David Cameron’s favourite fox hunt, and David Cameron's favourite huntsman, were both fined for illegal hunting today in a case which will embarrass the Prime Minister.
The Heythrop Hunt in Oxfordshire, closely associated with the so-called "Chipping Norton set” of friends of Mr Cameron, pleaded guilty to four charges of intentionally hunting a fox with dogs on land in the Cotswolds, in a case brought by the RSPCA.
Former huntsman Julian Barnsfield, 49, a friend of Mr Cameron, and recently retired hunt master Richard Sumner, 68, another acquaintance of the Prime Minister, also pleaded guilty to the same charges during a hearing at Oxford Magistrates' Court.
District Judge Tim Pattinson fined the hunt £4,000, Sumner £1,800 and Barnsfield £1,000, while the hunt was told to pay £15,000 towards RSPCA legal costs, Sumner £2,500 costs and Barnsfield £2,000 – for a grand total in penalties of £26,300.
The RSPCA spent £326,980 bringing the prosecution, the first where a hunt has faced corporate charges, a sum Mr Pattinson said he found “quite staggering”. The judge said that the RSPCA had asked for a £50,000 contribution from the three defendants towards its costs, but he said he was rejecting that figure as the costs should not be “grossly disproportionate” to the fines he had already imposed.
The Chipping Norton-based Heythrop has long been one of Britain’s most glamorous and celebrated fox hunts. Mr Cameron’s constituency of Witney includes the Oxfordshire market town, which has given its name to a loose but influential group of friends and former friends of the Prime Minister, including Rebekah Brooks, former CEO of News International and editor of The Sun and The News of The World, who is now awaiting trial on charges related to the phone hacking scandal.
Mr Cameron himself rode with the Heythrop half a dozen times before the ban on hunting with hounds was introduced in February 2005.
The court heard that the hunt was filmed on several occasions in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire during November last year and in February and March this year by members of the Protect Our Wild Animals group. The footage was passed to the RSPCA, which, after reviewing it, decided to prosecute.
The RSPCA chief executive, Gavin Grant, said last night: “These defendants were well aware that they were breaking the law in that their actions would lead to a fox being torn apart by dogs.
“No doubt the hunt will say that those involved have now left and they had no knowledge of this crime. But the evidence of the deliberate hunting of foxes with dogs on many occasions is crystal clear. The truth is this hunt believed that they were above the law - they were wrong.
“This law protects our beautiful wild animals. We will ensure that it is enforced as Parliament intended.”
The coalition Government has indicated the possibility of a free vote in Parliament on hunting at some point in the future.