to any of the stewardship schemes. By identifying efficiency savings in the Rural Payments Agency, we will be able to increase the amount of funding given to hill farmers to £31million under the Uplands Entry Level Scheme.