A Somerset man has become the first person in England to be found guilty of breaking the ban on fox hunting.
Tony Wright, 52, of the Exmoor Foxhounds, was convicted under the Hunting Act, which finally reached the statute book in 2004, after years of parliamentary wrangling.
He was fined £500 and ordered to pay £250 costs by District Judge Paul Palmer after a week-long hearing at Barnstaple magistrates' court in Devon.
Jubilant anti-hunt campaigners, who had brought a private prosecution against Wright, said the verdict sent out a strong deterrent message to hunters planning to flout the law.
Mike Hobday, spokesman for the League Against Cruel Sports, said: "This case makes it clear chasing foxes with hounds is a criminal offence. Those people who still get their entertainment from being cruel to foxes are being put on notice their activities have been found illegal."
Wright, who had denied the charge, said he would appeal and called the Hunting Act a "stupid and pointless law".
He said: "I might have been found guilty, but I certainly don't feel like a criminal. If people were confused by the Hunting Act before today, they will be a lot more confused now."
He added: "I was doing my best to follow the rules as they are written down. I had no idea I was doing anything illegal."
Simon Hart, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, said Wright should not have been convicted because he believed he had complied with the law by keeping his hunt's two dogs under close control.
Mr Hart added: "This is a piece of legislation which took seven years and 700 hours of parliamentary time to get on to the statute book yet still it is illogical and unclear. Any law which can put a man like Tony Wright through nine months of court action and then tell him he is a criminal for doing something he believed was entirely legal clearly isn't working."
Under the law, dogs can be used to locate a fox and flush it out into open ground, but not to harm the animal, which is shot instead. Many hunts have converted to trail or drag hunting, in which dogs track an animal scent that has been artificially laid out through the woods in advance.
The prosecution followed video evidence gathered by the League Against Cruel Sports which was shown to the court. It brought the case at a cost of £65,000 after Avon and Somerset Police declined to take on the case based on the evidence available.
The Foxhounds claimed that they had been operating under "exempt hunting" provisions in the Act, which stipulated that each of the two hounds should be kept under sufficiently close control for the fox to be shot and killed as soon as possible after flushing.
The judge said the videos showed the hounds following the line of the fox at speed without immediately being called off.
There was a "substantial period" of chase for each of the two foxes that were seen on the videos.
Long after the foxes had been flushed they were being followed by the hounds, which was hunting in the judge's view.
There was only one marksman, who was not going to be in the position to shoot the animal as soon as possible.
The judge said no reasonable steps had been taken to shoot the fox as soon as possible and that the dogs were not under close control as required by the hunting exemption.
The first conviction in England under the Hunting Act was against a Merseyside man who had been hunting rabbits with dogs, but Wright's was the first for fox hunting since the ban came into force.Reuse content