A FORMER master of the Jedforest Hunt in the Borders has been cleared of breaking Scotland’s fox-hunting law.
Countryside campaigners welcomed the verdict while there have been fresh calls for a strengthening of the legislation after yet another case was thrown out of court.
Police Scotland and the Crown felt there was enough evidence to press ahead with the prosecution of David Lee Peters, 42, who at the time was the master of the Jedforest Hunt.
They relied on the evidence of a video filmed by an investigator from the League Against Cruel Sports animal charity which showed Mr Peters operating a pest control service for local farmers with hounds in December 2019.
The trial at Jedburgh Sheriff Court lasted two days before the residing sheriff delivered a not guilty verdict and also a stinging rebuke of the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 which he described as “difficult to interpret.”
Sheriff Peter Paterson added: “There are many other difficulties with the Act which are not relevant for today’s consideration.”
In the 19 years since the Act was introduced there has only been one successful prosecution for mounted fox hunting, co-incidentally at Jedburgh where Sheriff Paterson was presiding.
Robbie Marsland, Director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, said: “The verdict comes as absolutely no surprise. The law is woefully inadequate which is illustrated by just one successful prosecution in almost two decades.
“Another not guilty verdict under this flawed piece of legislation, and yet again Sheriff Paterson recognising how difficult it is to prosecute under it, emphatically endorses our view that the law which supposedly bans hunting in Scotland needs strengthening.
“It is in no-one’s interests to waste endless hours of court time debating whether or not hounds were deliberately allowed to chase a fox – the law needs to be far clearer than it is currently to allow effective and time-efficient prosecutions of those who continue to ride roughshod over the law.”
The Scottish Government has repeatedly committed to bring forward a Bill to strengthen current legislation in relation to fox hunting in Scotland but has been sidelined due to time constraints as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The current law allows hounds to be used to “flush” foxes from cover to awaiting shotguns but critics argue that has made little difference.
Mr Marsland added: “The Act has faced relentless criticism for a number of loopholes in the law which has made prosecution almost impossible, allowing hunts to continue hunting very much as they did before the law passed.
“We are very pleased that the Scottish Government has repeatedly committed to introducing a Bill to close loopholes in the existing law and we would urge them to make this a priority in the new Parliament after the election in May.”
Meanwhile a spokesperson for the Countryside Alliance said: “After almost 20 years of Scottish packs carrying out fox control very effectively for farmers, we are disappointed the case even reached court because there was clear evidence of legal fox control.
“Allegations of illegal activity comes exclusively from politically motivated campaign groups so we would urge the police and the prosecuting authorities to consider very carefully any evidence provided by paid activists in the future.
The latest case to test the legislation took place at Jedburgh Sheriff Court last week involving Mr Peters who in December 2017 was the master of the Jedforest Hunt with part of his duties for two days a week offering a pest control service for farmers.
He was charged with deliberately hunting a fox with dogs.
The offence was alleged to have been committed at Ruecastle Farm, Hundalee Farm and Dunion Hill near Jedburgh on December 17, 2019.
The crux of the Crown case centred on a video filming the activities of the pest control service by Terence Hill, an investigator for the League Against Cruel Sports.
Mr Hill gave evidence in which he stated what he witnessed was illegal fox hunting and said he saw no gunmen or heard any shots that day.
However, four men also gave evidence saying they were at the scene with shotguns waiting for a fox to be flushed from the cover by the hounds who were under the control of Mr Peters.
Joe Stewart, senior procurator depute with the Crown Office’s Wildlife Environmental Crime Unit, said there were two incidents in the video which he felt breached the Act.
He highlighted footage where the hounds were searching in an area of gorse which pointed to deliberately hunting a wild mammal with dogs.
Mr Stewart also referred to a second incident where a fox was “seen to be fleeing” across open countryside and around five minutes later around 15 hounds, which had broken away from the main pack under Mr Peters’ control, were seen in pursuit.
But advocate Mark Moir argued that Mr Peters operated within the law on both occasions.
He said his client had taken all reasonable steps with waiting gunmen who would have shot the fox if the dogs had flushed the mammal from the gorse. He pointed out that no fox was flushed from the cover.
In relation to the second incident which showed the fox bolting across the countryside and the break-away hounds following several minutes later, he pointed out that Cameron Thomson, who was riding on a quad bike, arrived quickly on the scene and rounded the hounds up.
The trial heard it was at that point that Mr Thomson spotted the investigator and a colleague from the League Against Cruel Sports filming the proceedings and went up to him and appeared to say: “I tried to stop them.”
Mr Thomson alerted Mr Peters to the presence of the cameramen and told the trial he then made the decision to call off the search for foxes due to “safety reasons”.
In his judgment Sheriff Paterson was critical of the way the legislation had been drafted, saying “it made it difficult to interpret”.
He said no fox had been flushed in the first incident on the video and in the second incident which featured a fox running in the countryside and hounds following several minutes later he said it was impossible to know where the fox had come from.
Sheriff Paterson commented: “I simply don’t accept the Crown’s position on the facts.
He concluded he had “no hesitation” in finding Mr Peters not guilty of the charge.
After the case Mr Peters, who now resides near Middlesbrough, said he was no longer involved in hunting and had decided to quit because of the case against him.
He said: “It is a relief it is all over, it has been looming over me for a while.
“The legislation needs to be clearer. You do what you can within the law and then people say it’s not.
“I have moved away from it now, I have got tired of the whole game.
“This happened in December and they were back filming me in March. It is very dangerous people doing that when there are guns around.
“I now do something else different.”
Jedburgh Sheriff Court has emerged as a focal point for the fox-hunting legislation.
The first prosecution of a mounted fox hunter took place at the Borders court in 2004 when Trevor Adams from the Buccleuch Hunt was cleared of deliberately hunting a fox with 20 dogs at Courthill, near Kelso, Roxburghshire, on October 16, 2002.
While there have been several successful prosecutions under the Act, the first and only one to date, to involve fox hunters on a horse came in 2017 also at Jedburgh Sheriff Court when father and son John Clive Richardson and Johnny Riley were found guilty of deliberately hunting a fox with dogs near Jedburgh the previous year.
Riley, who was 24 at the time, was fined £400 and his father fined £250. Both men were members of the Jedforest Hunt at the time.