Video evidence of foxhunt not enough to prosecute, say police

Exclusive: Officers drop case after ‘refusing to take statements from witnesses because they are not independent’

Jane Dalton
Friday 14 January 2022 13:11
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The hunt hounds are seen pursuing a fox but police dispute 'intent'

Police have said they will not bring charges over allegations of illegal hunting, even though they have been shown video of riders and hounds in pursuit of a fox.

Officers also reportedly refused to take statements from witnesses because they are “not independent”, and dropped the case.

It is thought to be the first time a police force has given such a reasoning for not taking statements, prompting fears that prosecuting foxhunting is becoming more difficult.

Monitors say they filmed the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale Hunt in Dorset just before Christmas last year, chasing a fox for at least half an hour.

The footage shows hounds clearly chasing a fox across a field, followed by huntsmen on horseback.

But four weeks before the six-month time limit for prosecutions expires, police have told the monitors they will not prosecute.

Bobbie Armstrong, from Somerset Wildlife Crime, said: “I have serious concerns that they are eroding our ability to hold these hunts to account further with this move.”

She said police have been taking statements from the group for decades, under a process agreed by the Association of Chief Police Officers, now the National Police Chiefs Council.

A report last year that examined dozens of foxhunting complaints to police in one season claimed that forces around England regularly ignore reports of illegal foxhunting and fail to bring charges even when they are handed overwhelming evidence.

Somerset Wildlife Crime said Dorset Police told members they would not press charges because the video did not show proof of “intent” to hunt the animal.

The Hunting Act 2004 requires police to prove intent to foxhunt.

The witnesses say the riders did not call off the hounds as they closed in on the fox, which suggests intent.

The group claims the investigating officer “sent only partial evidence to CPS, who refused the case”.

Members also say the force would not take statements from witnesses about what they saw “as we are biased as anti-hunt campaigners”.

“This is a brand new move by Dorset Police. Our statements have only ever been ‘what I saw, what I heard’. And it is down to the officer taking your statement to ensure the statement is factual, not opinion,” Ms Armstrong said.

“There is no one independent out there, it’s the hunts or us. The police don’t attend to oversee what is happening and even if they did, they don’t have the experience and knowledge as to what they are looking at. If they are called out to an incident they don’t attend with video recording equipment so the only people actually observing is us.”

Martin Sims, a former police chief inspector and now head of investigations at the League Against Cruel Sports, said he had not heard of cases of police refusing to take statements because of biased witnesses, but said if they did not take statements, it was unprofessional and a “dereliction of duty”.

“How can a prosecutor put a film into context if there’s no statement of what the monitor saw? The full facts are not there to make a decision on,” he said.

The video evidence will expire on 19 June, after which date it cannot be used to bring charges.

Dorset Police did not comment, when asked by The Independent, on why they did not charge anyone or take statements.

A spokesperson said: “Following consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service, a decision was made not to bring any charges in relation to this case.

“Any alleged breach of the Hunting Act 2004 is investigated by a dedicated wildlife crime officer who has received specific training and guidance in this area.

“Hunting mammals with dogs has been illegal since 2004. A few, very specific, exemptions apply.

“There has been no change to the policy about taking statements. It is considered on a case-by-case basis what is needed evidentially to secure a conviction and if required, officers will take a statement from witnesses.”

The Independent has asked the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale to respond.

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