Prime minister has ridden with Heythrop Hunt, which admitted intentionally hunting a fox with dogs
Members of David Cameron’s local hunt have been convicted of illegal fox hunting in the first corporate prosecution brought by the RSPCA.
The Heythrop Hunt Limited, based in Oxfordshire, pleaded guilty to four charges of intentionally hunting a fox with dogs on land in the Cotswolds.
The former huntsman Julian Barnfield, 49, and recently retired hunt master Richard Sumner, 68, also pleaded guilty to the same charges during a hearing at Oxford magistrates court.
The prime minister, who is MP for Witney, has ridden with the hunt. Charlie Brooks, the husband of the former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, is known to have been a member.
It is the first time a whole hunt has faced corporate charges, and is also the first case taken by the RSPCA involving the prosecution of a hunt itself.
Footage of hounds dragging the body of a fox across a field was played in court. District Judge Tim Pattinson was told the Heythrop Hunt met on four occasions and hunted with dogs in contravention of the Hunting Act 2004.
Jeremy Carter-Manning QC, prosecuting on behalf of the RSPCA, said Barnfield and Sumner had been involved in a hunt that began at Daylesford House in Chastleton, Oxfordshire, on 29 February. Footage showed evidence of “prolonged and deliberate unlawful hunting”, he said.
After a fox ran past hunt monitors who were recording footage from a road nearby, Barnfield drew up on horseback.
Carter-Manning said: “Two route followers indicated to Mr Barnfield the direction in which the fox had run.
“He immediately blows the hunting horn and enters the field as directed.”
Barnfield and another man then gave vocal encouragement to the remainder of the pack, shouting “tally ho” and “forrard”, said Carter-Manning.
In a subsequent piece of film, recorded some 40 minutes later, monitors watching the events unfold are heard shouting: “There’s a kill, there’s a kill,” and: “Call the police.”
Describing the events, Carter-Manning said: “The hounds converge into semi-circles and the screaming [of the hounds] reaches a crescendo.
“The hounds are making a kill.”
The next clip showed the bloodied carcass of a fox clamped in the jaws of one of a pack of hounds, prompting gasps from a packed public gallery.
On another occasion, on 7 March this year at Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire, a pack of hounds on a hunt was filmed making purring noises close to a section of dense cover as they tried to flush a fox out.
Describing video shot by a volunteer and played to the court, Carter-Manning said: “His footage captures the hounds beginning to squeal, going in and then almost immediately afterwards a double horn.”
Further footage captures the hounds pursuing a fox and cries of “on, on, on” from the mounted hunt.
Carter-Manning added: “The foxes are clearly seen by a number of relevant people, including Mr Sumner and Mr Barnfield and others.
“They [the men] are seen actively pursuing the hounds in pursuit of a fox.
“Mr Barnfield is filmed quite clearly amongst the pursuing hounds, shouting ‘on, on, on’ in obvious encouragement.”
Describing the four occasions to the court, Carter-Manning said: “It seems proper to suggest that the behaviour you have seen over the last hour or so clearly shows hunting foxes, with people there specifically to obstruct anybody taking photographs or video film and any suggestion of any trail laying of any kind is completely missing from any film, but also inconsistent with the way the hounds are working on the day.”
Both men and the Heythrop Hunt admitted four counts of unlawfully hunting a wild mammal, namely a fox, with dogs.
The offences took place on 23 November and 30 November last year as well as 29 February and 7 March this year.
Philip Mott QC, mitigating, said the charges related to four occasions within the full hunting season between November 2011 and March this year.
During that period there would have been around 100 hunts, each lasting some five hours, he said.
“What you have here is unlawful hunting, shown and admitted, of no more than 15 minutes in total.
“It’s our case that the rest of the time this hunt was operating trail hunting.”
Barnfield was fined £250 for each charge, totalling £1,000, and ordered to pay £2,000 costs. Sumner was fined £450 for each charge, totalling £1,800, and must pay £2,500 costs. The Heythrop Hunt Limited was fined £1,000 for each offence, totalling £4,000, and told to pay £15,000 in costs.
After sentencing, the RSPCA’s chief executive, Gavin Grant, said: “These defendants were well aware that they were breaking the law in that their actions would lead to a fox being torn apart by dogs. No doubt the hunt will say those involved have now left and they had no knowledge of this crime.”
He added: “The truth is this hunt believed that they were above the law – they were wrong.”