A prominent huntsman has been ordered to pay £3,500 for giving advice to countrymen about how to covertly carry out illegal fox hunts.
Director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association Mark Hankinson, 60, was found guilty at Westminster Magistrates’ Court of intentionally encouraging huntsmen to use legal trail hunting as “a sham and a fiction” for the unlawful chasing and killing of animals via two webinars held in August 2020.
Hankinson told members of the Hunting Office to use legal trail hunting where horseback riders and hounds follow a previously laid scent, as a “smokescreen” for criminal activity, the court heard.
Trail hunting replicates a traditional hunt without a fox actually being chased, injured or killed, and although there is always a danger that hounds will accidentally come across the scent of a fox, they should then be stopped to avoid this becoming a criminal offence.
The huntsman’s illicit advice was exposed after saboteurs leaked footage of his webinar to police and the media.
Hankinson, of Frampton Farm in Sherborne, Dorset, wore a pinstripe suit with a blue and white striped shirt and polka dot tie for the verdict of his trial on Friday.
Dozens of the huntsman’s supporters and family members, some wearing suits, others tweed jackets and knee-high boots, along with a similar number of activists clad in T-shirts emblazoned with the words “End Hunting”, watched from the public gallery.
Judge Tan Ikram ordered him to pay a £1,000 fine and a £2,500 contribution towards legal costs, and defence lawyer Richard Lissack QC said Hankinson would lose his job as a result.
Speaking about Hankinson’s speech on the incriminating webinars, judge Ikram said: “He said the following words of significance and I suggest of central significance to this issue and this case.
“He said: ‘We need to have clear, visible and plausible trailing being done throughout the day’.
“He spoke of huntsmen being caught out and the saboteurs could be out there hiding, watching and filming.
“He said: ‘It’s about trying to portray to the people watching that you are going about your legitimate business’ and ‘the people recording must make sure we only record only the legal things that we do, because of course we only do legal things’.”
The judge added: “There was a clear and common thread throughout his addresses in the webinars over two separate days.
“In my judgment, he was clearly encouraging the mirage of trail laying to act as cover for old fashioned illegal hunting.
“Whilst he didn’t use overt words, he implied it again and again…
“Why would you need to try to portray anything as legitimate if you were in fact engaged in legitimate business?”
The judge added: “Perhaps most incriminating is his direction and advice that trail laying has to be ‘as plausible as possible.’
“The only reasonable interpretation of those words leads to the conclusion that a need to make something plausible is only necessary if it is a sham and a fiction.”
Dozens of protesters from The League Against Cruel Sports cheered as Hankinson left court, as passing motorists beeped their horns.
Deputy leader of the League, Chris Luffington, told PA he was “delighted” about the guilty verdict, but said prison sentences should be imposed instead of a fine, which was the maximum punishment for Hankinson’s crime.
He said: “We’re really delighted about the result in court today.
“A guilty verdict really tears down the myth of trail hunting and proves what we’ve been saying for many years – that people have just tried to find excuses and covers and smokescreens to find a way to continue illegally killing wild animals.”
Mr Luffington added that he “would like to think” the verdict would deter other huntsmen from criminal activity, but fears they will “find another excuse”.
Andrew Osborne, chairman of the Masters of Foxhounds Association said the verdict was “hugely disappointing” and they were considering an appeal.
He said: “The Masters of Foxhounds Association is aware that this outcome raises concern over the perception of our lawful trail hunting activities and as a result, we will be setting up a review which will be conducted to ensure that hunts are in a position to offer reassurances to all landowners and other stakeholders that hunts are operating within the law.”
Since the Zoom webinars were leaked, big landowners including the National Trust, Forestry England, Lake District National Park, United Utilities and Natural Resources Wales have suspended licences for trail hunting.