A leading huntsman who talked of “creating a smokescreen” has been found guilty and ordered to pay £3,500 for giving advice on how to illegally carry out illegal hunts, in what was described as a landmark case on the issue.
The League Against Cruel Sports said the verdict was “without a shadow of doubt the most significant moment since the Hunting Act came in”.
Mark Hankinson, director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, intentionally encouraged huntsmen to use legal trail-hunting as “a sham and a fiction” for the unlawful chasing and killing of animals, the judge said.
The case has been keenly watched by both supporters and opponents of hunting, who said it could have significant ramifications for the future of hunting in the UK, and particularly whether large landowners would continue to allow trail-hunting.
The National Trust said it would “digest” the court case before deciding whether trail-hunting licence applications could go ahead.
Hankinson had argued in court the Zoom webinars were about managing the presence of “aggressive saboteurs”.
But Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard that he told members of the Hunting Office at the two webinars in August last year to use the legal form of hunting as a “smokescreen” for the criminal activity.
Videos of the private online seminars involving hunt chiefs from around the country were leaked to the Hunt Saboteurs Association, which said the discussions exposed how the claim of “trail-hunting” was in fact a cover for illegal hunting.
Hankinson, 60, of Sherborne, Dorset, had denied intentionally encouraging or assisting others to break the Hunting Act 2004, which banned chasing wild mammals with dogs in England and Wales.
It is legal for riders and hounds to follow a scent laid before a hunt instead of chasing a fox. But Hankinson was accused of giving advice on disguising the unlawful chasing and killing of animals.
One of the online meetings was attended by more than 100 hunters, many of them hunt masters, representing more than half of the country’s foxhunts.
Hankinson was recorded saying: “It’s a lot easier to create a smokescreen if you’ve got more than one trail-layer operating, and that is what it’s all about, trying to portray to the people watching that you’re going about legitimate business.”
He also said: “ Some people say ‘well, what’s the point in laying trails?’ Well, I think it’s fairly self-explanatory - if you haven’t laid a trail on a daily basis, you’re not going to be covered by the insurance.”
Some of the UK’s biggest landowners, including the National Trust and United Utilities, suspended trail-hunting on their land after the videos were made public, and trust members are due to vote this month on whether the practice should continue to be allowed on the organisation’s land.
After the verdict, a trust spokesperson said: “As the court case has now concluded and the defendant has been found guilty, we will digest all the information that has arisen as a result of this investigation before making a decision on whether to resume the trail hunting licence application process.”
The spokesperson said she did not know what that meant for the motion due to be debated at the annual general meeting in two weeks’ time.
The Hunting Office organises more than 170 hunting packs in England and Wales.
Deputy Chief Magistrate Tan Ikram said: “In evidence, the defendant came across as articulate and expressive in the use of the English language.
“I did not find him credible in any of the explanations he used.
“He tried to innocently explain but was unable to do so. I reject any of the words he used in the webinars were clumsy.
“There was a clear and common thread throughout his address on two webinars on two separate dates.
“In my judgement, he was clearly encouraging the mirage of trailing to act as a 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.”
Richard Lissack QC, in mitigation, claimed it was “wholly out of character for this man of 60 years of age” and it was “shocking for him, for his family and for his friends”.
Mr Lissack said Hankinson would lose his job with the Masters of Foxhounds Association as a result of the case.
Hankinson was fined £1,000 and was ordered to pay a contribution to costs of £2,500, with a victim surcharge of £100.
Lee Moon, a Hunt Saboteurs Association, spokesperson, said: “We’re delighted that Mark Hankinson has been found guilty and the sentence is of little importance. This result shows that he - and indeed the entire hunting community - are guilty of perpetrating a smokescreen to hide their illegal hunting for the past 15 years.”
Deputy leader of the League Against Cruel Sports, Chris Luffington said prison sentences should have been available and imposed instead of a fine, which was the maximum possible punishment for the crime.
The league said the case showed hunts had been “mocking the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and up to the very top of the British judiciary for the past 16 years”.
The RSPCA welcomed the verdict, saying: “We are really concerned that some people are still determined to hunt foxes, regardless of the legislation. Many believe that since the hunting ban came into force, legal trail-hunting is being used to create a smokescreen to allow illegal hunting with dogs to continue, making enforcement very challenging for the authorities.”