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Animal Encounters:

Human and Animal Interaction in Britain from the Norman Conquest to World War One

by Arthur MacGregor

W e like to think that being kind to animals is one of the things that makes us British. But that is a recent development. Arthur MacGregor's fascinating and erudite survey of our treatment of animals, both wild and domesticated, from the Norman conquest to the early 20th century, yields not a single instance - or not one that I have spotted - of anyone being kind to an animal simply for the animal's sake. In the past our cruelties were extreme enough to draw the attention of foreign visitors, particularly the bear-baitings in Tudor Southwark, where the usual grand finale was the whipping of a blinded bear, advertised as 'a pleasant sport' by the management. Oddly, ­cruelty was sometimes combined with careful nurture. Fighting cocks, prior to combat, were reared in luxury. Their high-quality diet (usually some combination of ale, egg white, butter and human urine) was the subject of learned debate, and their 'feeders' enjoyed the prestige of present-day racehorse trainers. Their beautifully crafted steel or silver spurs inflicted fearsome wounds, and the fights were brief and fatal. Devotees denied that the sport was cruel. When it was made illegal in the mid-19th century, one pained fan protested that vanquished cocks enjoyed the athletic exercise and died 'totally gratified'.

MacGregor thinks a factor behind our cruelty was the biblical notion that humans had dominion over the animal world. It seems doubtful, though, whether obedience to the scriptures was uppermost in the minds of bear-baiters and cock-fighters. A likelier explanation, perhaps, is that human life in the past was so cruel that seeing another creature suffer was a relief. Mixed in with this is what seems to be an ancient human belief that killing something, or someone, makes you more alive and powerful. My least favourite picture in this richly illustrated book shows the Earl of Aberdeen's otterhounds with the huntsman triumphantly holding an otter aloft, still alive and writhing, on the end of his spear. It was painted by Edwin Landseer.

The rituals and vocabularies thatwere invented to make tormenting animals seem civilised are extensively ­documented by MacGregor, and they beggar belief. A medieval aristocrat's education included learning to identify and give special names to animal droppings - 'fewmets' (red deer), 'croties' (fallow deer and hare), 'lesses' (wild boar and wolves). Deer-hunting was for royalty, but lower-class creatures, such as badgers and polecats, could be persecuted by almost anyone. Species hunted to extinction in Britain included the beaver and the crane. When deer also approached extinction, foxes, previously accounted vermin, enjoyed the doubtful privilege of upgrading, and were hunted until they, in turn, became thin on the ground. By the mid-19th century 1,000 foxes a year were being imported from Holland, Germany and France for the British to chase.

The changing fortunes of animal and bird species in response to human whim is one of MacGregor's most intriguing subjects. Rabbits, for example, were luxuries at royal feasts in the Norman period, became a staple of the urban poor in the 19th century, and were virtually wiped out by myxomatosis in the 20th. The spread of literacy caused agonies to geese, because wing feathers were torn out of the living birds to make pens. London alone was consuming an annual average of 20m goose-quill pens by the 1820s. The introduction of turnips to Britain in the 18th century severely affected the lives of doves. Until then they had provided meat through the winter, and luxurious dovecotes were built to accommodate them. But turnips enabled farmers to overwinter sheep and cattle, and dovecote construction ceased abruptly. Most bizarrely of all, the stiff ruffs fashionable among the Elizabethans were good news for pigs who devoured the wheat refuse from starch manufacture along with apple pulp from cider-making and other appetising debris.

Not that an enriched diet was necessarily a benefit from the pig's viewpoint. Intensive breeding and feeding in the 18th century produced animals so grotesquely inflated that they were in danger of suffocating in their own fat. Described by a contemporary as 'animated tubs of lard', prize-winning specimens could top 1,000lb, though the effort of standing and walking out of their pens to meet the judges sometimes proved too much for them. Their proud owners naturally wanted them immortalised, and a new genre of ­animal portraiture developed depicting jumbo-sized oxen, heifers and sheep as well as pigs. It was important to show the animals in peak condition, so their portraits tended to be condemned-cell art, with painters working all night by candlelight before their sitters went to the butcher the following morning.

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More purposefully bred, the horse and the network of specialised occupations surrounding it occupy almost a quarter of MacGregor's book. Given their grace and beauty, inspiring to artists since the era of cave paintings, and their vital contribution to human well-being, it might be hoped that horses would have been treated better than other animals, if only out of gratitude. In fact, they were driven till they dropped. In cities, special carts were kept on stand-by to recover the carcasses of horses that died in harness, and they were flayed, butchered and boiled down for cat's meat within hours.

To modern readers, aware of the fragility of the ecosystem, a shocking aspect of the centuries MacGregor chronicles is what he calls the doctrine of plenitude - the assumption that ­natural resources are limitless and that divine providence will replenish any losses. It is hard to suppress horror when reading about the ingenious traps devised to catch blackbirds, sparrows, robins, wrens and starlings, or about the thousands of skylarks that were caught in autumn by dragging nets over the stubble fields at night, or about the hunting of waterfowl with heavy scatterguns mounted on boats that could, at a blast, transform a peaceful estuary into a battlefield of dead and dying birds.

The subjects that Macgregor's magnificent book covers are too numerous to list in full, ranging from bee-keeping to fish-farming, from falconry to pigeon-racing, so to ask him for more seems unreasonable. All the same, it is a disappointment that he excludes any consideration of animals kept as pets, since this might have done something to mitigate the general ghastliness. More seriously, the efforts of early pro-animal activists might have been mentioned, in particular Anna Sewell, whose Black Beauty (1877) was a landmark in the history of animal-welfare awareness and one of the bestselling novels of all time, and Emily Williamson who, in 1889, founded an all-women protest group that eventually became the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Women such as these do something to counterbalance the impression conveyed by MacGregor's research that animals should at all costs avoid contact with humans.

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