Foxhound body director ‘encouraged' illegal fox hunts, court hears

The director of the body representing foxhound packs encouraged members to use trail hunting, where horseback riders with dogs follow trails laid with scent in advance, as a “smokescreen” for illegal foxhunting, a court has heard.

Mark Hankinson, director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association and employee of the Hunting Office, appeared at Westminster magistrates court on Monday charged with encouraging or assisting others to commit an offence because of his comments.

The 60-year-old, of Frampton Farm, Sherborne, Dorset, was charged after footage from a training webinar for MFHA members, broadcast in August 2020, was obtained by hunt saboteurs, who passed it to the media and the police.

Hankinson appeared at Westminster magistrates court wearing a navy pinstripe suit and polka-dot tie, for the first day of his trial. “His intentions shine through very clearly,” Gregory Gordon, prosecuting, told the court.

“The prosecution say that the defendant gave advice on how to make it more difficult to be able to prove that an illegal hunt was happening. He gave advice on how to use trail hunting, in his own words, as a ‘smokescreen’ behind which illegal hunting could continue.

“The prosecution only have to prove that his actions were capable of encouraging an offence, not whether anybody was encouraged or acted on that encouragement.

Gordon said it could be inferred that Hankinson intended his advice to be used to hide illegal hunts. “With the context of hunting in mind, the meaning of his words were clear and obvious to his audience, as he must have intended them to be,” Gordon said.

In trail hunting, devised after the Hunting Act banned the hunting of foxes with dogs, a “trail layer” goes out ahead of the hunt, dragging a rag coated in an animal scent, the court heard. Huntsmen cast the hounds to this scent, so that they follow it to the end of the trail.

To the casual observer, traditional fox hunting and trail hunting look effectively the same, Gordon said. “That is what makes it such a potentially useful smokescreen because if a hunt can pretend to lay trails and then the hounds catch the scent of a fox then a huntsman can say: ‘I thought they were hunting a trail and I didn’t call the hounds off until it was too late.’

“So that is what the prosecution say Mr Hankinson was encouraging.”

An application by Hankinson’s defence to strike out the video evidence, on the grounds it was obtained by fraud, was refused by Deputy Senior District Judge Tan Ikram. Hankinson’s barrister, Richard Lissack QC, then sought to cast aspersions against the hunt saboteurs who obtained the video.

Lissack claimed the Hunt Saboteurs Association included “violent, menacing individuals” and the police took “extremely seriously” the threat posed by its “extreme wing”.

“For example, the Metropolitan Police’s Counterterrorism department publish frequently a table of flags and emblems or organisations starting literally with ISIS and al-Qaida, and for domestic extremism the HSA are one of the four organisations named,” Lissack said.

The case was brought after a complaint by the League Against Cruel Sports, whose members were outside the court on Monday staging a theatrical demonstration with a smoke machine and a man dressed in the red coat of a fox hunter. They greeted Hankinson with a chorus of boos as he arrived.

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