A victory for justice
Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance attacked the RSPCA for having the temerity to prosecute the high-and-mighty Heythrop Hunt for numerous, flagrant breaches of the Hunting Act. His argument gives a highly distorted impression of the facts and the reasons why this prosecution was brought.
The Heythrop is just one of several hunts in the area covered by the group of volunteer monitors who captured numerous pieces of film that forced the hunt to admit as few charges as they thought they could get away with. But, though the monitors will say that all of them appear to engage in illegal hunting of foxes, the Heythrop is by some way the most blatant. Since they were providing the strongest evidence, it was natural for monitors to concentrate on them.
As seems commonplace when hunters are charged, the trial was delayed. Then the Exmoor Foxhounds huntsman, Tony Wright, appealed against his earlier conviction and the CPS postponed Julian Barnfield's (Heythrop) cases pending its outcome. When the judge, early in 2009, allowed Wright's appeal, he also made a number of rulings on the interpretation of the Act that were favourable to the hunt side. Not only did the CPS feebly decide not to appeal against these rulings – many of which clearly contradicted what the framers of the Act intended – but they also used it as an excuse to drop all their pending cases against organised hunts, including Barnfield's charges. Rather than failing, as Bonner would have it, monitors would assert that these charges were speciously dropped.
Having by now lost all faith in the police/CPS ability or willingness to prosecute, they turned to the RSPCA. The society's lawyers examined all the evidence and agreed that it was strong enough to sustain two charges against the huntsman. It is part of the role of the society to prosecute all and any cases of cruelty to animals where the evidence warrants.
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Coming to the recent case, there were 45 charges taken into court against the Heythrop Hunt itself and four of its senior members, based on ten separate instances across the 2011/12 season.
The Heythrop vehemently denied all the charges until, late in the day, they announced they would plead guilty to 12 of them. By maintaining their 'not guilty' pleas for so long, they were able to avoid having to rack up mountainous legal fees for the preparation of cases they actually had no intention of defending, while forcing the RSPCA into doing just that, adding to costs already quite high. As to the RSPCA employing high-charging external lawyers, anyone seeking to prosecute hunts is effectively forced into doing this, because they believe that the hunt side will use the best money can come by, backed as they usually are by the Countryside Alliance, an organisation which, it seems, squandered millions in various always-doomed attempts to have the Hunting Act declared invalid. In this case, the hunt itself could doubtless have called upon the largesse of their many multi-millionaire members and donors – had they thought they stood any real prospect of successfully defending the charges.
I believe hunts up and down the country employ various ruses and exploit various loopholes to continue hunting live quarry much as they did before the ban, and bamboozle police forces into not acting against them, though the latter are usually reluctant to get involved. The Heythrop case is far from being the first where the hunt's contention that they were trail hunting, and just suffered occasional accidents, has been exposed as a sham.
The long overdue Hunting Act was passed with overwhelming public support, and repeated polls over decades had showed large majorities for a ban obtained in all areas, classes and categories of the population, including rural dwellers. They expect the law prohibiting the chasing and killing of wild mammals for 'sport' to be upheld. The bulk of the tiny, but highly vocal, rich and powerful hunting minority, however, made no secret of their intent to disregard the law and continue their vile and vicious pastimes, much as they now seek to pretend they are 'hunting within the law'.
In the reporting of the next Boxing Day hunts we shall doubtless once again be treated to the usual nauseating coverage of the meets, the 'chocolate box' portrayal of gangs whose one real intent and desire is to go out into the countryside to terrorise and slaughter wildlife for fun. Their accounts of numbers 'supporting' them will be reprinted without question, their assertions that they do nothing but innocently 'trail hunt' taken at face value.
Somebody has to stand up for truth, justice and the rule of law in the hunting field, somebody has to defend the defenceless. The police will rarely do it, the CPS will rarely do it – and as for the media – don't make me laugh.
Thank goodness, then for the monitors, and the RSPCA.