THE WHIGS AND THE RABBITS.
THE Government, it is obvious, will have some difficulty with its Hares and Rabbits Bill. The tenants may be taken, after the vote of the Central Chamber of Agriculture, and after Mr. Clare Read's speech to that body, to be in favour of the Bill, and this will impress the County Members ; but the Parliament is young, the landlords as a body dislike the Bill, and there is dissension about, it in the Liberal ranks. No less than four amendments, all hostile to the Bill, have been moved by Liberals, and there is fear of an open difference of opinion between the Whigs, who have always a bias towards the landlords, and the Radicals, who think first of all of the interests of the cultivators. A differ- ence upon the subject is natural, and there are difficulties in the whole question which admit of serious discussion ; but the argu- ments put forward go beyond these, and we would point out to the Whigs one danger they are running. If they wish the next Parliament, with its enlarged county suffrage, to be really democratic in tone, they will press the view, so gravely maintained by men like Lord Stamford and Warrington, that the Bill will seriously interfere with the pleasures of the country gentlemen. That is an argument which weighs, we fear, very heavily in the matter, and it is one which can- not fail to produce intense class-irritation. The regular Whig argument, that the Bill, by prohibiting the tenant from divesting himself of the power to kill ground-game, is an interference with freedom of contract, is one that deserves attention,—first, because it is true ; and secondly, because such interference is in se always to be deprecated. The answer is that Parliament has never scrupled, on good cause shown, to interfere with freedom of contract, and that in particular it does so interfere whenever one party to the contract is visibly not free, as in many departments of life, women, children, and servants are not. The contention is, that the quantity of land in the country being absolutely limited by Nature, and the right of sale closely limited by law, the tenant is not quite free, but may virtually be compelled to surrender for his landlord's pleasure much of the natural profit of his labour. Nobody denies that this is true, though the extent of the loss is much disputed ; and that being the case, the tenants' freedom ought to be restored, and will be restored by the Bill. Whether the tenant with a frowning landlord above him will use his freedom, whether he will, on his own account, preserve his rabbits, or whether he will extirpate all rabbits at once as noxious vermin, has very little relevancy to the question. He will be restored by law to the natural enjoyment of the full profit of his labour, and if he chooses to forego it for any reason, that is his affair. It is his anyhow, and he will use his judgment. It is considered in hunting districts a most unneigh- hourly and cross-grained act for a farmer to prohibit the hunt from riding across his fields, but nobody questions his legal right to do it, and the pressure put upon him is exclusively social. That is the position in which the Bill will leave rabbit-shoot- ing. The landlord may frown, and the tenant may fear the frown, but the tenant will have the legal right on his side, which in this country almost always developes into the prac- tical power, and if landlords are to go on hunting about for tenants as at present, certainly will so develope. The only real question on this side is whether rabbits interfere seriously with tenants' profits, and on this subject the unanimous answer is, that in certain large districts and on certain estates every- where they do interfere.
Another argument that the Bill will be useless, because tenants will preserve worse than the landlords, has very little value. If they do, they will do it because they see advantage or pleasure in it, and will none the less be in possession of their natural right. As a matter of fact, they can hardly do it without the landlord's consent, because of his concurrent right of shooting ; but if they do, they will injure themselves, instead of suffering injury from a superior—a very different thing, both as regards fact and feeling. But there is another statement from this side which is of more importance. It is gravely argued by the Scotsman, which sincerely Liberal journal is decidedly opposed to the Bill, that rather than give up their privileges landlords will refuse leases, and either let all their lands to tenants-at-will, or take them into their own hands. The tenants-at-will, it is argued, will never ven- ture to oppose the landlords' wishes. We might answer that in the present position of English agriculture, with corn so cheap and Canada so near, even tenants-at-will are growing indepen- dent; but there is a better reply than this. Is not the Scots- man's argument fatal to any tenant-right of any kind, however Nobody is questioning the landlord's right to cultivate through bailiffs, or tenants-at-will, which is nearly the same thing ; and if he hates tenant-right so much as to be willing, in order to defeat it, to become a great farmer, no tenants' Bill, the Agricultural Holdings Act in- cluded, will be of any value at all. Landlord and tenant being one person, they will be as " unanimous " on all questions as Jonah in the whale. The presumption in respect to all such Bills is that the landlord will not do this, that he wishes for money without labour, and that he will, as a rule, do the best for the estate he can, having a pride, akin to the pride of a professional in his work, in the