Blood, badgers and zoom lenses

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OUTSIDE Yate magistrates' court a small, undisciplined pack of television cameramen and photographers were waiting on the path, cameras poised, quivering, eager for the least trace of their prey. Another car stopped by the kerb, unloading passengers, but still their quarry was nowhere to be seen. One of the cameramen let out a mournful, muted trumpet- sound: 'Gone Away]'

This quarry was unusual and distinguished - Captain Ian Farquhar, joint Master of the Duke of Beaufort's Hunt. The Beaufort is, with the Quorn, one of the top hunts, dashing across 760 square miles of Gloucestershire, Avon and Wiltshire each winter in their distinctive blue coats with buff facings, the hunt servants picked out in green. The heir to the throne is among those who ride with the Beaufort, along with Prince and Princess Michael of Kent.

Softly up the stairs to the courtroom at Yate, near Bristol, came Captain Farquhar, soberly dressed now in tweed and flannels, and sat in the dock.

'Not guilty,' he said quietly, as the summonses against him were read out. 'Not guilty.' Captain Farquhar, 47, has been charged with aiding or procuring the illegal stopping up of the entrances to two badger setts before a hunt last October.

His own earth is at Warren Cottage, close to Badminton Park, the great inherited territory of the Dukes of Beaufort, where the hunt's 51 couple of hounds is kept. Like the Dukes of Beaufort, their great foe, whose motto is mutare vel timere sperno (I scorn to change or fear) foxes have traditional patterns of behaviour, and live in social groups. Foxes, like aristocrats, also inherit earths, sometimes ancient ones, although these pass through the female line.

Guy James, for the RSPCA, rose to make the prosecution's case. Under the Protection of Badgers Act, 1992, it is lawful to fill the entrances to badger earths before a hunt, to prevent foxes or cubs taking refuge there, so long as it is done with proper materials, including loose soil, bracken and straw, and provided they are not packed hard. 'You will be receiving evidence that it was not loose soil but clay,' said Mr James. 'Sticky, nasty stuff - in large lumps.'

Their worships, the three magistrates, listened attentively: Captain Farquhar rested his face on his fist. At the back of the small court the concentration among spectators was intense. Several wore small images of animals, on brooch or tie: a fox, a badger, two small horses. The overwhelming majority were against blood sports: several from the RSPCA, one from the League Against Cruel Sports, the chairman of the National Federation of Badger Groups.

Some legal skirmishing ensued, and the prosecution's chase began. Witnesses - a policeman, a former National Trust employee - told, in soft West Country accents, of seeing stopped holes on National Trust land at High Field Woods, Horton, across which the Beaufort has permission to hunt.

Inspector Ian Burns of the RSPCA took the stand, a tall man with a quiet voice. On Wednesday 21 October, last year, he said, he had seen what he believed were two separate setts.

'I found all the entrances heavily stopped with large sods of heavy clay-type material.' There were 15 or 16 holes, all, he said, blocked. 'I saw the hunt go through the field close to the wood and the hounds went directly through the wood.'

Inspector Burns had later seen Captain Farquhar at Badminton House, who had said that his duties included the responsibility for earth-stopping. The captain had said that it was his view that the Badger Act's provisions for this were workable and fair. He was sure that the instructions on stopping had been carried out correctly. He had been asked who carried out the stopping for the Beaufort. And at that point the captain had stopped the interview, saying: 'That's as far as I'm prepared to go.'

The RSPCA and Avon and Somerset police had made videos. The inspector switched on the machine, and the sound of birdsong, mooing and a distant chainsaw filled the courtroom.

Captain Farquhar moved his seat to see better. Inspector Burns was shown leaning over a stopped hole. 'This is heavily packed with clay,' said the voice of Burns. On screen his finger pointed at an indentation: 'Claw marks - which would appear to be of a badger trying to get in.'

The camera moved from stopped hole to badger spoil heap to stopped hole. Inspector Burns removed what he estimated to be a 2 or 3lb stone from one of the holes. At the back the spectators rustled and whispered. The noise of baa-ing rose through the room and ceased.

Andrew Peebles, barrister for the defence, rose to cross-examine Inspector Burns, going through the RSPCA's pictures of the earths inch by inch. The process was not helped when it turned out, after much mutually baffled exchange, that Mr Peebles's copy of one photograph had been stuck in upside down.

The prosecution's chase went on, through Thursday and yesterday. The case for the defence started late yesterday: the truth about the Beaufort's badger-stopping is so far uncertain.

The day ended, Capt Farquhar returned to his warren. But next week, the cameras will be hunting the huntsman again.