Three leading members of a Sussex hunt have been convicted of pursuing a fox illegally with hounds, in a case that will be seen a significant victory for animal rights activists.
The guilty verdicts at Haywards Heath magistrates court are a blow for the hunting community which is increasingly resentful of close scrutiny by monitors filming their pursuits.
Andrew Phillis, Neill Millard and Rachel Holdsworth, who are all members of the Crawley and Horsham Hunt, were convicted for breaching the hunting ban on different occasions last year.
Charges against a fourth member of the hunt were dropped two weeks ago during the lengthy trial. All three had denied the charges, saying they were out trail hunting — following an artificially laid scent — and did not plan to hunt or kill any foxes. They are expected to appeal against their convictions.
Phillis, 50, now of Totnes in Devon, who was formerly the Crawley and Horsham’s huntsman, and Rachel Holdsworth, of Pulborough, the hunt’s secretary, were found guilty for hunting illegally at Marlpost Wood, Southwater, on 18 January 2011.
Phillis, Holdsworth and Millard, 44, of Horsham, were found guilty of offences on 25 January at Shermanbury Place. Phillis was acquitted of another offence.
Holdsworth was fined £500 for each of the two offences and ordered to pay £2,500 costs. Millard, the founder of a wealth management firm in the City, was fined £1,000 and ordered to pay £2,500 costs. Phillis will be sentenced on a date to be fixed.
A Sussex police spokesman said: “The introduction of the 2004 Hunting Act was extremely emotive on both sides of the hunting spectrum and continues to be strongly debated. Evidence was provided that the accused had committed offences under the act and following early consultation with the CPS an investigation commenced and subsequently charges were made.
“As we have seen, District Judge Stephen Nichol has ruled that they are guilty of these offences and we are satisfied with his decision. It is the duty of the police to uphold the law and wherever offences such as this come to light, we will seek to bring them to justice.”
Simon Wild, of the West Sussex Wildlife Protection Group, gave evidence at the trial after filming the hunt. He said: “I’m very pleased with the verdicts. These sorts of things take a long time for the police to take them seriously.
“The next step is to go for hunts as corporate bodies so that there can be confiscation of their assets — like horseboxes and trailers.”
MPs have been promised a free vote on removing the 2004 ban on hunting mammals with dogs during the lifetime of this parliament but the presence of anti-hunting Conservatives in the latest intake means there is unlikely to be a majority for repeal.
During the trial, the Countryside Alliance said: “We continue to campaign for repeal of the atrocious Hunting Act and have great faith in hunting’s long-term future.”
Since the ban on hunting mammals with dogs came into force in 2005, only eight other hunt members have been convicted of breaking the law.