A HUNTSMAN was convicted last week of illegally hunting foxes – the first such prosecution of its kind since the Government’s long fought-for hunting ban came into force.
Exmoor Foxhounds huntsman Tony Wright, 52, was fined £500 and ordered to pay £250 costs by District Judge Paul Palmer after a week-long hearing at Barnstaple Magistrates' Court, in Devon
Wright, of Exmoor Kennels, Simonsbath, pleaded not guilty to the charge of hunting a fox on 29 April last year contrary to the Hunting Act 2004.
The private prosecution by the League Against Cruel Sports was the first in England against a fox or stag hunt under the Act.
Giving the reasons for his finding, the judge said he was of the view that Wright was hunting with two dogs.
The prosecution followed video evidence gathered by the League that was shown to the court.
The Foxhounds claimed they were operating under ‘exempt hunting’ provisions in the Act which stipulated each of the two hounds should be kept under sufficiently close control for the fox to be shot as soon as possible after flushing.
Monitors from the League Against Cruel Sports videotaped Wright while leading a hunt two months after the ban came into force last year. He was said to have urged his hounds on as they chased a fox down a hill on Exmoor and done nothing to call them off when they pursued another across open moorland. He argued he was following an exemption which allows hunts to flush out foxes to guns, but Judge Paul Farmer said the foxes had been hunted for ‘substantial periods’.
Long after the foxes were flushed they were being followed by the hounds, which was hunting in the judge's view.
There was only one marksman, who was not going to be in the position to shoot the animal as soon as possible.
The judge said no reasonable steps were taken to shoot the fox as soon as possible and the dogs were not under close control as required by the hunting exemption.
During the case the League claimed the Foxhounds acted with ‘wilful disregard’ of the Act, and what they did bore all the hallmarks of traditional hunting.
Mr Wright, who believed he had complied with the Act, told the court that five foxes were flushed that day, one of which was shot, the others got away.
Judge Palmer found Wright guilty of hunting a wild mammal with a dog, an offence under section one of the Hunting Act 2004 and fined him £500, and ordered him to pay costs of £250.
Outside Barnstaple magistrates’ court in north Devon, Wright said he would appeal. ‘I may have been found guilty but I don't feel like a criminal,’ he said. ‘I'm still convinced that what we were doing on that day was legal. It is a stupid law, which should be repealed.’
The verdict will almost certainly force hunts and police forces will be forced to rethink the way they operate in future.
Supporters of hunting with dogs said enthusiasts would look at the case and find ways of adapting their methods to allow them to carry on. Meanwhile, anti-hunting campaigners said the verdict would prompt police forces to take reports of illegal hunting more seriously.
LACS was naturally jubilant at the verdict, arguing that it sent out a clear message that it was illegal to chase a fox with hounds and it was possible for the law banning hunting to be enforced.
Mike Hobday, Head of Public Affairs for the League Against Cruel Sports, said: ‘The message of this case is absolutely clear. It's a crime to chase a fox with hounds. People who hunt do so because they wish to torment a fox. I would now expect the police to be visiting their local hunts to make it clear that they are not allowed to pursue foxes.’
The League hopes the result will open the way for further prosecutions. It believes police have been reluctant to be the first to launch a prosecution but will be encouraged by the success of their case. Avon and Somerset and Devon and Cornwall police were presented with the evidence against the Exmoor Foxhounds which formed the basis of the prosecution but decided not to pass a file on to the Crown Prosecution Service. LACS then took out a private prosecution against Tony Wright.
Superintendent Adrian Coombs, Avon and Somerset police's hunt liaison officer, said the force would analyse how it investigated reports of illegal hunting.
Among Wright's supporters in court were Lady Mallalieu, Labour peer and president of the pro-hunting group, the Countryside Alliance, and Otis Ferry, son of rock star Bryan, who hit the headlines when he stormed the House of Commons in protest at the ban.
Simon Hart, Chief Executive of the alliance, said the verdict would make hunt supporters more determined to carry on. He said they would use other exemptions.
Mr Hart said: ‘No right minded person thinks that Tony Wright should have been branded a criminal.
‘If people were confused about the Hunting Act before today they will be a lot more confused now. We believe that he was trying to comply with the law as he understood it and will be supporting his appeal.
‘This is a piece of legislation which took seven years and 700 hours of parliamentary time to get onto the statute book yet still it is illogical and unclear.
‘Any law which can put a man like Tony Wright through nine months of court action and tell him he is a criminal for doing something he believed was entirely legal clearly isn’t working’.