“Insufficient evidence”: Misleading the way on fox hunting

In February this year, news broke of an alleged assault by a Surrey Union Hunt member against a member of Guildford Hunt Saboteurs. The assault, which was captured on camera, shows Mrs Lulu Hutley whipping an activist who is pinned against a fence at a hunt in Bramley. Despite this video having been submitted to the authorities, it was announced yesterday that Surrey Police have dropped their investigation, citing “insufficient evidence” as their reason.

The words “insufficient evidence”, or ones similar to them, are heard far too often when it comes to fox hunting. Unfortunately, the evidence seems to be disproportionately insufficient when hunt members assault saboteurs, rather than when the roles are apparently reversed.

It’s no surprise, and not unreasonable, that many people question whether a systemic bias against hunt saboteurs exists within the police community. In certain rural areas where local Conservative authorities are so often propped up by pro-hunting lobbyists, is it possible that a police bias is being used as a weapon to allow illegal hunting to continue?

Of course, it’s not just assaults on hunt saboteurs that seem to go unpunished. Up and down the country activists record and submit footage of foxes being killed by hounds and yet over and over we hear of charges against those responsible being dropped. Due to “insufficient evidence”.

In 2015 Warwickshire Police claimed that there was “not enough evidence” to prosecute members of the Atherstone Hunt. This was despite video footage of 20 of the hunt’s hounds killing a fox. Later evidence submitted included witness statements and the Atherstone Hunt itself admitting to killing the fox. If this is considered “insufficient evidence”, then how do we possibly enforce the hunting ban?

The fact is, for the most part, we don’t. Since the ban came into force in February 2005, there have been 430 successful prosecutions. However, the majority of these have been against poachers, as most police forces are more keen to investigate poaching rather than hunting by organised groups. Chief Executive of pro-hunting group the Countryside Alliance, Tim Bonner, claims that these figures prove that the ban doesn’t work. Going further than that, Mr Bonner calls for the ban to be repealed in order for police to concentrate their time on more urgent matters. Unfortunately there is some truth in the statement that the ban is failing to lead to convictions. This, however, is no reason to consider repealing a ban that between 84% and 90% of the country support.

Across the country, and every week, activist and saboteur groups submit videos to the police of foxes being killed during illegal hunts. The International Fund for Animal Welfare state on their website: “IFAW hasn’t monitored every hunt but we suspect that most of those that we have monitored have indeed broken the law on several occasions. We did not always manage to persuade the police to investigate, even if we believed that there was enough evidence. We have not seen any evidence that supports the hypothesis that most hunts obey the law at all times.”

Despite this constant stream of evidence, there seems to be an inadequately disproportional amount of convictions. Whilst hunt saboteurs are often labelled as extremists for attempting to ensure the law is upheld, the police go unquestioned for failing to clamp down on illegal hunting activities. The question eventually has to be asked; are the police siding with the hunters, or are they simply unable to enforce the law?

The problem with the hunting act is not the law itself, but the loopholes that exist within it. A direct response by pro-hunting groups to the implementing of the hunting ban was the creation of “trail hunting”. This adaption of traditional drag hunting entails placing real fox scents on a series of trails across a certain area. By using real fox scents the hunt groups increase the chances of a fox “accidentally” being caught, whilst simultaneously creating an alibi to shift any blame from the hunt members themselves.

Loopholes such as these make it almost impossible for the police to bring hunt members to justice, and give groups like the Countryside Alliance fuel to call the ban a waste of resources. However, repealing the ban is not the answer; strengthening it is. By amending the law to include a recklessness clause, authorities could create a situation in which “trail hunting” was no longer an acceptable excuse for foxes being killed. In addition, the introduction of custodial sentences to coincide with other wildlife crime legislation is vital.

IFAW explain on their website: “After 10 years in operation any law would benefit from a tightening and improvement, and the Hunting Act is not an exception. Although as a law the Hunting Act may be working, the problem is that it has not been properly enforced, so we believe that amendments that improve enforcement are needed.”

Whatever direction the country takes after the upcoming general election, it’s crucial that we advocate for the hunting ban that the vast majority of us support to be reinforced. It’s time to end the biased pro-hunting narrative that labels hard working activists as thugs and extremists. It’s time to tighten the law on hunting with dogs, and clamp down on illegal hunts by closing easily exploited loopholes. It’s time to stand together as a country and make sure that the hunting act becomes something more than just words on paper. Whatever happens, it’s time to stop pretending that we successfully banned fox hunting in 2005, and start working on actually doing so in 2017.

