On 17th December, the Heythrop Hunt pleaded guilty, as a body corporate, to four counts of illegal fox hunting, as did their recently retired Huntsman and a former Joint Master.
The Prime Minister David Cameron is known to be close to many leading officials and members of the hunt, to have ridden with the hunt on several occasions in the past and to have personally intervened in a previous case from 2008 in which the ex-Huntsman, Julian Barnfield, who admitted illegal hunting on Monday, was facing four counts of breaking the Hunting Act. The CPS subsequently dropped those charges.
The case, brought by the RSPCA, was based on extensive footage supplied by volunteer hunt monitors, many of whom are also Associates of Protect Our Wild Animals (POWA), and originally comprised 52 charges against the Hunt as a whole and 4 of its members.
After the RSPCA laid the new charges in the spring, based on events in the 2011/12 season, the Heythrop Hunt and its members all vehemently denied any wrongdoing – until very recently, when they suddenly offered to plead guilty to 12 counts. This left the RSPCA with little choice but to agree to bring the trial to a speedy conclusion, which meant not pursuing the other charges. But monitors are convinced that all the evidence was so strong that these would probably also have succeeded.
By pleading to some charges, the Heythrop Hunt have engaged in damage limitation, avoiding weeks of detailed, daily publicity of their hunting behaviour, not to mention substantial additional court and preparation costs and probable further fines.
The group of monitors, who provided the very hard-won evidence, have passed footage of what they believe was illegal hunting by the Heythrop Hunt and other local hunts to the police around 30 times in recent years, but the CPS have not once managed to bring any of them to court, and the monitors had lost all faith in these authorities’ ability or willingness to prosecute the hunts’ law-breaking.
POWA are immensely grateful to the RSPCA for agreeing to mount and fund the recent prosecutions.
It is the monitors’ contention that, far from the multiple breakings of the Hunting Act admitted by the Heythrop Hunt and its members being isolated incidents, as their Defence QC contended, it is, in fact, their standard behaviour, and that their supposed ‘trail hunting’ is little more than a charade intended to disguise the chasing and killing of live quarry.
Not only that, the monitors contend, and have evidence to show, that they are regularly subject to highly reprehensible and aggressive behaviour from hunt riders and followers. This includes assaults, threats, other menaces, vile abuse (racist in one instance), obstruction and damage to their property. No fewer than 14 Heythrop Hunt followers, including a hunt terrierman, have been convicted or cautioned regarding such behaviour in the last six years. Extensive footage of such behaviour, and of Heythrop hounds frequently chasing foxes, has been uploaded to YouTube over the last several years.
We find it hard to believe that David Cameron has remained unaware of what his favourite hunt is really like, but we call upon him now, when he has been presented with incontrovertible evidence, to condemn their behaviour, that of the many other hunts who behave similarly, and to disassociate himself from them.
It is clear that far from needing repealing, as Cameron has promised to try to do, the Hunting Act requires strengthening, both to deter and properly punish transgressive hunts and to make the law, designed to avoid wilful cruelty to wild mammals in the name of ‘sport’, easier to enforce.”
Also highly deplorable are the level of fines imposed in this case – a tiny fraction of what could and should have been levied – and the failure to use other sanctions allowed by the Act, such as the confiscation of vehicles, animals and equipment used in committing the offences.
POWA believes that at least a substantial proportion of the RSPCA’s costs should have been awarded against the wealthy Heythrop Hunt, who number several multi-millionaires (and major donors to the Conservative party) among their backers. They also regard the remarks made by Judge Pattinson regarding the Act itself and the costs expended by the RSPCA as highly inappropriate, and intend to make a formal complaint about them.
Readers wishing to see any of the mountain of evidence both of the Heythrop’s proven illegal and past suspicious hunting activity, and of their appalling behaviour towards monitors should visit www.powa.org.uk/id87.html.
Alan Kirby is an Associate of Protect Our Wild Animals www.powa.org.uk