Anti-hunt campaigner seeks victory in the air: Stag hunts in Devon and Somerset, starting a new season, face a flying saboteur. Peter Dunn reports

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The Independent Online
JOHN HICKS, veteran anti-hunt campaigner, has bought himself a two-seater microlight aircraft to photograph the activities of West Country hunts from the air.

Buffeted by fierce thermals, Mr Hicks will wobble aloft from his base near Bishop's Nympton, north Devon, and range over the prime killing fields of Exmoor 10 miles to the north and the Quantocks, 20 miles east in Somerset.

Prime targets aboard his pounds 3,500 blue and yellow second-hand spy-plane will be the activities of three stag hunts, the Devon and Somerset, the Quantocks, and the Tiverton, all long-standing enemies during his 10 years as manager of the League Against Cruel Sports' deer sanctuaries in the West Country.

Using a pounds 2,000 video camera, Mr Hicks hopes to get candid shots of stags being driven over cliffs or of hounds tearing deer to shreds, a scoop that was always denied him as a foot soldier for the league.

'I've been trying to get film of the hunt kill for 10 years,' Mr Hicks said yesterday.

'Each time when I've got anywhere close I've been attacked. Using a microlight seems one way of getting unique film really bringing home the horror of hunting to the general public.

'I can't actually fly just yet, but there's a guy lives locally who's an instructor and he'll teach me for pounds 300. I've only got to do nine hours before I can go solo and after 24 hours I can take a passenger. It's got a long-range tank so it'll stay in the air five hours and there's someone in the Quantocks who'll let me land there to refuel.

'The serious debate now is about me being shot down. My wife and I lived under police protection for six months so we do realise there's a degree of danger in this.

'It'll be all too easy for someone under cover to take a pot shot with a high-powered rifle and never be found out.

'I was thinking of getting a parachute but it doesn't work from 500ft (150m); or a big pair of springs to put in the bottom of my shoes.'

Mr Hicks, who is now executive director of International Animal Rescue, said he had been trying to get into Bosnia to bring out their zoo animals but the recent attack on a convoy of orphans had put an end to any ideas of such an operation.

'One reason I've been successful in opposing stag hunting is because I'm always looking at new angles to attack it,' he said. 'There are plenty of people stupid or brave enough to fly with me. Even if it means taking a serious risk I think the microlight's a positive step to expose what's going on.'

Mr Hicks's new initiative comes at a time when he appears to have suffered a reversal at the hands of the hunting community. Last year he left the league, amid some acrimony, to manage St John's Wood, an 87-acre deer sanctuary in north Somerset for Paul McCartney, the rock star, and his wife Linda.

The sanctuary, a pine wood south of Wimbleball Lake, cost the former Beatle nearly pounds 100,000 and straddles a prime hunting run of the Devon and Somerset hunt.

Hunt supporters have now built a 6ft (1.8m) high wire mesh fence along the eastern side of St John's Wood, claiming that it is designed to prevent inadvertent trespass by hounds during a chase.

Limbs from deer carcasses have been hung from trees on the McCartneys' land to scare live deer away; and a neighbouring farmer, Jeremy Gibbs, has built a tree-top hide on the edge of the wood to cull and scatter the 90- strong deer herd emerging from the sanctuary to browse on his sheep pasture. Last season 15 deer were shot from the hide, which the McCartneys (and the Gibbs) claim is on their land. Mr Gibbs reckons that fewer than a dozen deer now use the wood as living quarters.

'They're deliberately hanging up bits of dead deer so that the stench of rotting flesh will drive other deer away,' Mr Hicks said.

'We've kept quiet about it for two months because we're trying to catch these people on video cameras and take them to the High Court for trespass.' Local activities were defended yesterday by Mr Gibbs's wife, Sarah, who is also chairman of the Devon and Somerset hunt's supporters.

Mrs Gibbs, a gently-spoken woman in her mid-thirties, echoes local indignation that the McCartneys - currently on holiday in America - have never visited the wood they bought a year ago.

'Linda says she feels very strong about deer because she saw Bambi. That's the reason she bought the wood,' she said.

'I wrote to the McCartneys to invite them to discuss the problems and never got a reply, which I thought was quite rude really.

'The fence was put up through money collected locally to stop hunts trespassing that way. It's a straight-line fence and deer aren't stupid. Those that live in the area know they can get round it and use the road.

'We've counted 100 deer on our top field. There's nothing for them to eat in the sanctuary because it's all fir trees. So they all come on our pasture and each one of them eats as much grass as a ewe.

'The only way to disperse them and stop them going back on to the McCartneys' land was to shoot some of them, which is something we've never ever had to do before.

'Hanging up carcasses is an acknowledged local custom to keep deer off your fields but I've not heard of anyone doing that at the sanctuary.'

And what about Mr Hicks's fears about being shot down in his microlight? 'Oh God, what rubbish,' Mrs Gibbs said.

'That man really has an inflated opinion of himself. No one with any sense would dream of doing such a thing. More likely he'll crash it himself and we'll get blamed.'

(Photographs omitted)