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Guest blog – Hunting Crimes in Devon (3) by Ian Carter

Traditional pack of hounds and riders on Dartmoor 2014. There is no suggestion intended that the individuals who appear in this image were, are, or ever have been engaged in illegal activities.

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while but was inspired to finish it by watching Chris Packham’s video, filmed at a New Forest fox hunt on New Year’s day [and then Mark sat on it for weeks]. It follows two guest blogs on the same general subject; Fox hunting crimes (in Devon 1) and Hunting crimes in Devon (2).

As we know, most hunting crimes occur out of sight of prying eyes and go unrecorded. But enough come to light to give us a sense of the scale of criminality involved. I thought I’d have a look at some of the incidents that have happened in my local area (all within a few miles of the house) over the last few years.

A few quick caveats:

Not all the incidents can be categorised definitively as crimes, as will become clear, but they all involve events that merited legal investigations – readers can judge each for themselves and look up the individual cases if they want to delve more deeply.

I’ve included non-hunting crimes where there is a clear association with hunting events or organisations although there are limits as to what has been included due to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. My justification for this approach is a belief that if hunting crimes are being committed regularly, with little chance of individuals being brought to justice, this can easily lead on to other, even more serious, criminal acts.

I’ve not included a whole raft of incidents involving reports of animals being hunted illegally (several of which I’ve seen for myself) routine trespassing onto private land to hunt, violence between hunt supporters and monitors, livestock being killed and riding lessons being disrupted as the hounds move through. There is simply not the space to list them all. I’ve chosen to focus on a few incidents that I think help to shed most light on the criminality associated with hunting. 

  • In 2007, a Tiverton staghounds huntsman was cleared of allowing his hounds to kill a pet border terrier cross in the owner’s garden in East Worlington (our nearest village). The death of the dog, and injuries to the women trying to defend it (in her own garden) are not disputed. The hunt offered compensation and hunt solicitors initially tried to insist that this was paid on condition of silence. Perhaps that trick might have worked but for the fact that the dog owner was a magistrate and understood the law. At the ensuing court case the judge commented that ‘dogs will be dogs’ as he dismissed the case. The hounds involved were killed by the hunt.
  • A regular contributor to this blog lives a few miles north of here and, we are told, has an arrangement with the police whereby they turn a blind eye to his indiscretions in respect of the Hunting Act. This approach to committing crimes doesn’t always work and he was recently jailed for 18 weeks. His initial conviction for harassment was in 2015 after a hate campaign against the then head of LACS. He received a suspended sentence and a restraining order which he went on to breach in September 2017 by continuing his campaign of hatred and threatening behaviour. One message mentioned that he owned a gun and knew where he could find his victim. Perhaps unwisely, he was threatening a QC who was well informed about the law in this area.
  • There has been an ongoing case involving the Eggesford fox hounds a few miles to the south of here. They have repeatedly been caught trespassing on Popehouse Moor SSSI and Wheatfield Farm, an award-winning business based on wildlife-friendly farming and eco-lodges. Guests staying in the eco-ledges enjoy watching the local foxes but are less keen on watching hounds rampaging past, trying to pick up fox trails. Presumably they are also less likely to re-book and visit again. In despair at the effects on her business the owner has complained repeatedly to the hunt, reported incidents to the Police, campaigned on Facebook, and written to the local MP – all to no avail. Each time the hounds hunt across this farm (where no trail has been laid, obviously) they just say ‘ooops, sorry about that’ and no further action is taken.
  • In 2012 a senior huntsman from the Tiverton staghounds (the same one who was involved with the death of the pet dog) committed a serious crime after the hunt’s July ball in a village just a few miles down the road from here, for which he was jailed for four years. Apparently, this incident led to a rift in the local stag-hunting community – some leaving in disgust and others rather more sympathetic towards him. After the events at the ball, senior members of the staghounds went ahead with a testimonial to mark his retirement and he was apparently presented with £3,500 as a parting gift.

A few general points emerge from these cases.

Firstly, from a personal perspective, it’s interesting how events close to home have a disproportionate impact. Whenever I go past the garden where the pet dog was killed I think about that incident and the distress it must have caused. And whenever I come across the hunt when out and about it makes the day that little bit less enjoyable knowing what they get up to. The staghounds are so regularly encountered on their Saturday and Wednesday hunt days that I’ve taken to avoiding going out on those days, or at least steering clear of the areas around Meshaw, Worlington, Rackenford, Kings Nympton and Chulmleigh where they so often hunt. I know other locals who do the same – forced to change their behaviour in order to fit around the hunt.

Two of these cases provide a vivid reminder that hunts continue to do pretty much as they please with little fear of prosecution. In one case a pet dog is killed by the hounds, in the owner’s own garden, with the owner sustaining injuries as she tries to save it. The hunt admitted what had happened – they had no choice. Yet even then, apparently, no offence was committed! How slim must the chances be of being held to account for illegally hunting wild animals if you can get away with killing a pet right outside the owner’s front door?

The other case involves a landowner who has repeatedly made clear that hunting should not take place on their land because they object to it in principle, it is protected as an SSSI, it adversely affects their eco-tourism business and no trails are ever laid across it for trail hunting. They have complained repeatedly and tried just about every time-consuming avenue available to resolve the issue. Even then, the trespassing continues with no more than a casual apology each time it happens. There can surely be only two explanations. The hunt is either (i) unable, or (ii) unwilling, to control the hounds and prevent them from picking up and following the trails of wild animals on private land. Whichever explanation is true, how can they possibly then maintain that they are not acting illegally? Why don’t the police view this as an offence – if not the first time then the second, third or perhaps fourth time? And if this landowner can’t prevent illegal hunting, what chance will a less vocal and determined landowner have in preventing unwanted hunting from taking place on their land? Absolutely none at all.

It’s notable that two of the highlighted cases involved victims with expert knowledge of the legal system. Even then, one is offered hush money to try to cover up the incident. You can only wonder how many other cases never see the light of day because the victims do not have legal expertise, or wish to avoid local publicity, or perhaps agree to accept hush money and keep quiet.

It’s difficult to draw firm conclusions from a small number of cases. But human nature being what it is, I can’t help wondering if the most serious crimes referred to above would not have happened but for a sense of invulnerability that comes from being able to act with impunity and little chance of being held to account. If you can get away with breaking the law repeatedly in one area then it must surely change your attitude towards the law more generally. There is good evidence for this in other areas of the law. In one case an individual has boasted about his understanding with the police in relation to hunting laws – perhaps he thought they would also understand his campaign of hatred? In another the individual had a police caution for assault (but escaped prosecution), and then watched as his hounds killed a family pet, again with no legal consequences. It would be very surprising indeed if those events didn’t influence his mindset in respect of the more serious crime that resulted in a four year jail sentence.

For how much longer can our apparently accountable Police force continue to sit back and watch these illegal activities play out without taking meaningful action?

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