condition of his land. But if he chooses, out of desire to kill rabbits, to cultivate a huge acreage without farmers, nothing can stop him, except the bankruptcy or continuous loss which is likely to follow the attempt. The English people might at last dislike the Lati- fundia system to such an extent that they would compel sales by law, or limit the size of landed properties as the Dutch do, but they are not prepared as yet for that kind of interference. The Peers could all have turned farmers, if they chose, when the Agricultural Holdings Act was passed, instead of contract- ing themselves out of it, and no one could have legally offered an objection. The risk therefore of the extinction of leases or of farmers is one that must always be encountered in any proposal for giving security to tenants, whether against the loss of their improvements or against the ravages of rabbits. Such a threat on account of the right to kill such animals might be taken to be almost ridiculous, but for the obvious tendency to argue that the right to shoot rabbits is one of the most valuable rights of property. The Earl of Stamford and War- rington, who in "Domesday Book" appears as owner of 31,000 acres, producing £50,000 a year, and in "Debrett " as a Tory, puts that point in a letter to the Standard in this plain fashion :— "Amongst minor evils, if hares are to be indiscriminately got rid of as vermin, according to this sweeping Bill, then we may say adieu to coursing,—adieu to harriers and the sports so congenial to thousands of Englishmen. As the Bill sets forth, the farmer can set traps wherever he chooses, the simple meaning of which is the destruction of any biped or quadruped going through the fences or hedges of his farm. And as foxes will not remain constantly in covers where there may be rabbits, we may in a short time say that fox-hunting will become a thing of the past in England. Where then will the farmer find a market for his oats, beans, and straw ? The farmer will not even care for breeding a good animal for hunting purposes. English gentlemen, finding all the pleasures of the chase and field denied them, will take their families and seek in foreign climes for amusements and .recreations hitherto little adapted to their tastes. Thus it will be seen that by this obnoxious Bill landlords will be debarred from all pleasures on their estates during the autumn and winter. Neither will any especial advantage be gained for the tenant- farmer ; but, as I have clearly demonstrated, the measure will far more likely prove his absolute ruin." In other words,. English Peers with vast rent-rolls, high political influence, and all earth ransacked to find them means of enjoyment, will. quit their country, if they cannot be aided by the law in pursuing a rather base sport. For, after all, rabbit.. shooting is a base sport. It is not as cruel as coxrsing, for- the rabbit has to die, and death by shooting is as quick as by any other means ; but still the creature is utterly defenceless, utterly timid, and as nearly powerless when out of hie burrow as a creature can well be. Shooting him for sport is not half as exciting as shooting cats for sport, and those wha practise the one would condemn the other as almost infamous.
Yet for the sake of this pursuit great nobles will quit England,. agriculture is to be rendered less attractive, and the grand Tory argument against peasant-proprietorship—that it is a.
first duty to make the land yield all it will—is to be given up. If that is true, and produce per acre is the sole standard, all rab- bits should be extirpated. We do not suppose many Members of Parliament will go quite as far as Lord Stamford, or allege that oats, pease, and beans are chiefly cultivated to feed hunters ; but the latent feeling which he has so plainly and plaintively ex- pressed weighs heavily against the Bill. The country gentle- men think their pleasures will be interfered with, and do not see what on earth they are to do with themselves to escape ennui during the winter months. We are not concerned to dispute their view, or to suggest that other classes less gifted with all that wealth can give find respite from ennui in other, perhaps nobler, occupations. Our only object is to press the Whig gentry, if they really intend to fight the Bill, to use other arguments than this. It really will not do, in our age, to declare publicly that the improve- ment of agriculture, and the development of the tenure, or even the wishes of the great body of rural voters, must be set aside in order that the country gentlemen may enjoy the pleasure of shooting at a great many rabbits. The argument smacks too completely of the old regime, and suggests answers, as to the comparative value of the pleasures of the few and the prosperity of the many which it is most unadvisable to• bring forward. The Bill ought to be fought over without caste-feeling, and on grounds which are fairly open to political argument,—the importance or worthlessness of the right of con-- tract, the truth or the falsehood of the tenants' belief as to the rabbit-pest, or if you will, the necessitfor non-necessity of main- taining absolute rights of property. To neglect these questions for a plea that if the country gentlemen are not sufficiently amused they will quit England, is only to provoke a demo- cratic reply which we at least should be sorry to see given. The class is a most useful one, and greatly to be respected, but it is not the rural community, and far less the nation, nor cam its liability to the ennui which springs of satiety be taken in serious politics into much account.