Trail hunting is 'smokescreen'

Mark Hankinson was found guilty after telling hunters to use trails as a smokescreen. 

Director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association tells private webinar that 'plausible' trail hunting can be used as 'smokescreen' for illegal hunt, court hears.

Trail hunting can be used as a smokescreen to get around the law.

“It is a lot easier to portray a smokescreen if you’ve got more than one trail layer operating” and the act of laying a trail “needs to be as plausible as possible…just in case it goes to court”.

Mark Hankinson, 60, of Frampton Farm near Sherbone, was speaking during a private webinar attended by a member of the House of Lords and a former police inspector about how to run legal trail hunts during August 2020. But because of his comments he was charged with intentionally encouraging the unlawful hunting of wild animals with dogs.

Hankinson, director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA), was found guilty of an offence under the Serious Crime Act 2007 during a hearing today, Friday 15 October 2021, at Westminster Magistrates’ Court. Hankinson denied encouraging illegal activity. He was fined £1,000 along with a contribution of £2,500 towards legal costs.

Leaked

Tan Ikram, deputy chief magistrate told the Westminster court: "I am sure that the defendant through his words was giving advice on how to illegally hunt with dogs. In my judgement he was clearly encouraging the mirage of trail laying to act as cover for illegal hunting."

Andy Knott, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, which was the complainant in the case, said the government must immediately strengthen the Hunting Act to stop legal trail hunting being used as a “smokescreen” for illegal hunting in the UK.

The charity, which was instrumental in the Hunting Act 2004 passing the statute books, is now demanding the Act be amended to remove the loopholes that have allowed hunts to keep chasing and killing wildlife such as foxes, stag and hare with dogs.

Dr David John Martin, a vet, gave expert evidence during the trial. He explained that during a trail hunt, a trail layer will spray artificial scent through the countryside, and then hunters with a pack of hounds will pursue.

The videos of the webinar on Tuesday, 11 August 2020 show Mr Hankinson stated: “It is a lot easier to portray a smokescreen if you’ve got more than one trail layer operating” and the act of laying a trail “needs to be as plausible as possible…just in case it goes to court”. The videos were leaked and passed on to Devon and Cornwall Police.

Trail hunting can be used as a smokescreen to get around the law.

When giving the webinar, Hankinson also pointed out he was new to meetings online after their introduction just after Covid-19 had hit and so found them difficult to communicate in the usual manner.

Excuses

The prosecutor Gregory Gordon questioned Hankinson on the third day of the trial about the meaning of the word “plausible” - arguing his intention was to be deceptive.

The court was shown clips from two webinars, one held by Hankinson, the other by Lord Benjamin Mancroft, the former chairman of the MFHA and member of the House of Lords. Mancroft discussed his desire for the information within them to be kept within the confines of the hunting community.

Phil Davies, was the Countryside Alliance’s police liaison officer and a former chief inspector with Dyfed Powys Police in Carmarthen. He was shown on camera contributing to the webinars and discussed creating an “element of doubt”. The League Against Cruel Sports believes this refers to creating doubt about whether a trial hunt or a real hunt was taking place.

The defence argued that hunting economics is famously fragile and their existence seems to be on the edge. If they lose access to land, due to illegal activity, then the income of hunting will be lost. So encouraging illegal behaviour would be risking their livelihood.

Knott of the League Against Cruel Sports said outside the courtroom: “There can be no more excuses. The court heard expert testimony of how exemptions and ‘trail’ hunting can be used as a smokescreen to get around the law and make it almost impossible to prosecute hunts.

Peer

“I will be seeking assurances from those who enable the hunts to go out will now take action: that politicians will amend the Hunting Act to close its many loopholes; that landowners like the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice will stop hunts from accessing their land; and that those who have essentially been financing hunts breaking the law, such as Axa insurance, will remove their support.”

“That a British peer can chair a meeting in which the members were shown how to break the law shows how these people believe that laws don’t apply to them. No longer can they get away with it.”

Mr Knott has now written to Boris Johnson, the prime minister, as well as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Ministry for Justice and the Ministry of Defence asking for the removal of trial hunting licences in the wake of the evidence heard in court.

This Author

Ruby Harbour is the editorial assistant at The Ecologist.

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