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One thought on ““Insufficient evidence”: Misleading the way on fox hunting

  1. Alan Johnson (Surrey Hunt Monitors) says:

    Wonderful post. There is so much wrong with the present law on hunting and it’s enforcement, it’s hard to know where to start, but let’s start with enforcement. Of course, the policing of hunting cannot reasonably be a major police priority, but when Surrey police send up to 25 public order officers out on hunt days to keep an eye on a small group of sabs and monitors – many retired – surely they could at least turn around when illegal hunting is happening behind them. Instead we’re told “we’re not here to film that, we’re here to film incidents”.

    The failure to prosecute Lulu Hutley – or at least make her accept a caution – was a disgrace, but what may not be so well known is that the very next weekend, the sab who was whipped was himself arrested and ultimately charged with aggravated trespass by an officer who was later overheard by the sab confiding to a colleague that he had been on duty in the area that day “to assist the hunt”. Coincidence? Make up your own mind. Why would an officer think/say he was there to assist the hunt? That’s a wholly different subject I won’t get into here.

    Now the law. Section 1 of the Hunting Act 2004 makes hunting illegal. Incidentally, this gives sabs trying to stop illegal hunting a defence to allegations of aggravated trespass, because that offence requires trespassing to interfere with LAWFUL activities: hence trespassing to stop illegal hunting cannot be aggravated trespass. But back to the section 1 offence. It is ultra-hard to prove. Its not about proving a kill. It’s about hunting – chasing an animal. So you have to identify the persons directing the dogs and that they intentionally had the dogs chase a wild animal. The crime scene can extend over miles and the hunters are savvy enough to keep some distance behind the pack. It’s tough to get all the elements needed to secure a conviction.

    If that is not bad enough, the offence is also subject (by virtue of section 2 of the Hunting Act) to the exemptions in Schedule 1 of the Act. These include making it permissible to use two dogs to flush animals to guns, the bird of prey exemption, and the most laughable of all, the “rescue” of animals provision which makes it legal to hunt supposedly sick animals by killing them – rather as Harold Shipman “helped” so many patients. It may be recalled that in July 2015 the Cameron Government tried to amend Schedule 1 to broaden the scope of these already ridiculously wide exemptions. Happily they were foiled when the anti-hunting lobby persuaded the SNP to join in the opposition to them even though it was just an English & Welsh matter – Scotland has its own anti-hunting laws, which are about to be strengthened.

    What made the attempt to amend Schedule 1 in 2015 so clever from the hunters’ perspective – sneaky is another way of putting it – is that it would only have given Parliament a yes/no vote – the particular procedure (amendment by Statutory Instrument to use the terminology) gives no opportunity to propose amendments. So ironically, unless we actually get a Labour government, we need the Tories to try for a repeal, and not another amendment to Schedule 1 by Statutory Instrument. Then amendments to the Act can be proposed. Those amendments could include new offences of making it illegal to be reckless or careless as to hunting. Many have proposed a recklessness provision, but I would prefer that AND a carelessness offence. If one thinks of the parallel with driving, the degree of culpability is lower in cases of causing death by careless driving than if the requirement is to show dangerous driving. So too should hunters not be able to wriggle out of conviction because in effect the prosecution has to show full blown intent to hunt. Whilst this would be achieved by a recklessness offence, why should they get away with chasing and killing an animal if they are indifferent to what their dogs do on hunt days, and the prosecution can’t show they were reckless? One could have tiered penalties to reflect the seriousness of the offence. Say only a fine for careless hunting, 6 months imprisonment for reckless hunting, and 5 years for intentional hunting. But of course once a hunt was convicted of the lesser offence, it would be easier in subsequent cases to prove recklessness or intention.

    But finally, there are other options. These could include extending the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 to cover attacks on animals by packs of dogs, and/or giving foxes, deer and hares the status of “protected animals” under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. So if Labour should be elected, let us ask them look at these options too – after all, Jeremy Corbyn’s first political debate at school in rural Shropshire was about -you guessed it – the need to ban hunting.

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