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First Huntsman Conviction under Hunting Act 2004

The Animal Welfare Consequences

In August 2006, a West Country huntsman was prosecuted and found guilty under the Hunting Act in a case heard before a judge sitting at Barnstaple Magistrates Court. Though it was not the first case of a breach of this law, it was the first time a hunt official had been prosecuted. In 2007, the case was successfully appealed and the conviction overturned.

Initially, some people argued that the original conviction showed that the Hunting Act was working well and that further successful cases were likely. However, it is important to examine carefully exactly what the Barnstaple case meant in legal terms and the animal welfare consequences.

Background

The Hunting Act states that “A person commits an offence if he hunts a wild mammal with a dog, unless his hunting is exempt.” Flushing a wild mammal out of cover using two hounds and attempting to shoot the animal is exempt hunting, provided certain conditions are met. The difficulty lies in interpreting these words, which are not defined in the Act.

The professional huntsman, while chasing a fox using two hounds, was filmed by a ‘hunt monitor’ from the League Against Cruel Sports. The matter was put to the Crown Prosecution Service, who did not pursue the case. The League then brought a private prosecution, stating that the attempt to shoot the fox was not genuine and that the chasing period was too long, in effect changing the activity from a ‘flush’ to a ‘hunt’.

The Initial Judgement

The judge found that the time between ‘flushing out’ and attempting to shoot was too extensive and therefore the huntsman was guilty of ‘hunting’ the fox. However, as Christopher Price, senior solicitor for the Country Land and Business Association, states, “The basis on which the huntsman was found guilty was specific to this case and therefore no point of law was at issue and no precedent has been set.” He goes on to say, “The case highlights the fact that the Hunting Act creates purely technical - victimless - offences. There is no need whatsoever to prove that the accused person caused any harm or any suffering to an animal."

Animal Welfare Concerns

The original case highlighted certain questions that compounded the welfare difficulties inherent in the Hunting Act.

  1. Why are only two hounds permitted to flush out an animal? In large areas of forestry the ‘chase’, which is what the Hunting Act attempts to prevent, will actually be prolonged before the animal is flushed out if only two dogs are used. This is particularly important when attempting to flush out a sick or wounded animal in order to relieve its suffering as quickly as possible.
  2. Shooting ground game is different to shooting birds – there is a greater safety risk, as well as a wounding issue. With cameras around, more inappropriate shots are likely to be taken to avoid accusations of illegal hunting, leading to more wounding.
  3. To continually prevent hounds from following their quarry during a flush, as the judge stated, will confuse the dogs and affect their searching ability. If hounds are called off once an animal is flushed out, what happens to the quarry if it is shot but only wounded and escapes?
  4. Why were ‘flushing’, ‘cover’ and ‘hunting’ not properly defined in the Hunting Act in the first place? The judge was, in effect, being asked to define these words when those Parliamentarians supporting the Hunting Act could not. Consequently, this judgement is based only on his interpretation of the law.
  5. Why did the judge conclude that foxes found only in woodland could be ‘flushed out’? Foxes are found in a wide variety of countryside and indeed in towns. Was this a view promoted by the anti-hunting lobby to severely limit the areas in which even exempt hunting could take place?
  6. The Hunting Act was drafted by the anti-hunting groups and they agreed to the exempt forms of hunting, including ‘flushing’. Why then did the Chief Executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, Douglas Batchelor, admit in a leaked internal document that the use of two hounds was ‘utterly useless at flushing to guns from forestry plantations or in the fells.’? Was this a cynical attempt to misrepresent the true effect of the Hunting Act to uninformed politicians, who then voted in ignorance for the Bill?

It is ironic that the Hunting Act became law supposedly to save animals’ lives and yet, in the initial prosecution of a hunt official, it was the failure to kill the fox that condemned the huntsman.

In 2007, the Appeal court said, “We observe at the outset that the experience of this case has led us to the conclusion that the relevant law is far from simple to interpret or to apply; it seems to us that any given set of facts may be susceptible to differing interpretations. The result is an unhappy state of affairs which leaves all those involved in a position of uncertainty.”

Proof, if it were needed, that the Hunting Act is flawed at every level – in principle, in its drafting, in its enforcement and in its claim to improve animal welfare.

APPMWG 5-3-08

© 2017 The Middle Way Group