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Richard Down, former huntsman, and Martin Watts, former whipper-in and current huntsman of the Quantock Staghounds, were both accused of hunting a wild mammal with a dog in a trial at Taunton Magistrates’ Court.

The reported incident was alleged to have been committed on land owned by the National Trust at Trendle Ring, Bicknoller in the Quantocks on Monday, March 18, 2019.

Video recordings taken by members of Hounds Off and Somerset Wildlife Crime showed a stag running across Bicknoller Hill near Trendle Ring with two hounds in pursuit a short distance behind. The stag was flanked by two riders who followed the stag over the hill but no efforts were made to call the hounds off.

Richard Down and Martin Watts had their police interviews read out in court and neither men gave evidence in court. They claimed to have been both trial hunting and using the rescue exemption under the Hunting Act. They said in their interview that they trail hunted to a location near to Bicknoller Hill where they had been informed that a seriously lame stag was located. While searching for the lame stag the two hounds accidentally picked up the scent of another stag that was subsequently pursued over Bicknoller Hill.

District judge David Taylor delivered a not guilty verdict and dismissed the charges against Richard Down and Martin Watts, as the two defendants could not be identified at the scene in the evidence produced in court and could not be shown to have been participating in the hunting of the stag. However, the judge said that the mounted followers of the hut did have a case to answer for illegal hunting.

Reacting to the decision, Countryside Alliance welcomed the verdict but said the verdict “highlights yet another example of evidence provided by anti-hunting activists failing to support their claims of illegal hunting activity.” She said: “Just two weeks ago, the huntsman of the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale was also found not guilty of offences under the Hunting Act. Both cases have resulted in a huge amount of valuable police resources and court time being wasted when there was never any valid evidence that an illegal activity had occurred. We continue to urge the police and the CPS to carefully consider whether allegations made by committed and prejudiced activists should lead to charges being brought. We will also continue to assist the rural community against these ongoing malicious campaigns and unfounded allegations.”

Somerset Wildlife Crime and Hounds Off described the case as “disappointing” but felt “encouraged by the acknowledgment of Judge Taylor agreeing that illegal hunting had taken place”.

Martin Sims, director of investigations at the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “Despite our disappointment at the failure to gain a conviction, this is a hollow victory for the hunt after the judge agreed the illegal hunting of a stag was taking place. The police will now be able to charge not just the huntsman and whipper-in of any hunt filmed chasing British wildlife, but the mounted followers too.We need to strengthen the Hunting Act with a recklessness clause to ensure British wildlife gets the protection it so badly needs.”