Countryside Alliance Director of Campaigns Tim Bonner writes: In the last two or three years anti-hunting groups have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on ‘investigating’ the activity of hunts. They have employed a strange mixture of retired police officers, hunt sabs and private investigators who stalk the countryside with sophisticated surveillance equipment. The sole aim of all this activity is a desperate attempt to prop up the failed and discredited Hunting Act by bringing prosecutions against hunts.
There are plenty of prosecutions under the Hunting Act and anti-hunting groups even use the statistics to support the claim that the legislation is successful. Those convictions, however, relate almost entirely to the use of dogs to hunt mammals, particularly hares, without the permission of landowners, which is otherwise known as poaching.
What the Hunting Act is very rarely used for, however, is the purpose for which it was created: as a tool to target people involved in organised hunting. Prosecution statistics suggest that less than 3% of Hunting Act cases involve the 300 or so registered hunts in England and Wales and despite the efforts and expenditure of anti-hunting groups it is therefore rare that such cases reach court.
One such case was heard in Taunton Magistrates’ court this week and is an almost perfect example of the waste and futility of both the Hunting Act and the anti-hunting campaign.
Weston and Banwell Harriers huntsman George Milton and whipper-In Toby Lee were charged with illegally hunting a fox in October 2012. The case, involving a low level offence, had therefore taken 18 months to get to court and was listed to take 4 days at trial.
The charges followed a ‘covert surveillance operation’ by employees of the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), six of whom had taken over 20 hours of video on the day of the allegations. In all that evidence the Weston and Banwell hounds were seen on the line of a fox for just 93 seconds at the end of which the Judge found that the defendants had clearly stopped them.
Yesterday, 18 months after the date of the allegation after over a year of legal process and three and a half days of evidence, the District Judge took half an hour to return a not guilty verdict.
You could take the view innocent men were acquitted and justice was done. Certainly no criticism can be made of the court, but there are some very serious questions to be asked about how on earth such a palpably weak case got there in the first place.
LACS has been engaged in what amounts to little more than a campaign of harassment against the Weston and Banwell Harriers and its huntsman George Milton. It has carried out dozens of sophisticated covert surveillance operations over several years targeting Mr Milton and made a series of allegations under the Hunting Act and other legislation. This is the second time he has been cleared of illegal hunting allegations in court, but he has also been charged with other offences which were dropped before they even got to trial.
It is bad enough that LACS is using charitable funds to fund such a campaign, but just as questionable is the role of the police and Crown Prosecution Service. By consistently colluding with LACS employees, including a recently retired Avon and Somerset police officer, who are spying on Mr Milton and bringing cases which have always looked unlikely to succeed they are both failing in their obligations to Mr Milton and wasting large amounts of taxpayers’ money and court time.
We understand the difficulty that a law as bad as the Hunting Act creates for both police and prosecutors, but that is no excuse for bowing to pressure from obsessive campaign groups. If there is evidence to properly justify a prosecution then charges should be brought. If there is not then the case should be dropped. Who is alleged to have committed the offence, and who makes the allegation, should be equally irrelevant.