A prominent huntsman has been ordered to pay £3,500 for giving advice to countrymen about how to covertly carry out illegal fox hunts.
Mark Hankinson, the 60-year-old director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, was found guilty at Westminster Magistrates’ Court of encouraging or assisting others to commit an offence.
He was charged after footage from two webinars held in August last year for MFHA was obtained by anti-hunting activists who passed it to the media and the police.
Hankinson told members of the Hunting Office to use legal trail hunting where horseback riders and hounds follow a previously laid scent, as a ‘smokescreen’ for criminal activity, the court heard.
Trail hunting replicates a traditional hunt without a fox actually being chased, injured or killed, and although there is always a danger that hounds will accidentally come across the scent of a fox, they should then be stopped to avoid this becoming a criminal offence.
Hankinson, of Sherborne, Dorset, wore a pinstripe suit with a blue and white striped shirt and polka dot tie for the verdict of his trial on Friday.
Mark Hankinson (pictured leaving Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London), 60, was found guilty of encouraging or assisting others to commit an offence
Dozens of the huntsman’s supporters and family members, some wearing suits, others tweed jackets and knee-high boots, along with a similar number of activists in T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘End Hunting’, watched from the public gallery.
Judge Tan Ikram ordered him to pay a £1,000 fine and a £2,500 contribution towards legal costs, and defence lawyer Richard Lissack QC said Hankinson would lose his job as a result.
In the clips he acknowledged that trail hunting, which was devised in the wake of the Act to replicate the outlawed sport, was a cover for the chasing and killing of foxes.
Under the rules, horseback riders with dogs can legally follow trails laid with scent, instead of chasing a live animal. However, if hounds were to pick up the scent of a fox and chase it as a result of the trail, then there are no legal consequences.
In one webinar he told members: ‘It’s effectively illegal to intentionally hunt a wild mammal with more than two dogs but you will see there’s quite a few exemptions.
‘So obviously trail hunting, which is our main card, is a critical one, but that trail hunting needs to be visible and credible and those involved need to be robust when questioned.’
He added: ‘Some people say, ‘What’s the point in laying trails?’ But I think it’s fairly self-explanatory. If you haven’t laid a trail you won’t be covered by insurance… Don’t forget it’s a much more serious offence to commit perjury in court than commit offences under the Hunting Act.’
Speaking about Hankinson’s speech on the incriminating webinars, judge Ikram said: ‘He said the following words of significance and I suggest of central significance to this issue and this case.
‘He said: ‘We need to have clear, visible and plausible trailing being done throughout the day’. He spoke of huntsmen being caught out and the saboteurs could be out there hiding, watching and filming.
‘He said: ‘It’s about trying to portray to the people watching that you are going about your legitimate business’ and ‘the people recording must make sure we only record only the legal things that we do, because of course we only do legal things’.’
The judge continued: ‘There was a clear and common thread throughout his addresses in the webinars over two separate days.
‘In my judgment, he was clearly encouraging the mirage of trail laying to act as cover for old fashioned illegal hunting.
‘Whilst he didn’t use overt words, he implied it again and again.
Dozens of protesters from The League Against Cruel Sports cheered as Hankinson left court, while passing motorists beeped their horns
‘Why would you need to try to portray anything as legitimate if you were in fact engaged in legitimate business?’
The judge added: ‘Perhaps most incriminating is his direction and advice that trail laying has to be ‘as plausible as possible.’
‘The only reasonable interpretation of those words leads to the conclusion that a need to make something plausible is only necessary if it is a sham and a fiction.’
Giving evidence Hankinson claimed he had been unfairly penalised. But Rachael Taylor, specialist prosecutor for the CPS, said: ‘Mark Hankinson is a well-known figure in the hunting community and his actions have today been found to encourage the offence of hunting a fox with a dog.’ She added she was ‘committed’ to ensuring these types of offenders are ‘held accountable for their actions’.
Dozens of protesters from The League Against Cruel Sports cheered as Hankinson left court, while passing motorists beeped their horns.
Deputy leader of the League, Chris Luffington, said he was ‘delighted’ about the guilty verdict, but said prison sentences should be imposed instead of a fine, which was the maximum punishment for Hankinson’s crime.
Hankinson was ordered to pay a £1,000 fine and a £2,500 contribution towards legal costs, and defence lawyer Richard Lissack QC said he would lose his job as a result (file photo)
He said: ‘We’re really delighted about the result in court today.
‘A guilty verdict really tears down the myth of trail hunting and proves what we’ve been saying for many years – that people have just tried to find excuses and covers and smokescreens to find a way to continue illegally killing wild animals.’
Mr Luffington added that he ‘would like to think’ the verdict would deter other huntsmen from criminal activity, but fears they will ‘find another excuse’.
Since the Zoom webinars were leaked, big landowners including the National Trust, Forestry England, Lake District National Park, United Utilities and Natural Resources Wales have suspended licences for trail hunting.
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