In a small local court last week, a jury was shown footage of a fox tearing across a field by the edge of a wood, pursued by a pack of hounds. After disappearing into the trees, the hounds emerge again baying. They are joined by huntsmen, and in a brief, gruesome flash, the camera catches sight of the bloody carcass of a fox.
The footage, filmed earlier this year and submitted as evidence by the RSPCA against the Heythrop Hunt at Bicester Magistrates’ Court, elicited gasps of horror from the court. The Hunt – and two of its former members – pleaded guilty to four charges of hunting a fox with dogs and were fined.
Today, an estimated 250,000 people are expected to take part in legal Boxing Day hunts across Britain – following trails rather than foxes – with 3,000 enthusiasts gathering at the Heythrop event in a show of support.
Gavin Grant, the RSPCA’s bullish chief executive, is not afraid to say what he thinks about people who hunt animals illegally. “Those who get a kick out of it, those who consciously abuse animals for profit or for pleasure – they are the enemies of the animals, and that makes them the enemies of the RSPCA,” he says.
For Mr Grant, the successful prosecution of the Heythrop Hunt – the first of its kind – has capped an eventful first year at the helm of Britain’s oldest animal-welfare charity. Since taking over in January, he has collided with his own staff over budget cuts; with the National Farmers Union over the badger cull; and now with the hunting lobby and their allies at the top of Government.
The charity has had to lose 90 back-office staff this year, a move Mr Grant says protected the frontline jobs of vets at the charity’s 160 branches in England and Wales. He also emphasises the role of his “thin blue line”: the 400-strong, uniformed inspectorate who investigate and intervene in cases of animal cruelty.
At the same time, the RSPCA has been more vocal than ever on animal-welfare matters that have often strayed into the arena of politics – somewhere Mr Grant, a former PR executive, appears to feel at home.
“I’ve been involved in politics since my teenage years,” he says. “Getting involved, getting stuck in, is important. I was a very young Young Liberal and those politics have stayed with me, along with a passion for animal welfare. I believe in the vision of the RSPCA’s founders – that how we treat animals is a fundamental barometer of compassion in society.”
This is Mr Grant’s second stint at the RSPCA, where he worked as director of communications for three years up to 1991. He left to join the Body Shop, where he helped to orchestrate a campaign to end the use of animal testing for cosmetics. His most recent position, as UK chairman of the global PR company Burson-Marsteller, saw him work with corporate clients such as Unilever.
Raised on a south London council estate, his father sold cellophane from the back of a van and his mother worked in a needlework shop. He made a name for himself through youth politics and served as the University of Reading’s youngest student president in history in the late 1970s.
After graduating, he worked for an anti-racism campaign group and reported on community race relations for the Thatcher government. He attracted the anger of what he describes as “shadowy, sinister neo-Nazi organisations”, an experience that informs his animal-rights activism.
“I was never a balaclava wearer,” he says. “I understand very well what intimidation, fear and threats do to people, because I’ve been on the receiving end of it.”
Expanding on this theme, he adds: “People may seek to intimidate me, and some have. There are a lot of people sidling up to me at the moment saying I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s not going to work. My upbringing has taught me to stand up for what is right. I respect the law, I respect other people’s opinions, but the RSPCA is never going to be intimidated.”
Mr Grant’s pronouncements on matters ranging from the Grand National to the badger cull and fox hunting have made headlines for both the wrong and the right reasons. But he is unapologetic. “What I care about is the animals,” he says. “I’m determined that the RSPCA’s voice will be heard ever more loudly, ever more clearly.”
On the Grand National, he said the death of two horses at this year’s race was “totally unacceptable” and called for the removal of the Becher’s Brook fence – going further than any chief executive in the organisation’s history.
Ahead of the aborted badger-cull trial, he appeared to call for a milk boycott aimed at dairy farmers who had volunteered to shoot the animals on their land. He later clarified his position, stating he wanted consumers to be made aware of whether their milk came from cull zones, so they could make an informed choice – but the damage had been done.
Last month, when he appeared to advocate naming and shaming farmers responsible for the cull on the BBC’s Panorama programme, the National Farmers Union decided he had gone too far, stating that the RSPCA had ceased to be “a responsible organisation” on Mr Grant’s watch and accusing him of “inciting a campaign of fear and intimidation”.
Mr Grant said he “never called for identification of farmers, farms or the owners of farms” – something that more radical elements of the badger-cull opposition were already doing. His actual comments do to some extent bear out his version of events (he said that farmers involved “will” be named, not that they should), but for many, he has dangerously politicised an organisation usually better known for caring for stray puppies and kittens.
But it is the RSPCA’s latest campaign on fox hunting that has attracted his most sensational headlines yet, not least because the Heythrop Hunt covers the countryside around Chipping Norton, David Cameron’s Witney constituency. The Prime Minister has ridden with them in the past. In a time of job cuts, the £300,000 cost of the prosecution to the RSPCA also raised eyebrows.
But Mr Grant does not countenance any suggestion of playing politics at the expense of the RSPCA’s donors. “I looked at the evidence against Heythrop and listened to what our legal counsel said and believed that we had a very strong case,” he says.
But the timing of the case is telling. Mr Cameron now has two and a half years to make good on his promise of a free vote on repealing the Hunting Act during this Parliament – something of which Mr Grant is well aware.
“It is in the coalition agreement and this Government seem intent upon enacting the coalition agreement line by line so I think we’ve got to assume it will come,” he says.
“It’s great to see the Coalition bringing forward legislation to grant gay people the same rights to marriage as straight people, so the notion that at the same time we could reintroduce something that was seen as appropriate in the 19th century and very inappropriate in the 20th century is absolutely bizarre.
“If the Prime Minister feels he wants to have his vote then let him have his vote. He will discover he’s going to lose and maybe that’s necessary to end this discussion about the Act.”
The successful prosecution of the Heythrop Hunt, he says, should encourage landowners to establish a new association to regulate and ensure that legal alternatives to hunting, such as drug trailing, are regulated and the letter of the law properly adhered to. If it does not, he has not ruled out more prosecutions. Fines, he says, are not enough, and he has called for jail sentences of two to five years for those convicted under the Hunting Act.
Giving chase: In numbers
More than 300 hunts will take place today, according to the Masters of Fox Hounds Association, with participants following trails rather than chasing foxes, a practice that was outlawed by the Hunting Act in 2005.
More than 250,000 people are expected to take part or spectate. Last year saw record turn-outs, with an estimated 300,000 supporters attending events across the country in a major boost for the pro-hunting lobby.
The Heythrop Hunt is expecting 3,000 spectators as a show of support after its recent conviction for illegally hunting foxes, a case brought by the RSPCA.
The Duke of Beaufort’s Hunt saw a turn-out of 5,000 last Boxing Day. It is one of the oldest and largest in the country, covering 760 square miles. The annual meet in Tarporley, Cheshire, usually attracts 100 riders and more than 1,000 spectators.