Saturday, August 05, 2006


By Simon de Bruxelles and Valerie Elliott
The Times

A PROFESSIONAL huntsman became the first person in England and Wales yesterday to be convicted for illegal hunting with dogs after a private prosecution by the League Against Cruel Sports.

The verdict astonished hunt leaders, who fear that police and the Crown Prosecution Service will now take a stronger approach to any further claims of illegal hunting from anti-hunt organisations such as the league, the RSPCA and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Tony Wright, 52, who has worked for the Exmoor Foxhounds for 25 years, argued that he was acting lawfully and that exemptions to the 18-month-old hunting ban allowed him to use two dogs under close supervision to flush a fox from cover, provided it was then shot.

But District Judge Paul Palmer, who studied film of the incident taken by league monitors, said: “What I saw was not exempt hunting.”

Wright was fined £500 and ordered to pay £250 costs after a five-day hearing at North Devon Magistrates’ court in Barnstaple. He is to appeal and the case is expected to be heard before the hunting season begins on November 2.

Avon and Somerset and Devon and Cornwall police forces said that they would be reviewing their policy in light of the vedict. They may also review the papers from previous cases of alleged unlawful hunting. Both forces intend to hold meetings with the Countryside Alliance and anti-hunt organisations next month.

But a spokeswoman for the Association of Chief Police Officers said that forces would not be issued with new guidance and that every case was decided on the evidence.

But there was embarrassment among enforcement agencies that the league had brought a successful prosecution, especially as anti-hunt organisations have complained to ministers that police were taking a “softly-softly” approach to upholding the hunting ban.

There also appeared to be some blame shifting between police and prosecution about why an official case was not brought. Avon and Somerset had previously informed the league that the CPS believed that there was insufficient evidence to bring a case. But the CPS said that its lawyers had asked in July last year for further evidence than just the league’s film before they could consider a prosecution, and no formal case was ever sent to them.

Police said no action had been taken because they did not believe that the league evidence constituted a breach of the Hunting Act. The league spokesman said that the verdict sent a clear message to police and the CPS to take action against allegations of illegal hunting. He said that the league was not planning more private prosecutions, even though it believed that the £60,000 to £70,000 it spent on yesterday’s case was money well spent.

“We just want hunts to get the message that they cannot act in this way. We also hope there will be no need for further private prosecutions as the police and CPS now have a very clear message that the activity indulged in by Tony Wright was illegal.” The Countryside Alliance also accepted that huntspeople who had been using two dogs to flush foxes to a gun had to think again.

A spokesman said: “Most hunts do not go out with two dogs, they go out with a whole pack of hounds following legal forms of the sport. They go out as hound exercise clubs or follow an artificial scent. It will affect gamekeepers the most, because they often go out with a gun and two dogs for pest control.”

Wright said outside the court: “I might have been found guilty, but I certainly don’t feel like a criminal. We had two hounds, a marksman and we shot a fox. I don’t know what else we were supposed to do to comply with the law.”

Wright, of Simonsbath, Somerset, had pleaded not guilty to illegally hunting a wild mammal in west Exmoor on April 29 last year.

The judge questioned whether it would be possible for moorland hunts to use the exemption claimed by Wright.

He said: “It was an attempt to use the exemption in a way that it was clearly not designed for, to seek and shoot foxes but not in the controlled and very limited circumstances provided for by Schedule 1 of the Hunting Act. Indeed the way this exemption is worded and the nature of Exmoor begs the very question whether it could ever be possible . . . to utilise the exemption with foxhounds.”

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