Trail-hunting licences suspended in England’s forests as police examine hunters’ Zoom ‘smokescreen’ briefing footage

Officers and prosecutors ‘considering whether any crimes were committed’ 

Jane Dalton
Wednesday 25 November 2020 19:57 GMT
Hounds were filmed chasing a fox in the west country last week

England’s largest land manager has suspended all licences for trail-hunting in forests after police revealed they were studying two webinars at which the UK’s leading hunting figures discussed how to create “a smokescreen” around their activities and how to avoid prosecution.

Forestry England, which manages the country's 1,500 publicly owned woods, said no hunts would be allowed, in response to the investigation.

Specialist officers say they are working with the Crown Prosecution Service to see whether any criminal offences were committed during the two video meetings, which were secretly recorded and later leaked.

In the meetings, dozens of hunters and two retired police officers shared tactics ranging from how to create doubt over whether a fox was being deliberately hunted to the “terribly good wheeze” of legally using a bird of prey.

One admitted the presence of terrier men was "a bit of a marker to everyone".  

The discussions have been claimed by hunt saboteurs as an “irrefutable” signal of long-standing wrongdoing, revealing a “conspiracy” by hunters to avoid being caught breaking the law.  

National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for foxhunting Paul Netherton said: “Police are currently investigating and examining video content from two webinars on the theme of hunting which have recently come to our attention.

“We are working in conjunction with the CPS to see if any criminal offences have been committed.

“As these events were online and there are no specific geographical areas for one force to investigate, Devon and Cornwall Police are leading the investigation on behalf of all UK forces.”

He added: “We understand this is a contentious issue. However, at this time this is a live and active investigation which we cannot comment further on.”

Hunting wild mammals, such as foxes, with dogs has been illegal since 2005, but hunts insist they stay within the law by laying scent trails for hounds to follow. Hunt opponents dispute that trails are laid, insisting hounds are routinely trained to hunt foxes in autumn cub-hunting.

Secretly recorded in August, the sessions were run by the Hunting Office, which administers hunts. One of the online meetings was attended by more than 100 hunters, many of them hunt masters, representing more than half of the country’s foxhunts.

The Hunting Office denied the webinars were organised to discuss covering up unlawful activities, saying members discussed protecting themselves against “false and malicious” allegations by hunting opponents.

In one clip, one experienced hunter was recorded saying: “I think the most important thing that we need to bear in mind is that if you’ve got saboteurs out with you in any shape or form, we need to have clear visible plausible trail-laying being done throughout the day.

“I don’t think it’s good enough just to have your huntsman ducking and diving trying to just give them the slip and leaving it at that, we need to have very clear evidence of trail-laying.”

He added: “It’s a lot easier to create a smokescreen if you’ve got more than one trail-layer operating, and that is what it’s all about, trying to portray to the people watching that you’re going about legitimate business.”

He described the presence of terrier men at hunts as their “soft underbelly", saying: "A lot of people would say that if you’re going trail-hunting, why do you need terrier men following you around? Yes, it is totally legal for them to be out doing everything if they follow the correct exemptions, but it does flag up a bit of a marker to everyone: you know, why, as trail-hunting, do you need them there?”

At another point he also said: “The law states you can use a pack of dogs to flush a wild mammal to be hunted by a bird of prey — now that’s a terribly good wheeze for holding up, and I think everyone during autumn hunting ought to be considering that.”

A former police officer and former hunt master advised attendees: “If you’re recording evidence for the Hunting Act, trail-laying, whatever, don’t use the same phones or anything where you’ve been using social media and bragging about what you’ve been doing out hunting, because if the police get hold of it you’ll get both sides.”

Another former police officer warned members that saboteurs may “holler” or play loud music, saying: “What it will do is create that smokescreen or that element of doubt that we haven’t deliberately hunted a fox, so if nothing else you need to record that and it will help us provide a defence to huntsmen.”

He also advised hunters on what to do if stopped by police, telling the meeting: “I hope there are not police officers listening - there is no such thing as an off-the-record chat with a policeman”.

Chris Luffingham, director of campaigns at the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “This is huge. It’s what we’ve been saying since ‘trail’ hunting was invented after the Hunting Act came into force in 2005 – that it’s a smokescreen for real hunting.”

At the start of the meeting, one participant closely linked to the Countryside Alliance encouraged a culture of gathering complaints against “antis”, saying: “If every hunt that has antis made sure that they made one complaint and there was one prosecution a year, my goodness would it make a difference.”

Digging is done not to get to the fox but to rescue the terrier, one hunter said

He warned attendees: “Anything that comes out of these meetings is to be kept amongst ourselves. It’s not for general coverage.”

Lee Moon, a spokesperson for the Hunt Saboteurs' Association, said the videos appeared to confirm what the group had long believed — “almost every hunt in the UK is routinely flouting the Hunting Act”.

The Hunting Office issued a statement aimed at hunters and supporters that read: “The Hunting Office is facing allegations that training webinars run during August were organised for the purposes of covering up unlawful hunting.

“The truth is that two, hour-long, Hunting Office webinars clearly dealt with the operation and promotion of legal trail hunting and managing animal rights activism.  

“The allegation that they were organised to discuss covering up unlawful activities is totally incorrect and can only be made by taking a few individual short comments completely out of context.  

“As you will be aware hunts face almost daily spurious allegations of illegal activity from anti hunt saboteurs and professional activists, and therefore not only have to operate within the law, but also have to be able overtly to demonstrate that they are doing so at any time.

“We would encourage you all to avoid commenting on these allegations on Social media or other public forums"

The league, which says it received 677 reports of suspected illegal foxhunting last season, has called on organisations that allow trail-hunting on their to revoke the licences.

The Hunt Saboteurs and the league said they expected other landowners to follow suit.

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