Director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, Mark Hankinson, has been found guilty of encouraging or assisting others to commit an offence under the Hunting Act by telling them how to use the excuse of ‘trail’ hunting to get away with hunting traditional live quarry hunting. Hankinson was one of the speakers from the Hunting Office, Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) and the Countryside Alliance who gave “advice” in two training webinars in August 2020 on how to create a “smokescreen” around hunting. The webinar videos came to light when they were leaked and then posted online.
During his judgment in October at Westminster Magistrates’ Court Deputy Chief Magistrate Tan Ikram said “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,”
Mr Hankinson was fined £1,000 along with a contribution of £2,500 towards legal costs.
During the three-day trial at Westminster Magistrates Court in September clips of the video recordings were played in court. In the recordings Hankinson told participants: “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. It’s a lot easier to create a smokescreen if you’ve got more than one trail layer operating.”
He had also described a legal exemption to the Hunting Act as “a good wheeze for holding up”. When asked what he meant by “wheeze” he said, “a useful thing to do”.
Mr Hankinson told the court that when he said “smokescreen” he was giving advice on laying dummy trails to confuse potential saboteurs and allow legitimate hunting to continue. When asked by his barrister Richard Lissack QC what message he sought to send, Mr Hankinson replied that the law “must be adhere to, there’s no question of it”.
Another of the speakers on the webinar, 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 talking about creating an “element of doubt”, presumably in any ensuing court case, that the hounds had been following a trail when in actual fact the opposite was true.
Lord Benjamin Mancroft, the former chairman of the MFHA and member of the House of Lords, chaired the webinars and talked about the need for the information within them to be kept within the confines of the hunting community.
Mr Lissack QC argued in his closing submission that Mr Hankinson had carried out his role “strictly, properly and unapologetically.”
Prosecuting barrister Gregory Gordon said in his closing submission that Mr Hankinson was offering advice on how to hunt illegally “behind a smoke screen of trail hunting”; “His words were clear, his advice was capable of encouraging hunts to commit illegal hunting, and his intention was to encourage illegal hunting.”
The Hunt Saboteurs Association were responsible for exposing the webinars. Their spokesperson, Lee Moon, said of the verdict: “We’re delighted that Mark Hankinson has been found guilty and the sentence is of little importance.”
The League was the complainant in the case against Hankinson, which was investigated by Devon and Cornwall Police. Andy Knott, MBE, who is the League’s chief executive, said: “This is the right result today, in what should prove to be the final knell for hunting wild mammals with dogs. The judge’s comments were telling: more than half the hunts on that webinar were being taught how to break the law, by a man who himself tried to use ‘clever language’ to get away with it.” He went to say: “Enough is enough. The courts have heard definitive proof of the hunting lobby explaining to hunts how to get around the law and make it almost impossible to prosecute them.
The Masters of Foxhounds Association said it was considering an appeal of the verdict.
“We will be setting up a review which will be conducted to ensure that hunts are in a position to offer reassurances to all landowners and other stakeholders that hunts are operating within the law,” said Chairman of the Masters of Foxhounds Association Andrew Osborne.