Our work to protect British wildlife goes on as we call for urgent strengthening to hunting legislation, to prevent animals suffering cruelty in the name of ‘sport’.
We arrived at Belvoir Castle at around 11am on March 12th 2016. It was a fine, sunny day and the daffodils were in bloom in front of the Castle. There was a large turnout of hunt support, including some from neighbouring hunts who had already finished their season’s hunting.
When we found the hunt they were in the Vale of Belvoir, west of the castle. Darryl Cunnington suggested we take a public bridleway which offers amazing views across the Vale - this is where his knowledge of Leicestershire as an ex-rural police officer works so well.
We could hear the huntsman below us occasionally blowing his horn and the odd bay of a hound, and after about a mile of walking our views opened up and we could see three or four miles across the Vale.
We set up an observation point at the edge of the bridleway. We both have good quality camcorders with an added 1.7x teleconverter lens, which allows us to record reasonable footage from some distance away.
We were dressed in country walking gear so very few people would suspect who we were if they passed by and sure enough, an adult rider and two young girls on ponies probably returning to the meet, passed us unknowingly and exchanged pleasantries.
The League Against Cruel Sports employs a team of wildlife crime investigators. I’m their most recent recruit and started as a part-time investigator in 2015, working closely with Darryl across the East Midlands.
Prior to the April 2015 hunting season, BBC Inside Out approached the League requesting to follow our team for a regional piece on hunting. This had never been done before and neither we, nor the BBC reporter could predict how interesting this would be. It turned out to be very interesting.
In December 2015 we had rescued a captive fox from Lincolnshire’s Buckminster Estate, the day before a Belvoir Hunt meet. The gamekeeper involved in holding the fox was recently found guilty for cruelty under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
Just a few months later in March 2016 - aware we needed to spend more time with Inside Out, not easy as a small team that spans the length and breadth of the country– a last hurrah was suggested at the Belvoir Hunt’s final meet of the season.
Shortly after the huntsman rode out from the west side of the wood with the pack of hounds and I began to film. I then heard a quad bike. Now anyone who knows a thing or two about hunting will know that quad bikes usually signal the mysterious ‘terrier men’.
In traditional fox hunting a hunt would employ one or more terrier men, whose role it was to block fox earths and badger setts before a hunt - to prevent foxes from taking refuge below ground - and to deal with foxes that went to ground during the day’s hunting.
Since the Hunting Act came in, nobody has given a plausible reason as to why hunts continue to employ them, but they are commonly seen – even when hunts claim to be ‘trail’ hunting.
The terrier men’s quad started passing us, with two large boxes front and rear and two riders. They’d almost passed when they stopped sharply – they had recognised Darryl. “You’ve got a nerve showing up here”, said the older man, getting off the quad.
“You know who I am?”, answered Darryl. We weren’t unduly concerned: there were two of them and two of us. We obviously don’t like to be spotted but sometimes these things happen, and we’ll always attempt to diffuse any situation that unfolds.
Darryl was amicable but the two terrier men were confrontational. “Go get the boys, Tom”, said the older man to his younger colleague. At that point - perhaps, in hindsight - we should have made a swift exit, but we were over a mile from the car and on foot and those who follow hunts are used to such threats so we weren’t too concerned.
The man named Tom took off on the quad while the older man stayed with us. A couple of minutes later he returned followed by a 4x4 with four masked men inside. They attacked Darryl and pushed him over the edge of the escarpment.
The original two terrier men held me and wrestled my camera from my hand. The younger one punched me in the head, while the older one restrained me and then he too pushed me over the escarpment.
The next thing I was aware of was silence – I called to Darryl but no response. I sat up and felt blood dripping down my face. My head was throbbing. Where was Darryl? I couldn’t see him. I called again and nothing.
I walked across to where I thought he might have landed and saw him lying across some scree, hidden by undergrowth. Thankfully he was conscious. “Are you alright?”, I called. He wasn’t. He had pain in his neck and he couldn’t move his legs.
The next hour involved multiple phone calls for an ambulance, the police, our manager and finally the BBC reporter who was at the hunt. The location was remote.
The police arrived first, they responded quickly and we heard multiple sirens screaming around the area looking for the attackers. It was getting dark and cold by the time Darryl was hoisted into a specialist all-terrain, paramedic’s vehicle.
By the next day the dramatic rescue – filmed by the BBC – had made the national press and the two terrier men had been arrested. My stolen camera was returned by the men’s defence solicitor a few days later but was damaged beyond repair - including the memory card.
Darryl’s camera, which had been in his pocket throughout the incident, had continued to record audio – this went on to form a major part of the evidence against the men.
George Grant, terrier man for the Belvoir Hunt, and his son Thomas Grant pleaded guilty in early April at Leicester Crown Court to charges of grievous bodily harm on investigator Darryl Cunnington, actual bodily harm on myself, theft of a video camera and criminal damage of a memory card.
Sentencing has been adjourned until June 14. The four masked men were never identified. The Belvoir Hunt and Countryside Alliance have remained silent over the incident.
Darryl suffered a partial fracture to his neck vertebrae. If it had been a full fracture or nerve damage, he might not be here today. Thankfully he has since made a full recovery.
Darryl and I and the rest of the League team will continue to investigate illegal hunting, despite the dangers posed. Our work to protect British wildlife goes on as we call for urgent strengthening to hunting legislation, to prevent animals suffering cruelty in the name of ‘sport’.
Roger Swaine is a field operator for the League Against Cruel Sports. The charity is currently campaigning to end illegal hunting. Sign the petition.