Updated 26 November 2020
Sabs have been celebrating after claiming on 13 November 2020 to expose “a nationwide conspiracy” by hunters they insist are flouting the 2004 Hunting Act. They leaked two videos of webinars held by leading figures in trailhunting.
ITV News featured the webinar on 24 November. The network said police are investigating but offering little other new information.
The next day, Forestry England said it would suspend trailhunting on its land. The National Trust and another of the UK’s biggest landowners, United Utilities, followed suit. ITV quoted Forestry England chief executive Mike Seddon as saying people given permission to use its land “must behave legally and responsibly or risk losing the right to carry on”, implying Forestry England thinks the Hunting Office is guilty before the police investigation has finished.
The issue was also discussed in parliament.
Unfortunately for the sabs, the videos reveal nothing more interesting than tactics hunts should employ to stop the sabs disrupting legal trailhunting.
“Throughout the three hours of talks, hunts are clearly and repeatedly incited to engage in mass criminality,” the Hunt Saboteurs Association writes, “and shown how to present a smokescreen to anyone watching.”
They may talk of a “smokescreen”, but there is no smoking gun. What is obvious is hunts have worked out how to deploy the same tactics sabs have been using against them for years. This includes videoing everything the sabs do, in case they slip up and do something worth telling the police about, such as violence or intimidation.
“If we’re going to get any support from the police, particularly when dealing with saboteurs and the like, if we haven’t got any viable trail-laying evidence, how on earth are we going to refute these allegations?” says Mark Hankinson, director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association in the video. “This has increasingly come to light that the police are not prepared to support us when we have problems with saboteurs if we can’t prove quite conclusively that we’re not taking the mickey and just using this as a shield.”
That’s the meat of the webinar: self defence.
The panel members repeatedly point out that hunts are “within the law”. They go into tedious detail about what is legal, what isn’t and how to film sabs harassing them. The point is to make sure hunts have their backs covered when sabs accuse them of doing something illegal.
One of the few highlights is trail-layer Will Day, who lists revolting recipes for scent and what it takes to be one of the team.
“Wayne and I have managed to run 18 miles, twice a week for 15 years and we’re both getting on now, so if we can do that, we’ve done it with all of this planning, water, food, good trainers, good kit, taking care of yourselves and that’s what we’re looking for – trail layers who can work with you in that way.”
With constant scrutiny from sabs who do not hesitate to dial 999, it’s not surprising there is this level of paranoia about the presumption of guilt shutting down legal hunts.
“We always say, get one in the can… If you can do that… you are proving your intent to hunt within the law,” says Richard Gurney, former master of the Old Surrey and Burstow and West Kent hunts. He emphasises the importance of filming everything from setting up trails to beagles following them and how that evidence was used to prove to police sabs were responsible for the death of a fox.
Ex-cop Paul Jelley talks about the quality of evidence and stresses honesty: “In your daily record sheets, be honest. It will look highly suspicious if a pack of hounds is hunting two or three days a week throughout the season, going out cross-country and not having some sort of accidents. You will find live quarry and you will hunt it. Be honest about it.”
Hunting Office director Alice Bowden tells the webinar how to store video and other technical information, as well as where to get walkie-talkies and other equipment.
“Don’t start transferring videos while you’re out in the countryside or you’ll waste all your mobile data,” she says, one of many common sense comments. “Wait until you’ve got home, it’s a lot quicker to use Wi-Fi.”
Members of the panel also point out that “raving antis” often get jobs as police wildlife liaison officers, making the need for watertight evidence vital that legal hunting is happening.
Benjamin Mancroft, chairman of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, stresses the importance of hunt members behaving themselves and not caving in to intimidation and harassment from the sabs.
“It’s one thing defending hunts against accusations under the Hunting Act… there are always a small handful of cases going on and most of them, with a little bit of luck and care and attention, we win, because we’re getting better at it, and we’re getting better at exempt hunting, trail hunting,” Mancroft says. “But what really drives … us up the wall is when we get people who have been prosecuted for some aspect of their behaviour, either from being abusive, threatening, punching somebody, hitting somebody with their whip, whatever it may be. I would just ask you all to remember that we are all responsible for our own behaviour as masters and hunt staff behaviour and our hunt followers behaviour. So defending prosecutions or complaints about our behaviour is really not on.”
Nowhere in the two webinars released so far does anyone say they are deliberately creating fake trail hunts to divert attention away from illegal fox hunting. It’s made clear trail hunting happens and trail-layers can be used to distract the sabs from where the horses and hounds are going. But that’s about it.
An anecdote by Gurney could point to illegal hunting of foxes, but it follows a long explanation of the exemptions, so it’s not clear what type of hunting was going on.
There’s so little to go on in the videos leaked so far, it’s almost as if the Hunting Office deliberately released the videos in order to show off the hard work and preparations that go into trail hunts. It’s certainly does not justify the ‘Mass criminality in hunting community revealed through leaked webinars’ headline.
The reference to perjury in the Hunt Sabs Association story refers to comment about unreliable trail-layers who might not be able to explain completely what they have been doing when questioned in court.
“We need to very much promote the fact that we’re trail hunting,” says Hankinson, referring to social media posts, trail lists, rotas and subscriber releases. “The more people say trail-laying appointments instead of hunting appointments and things like that, helps promote what we’re trying to achieve.”
After the Hunting Office forced the takedown of the videos, due to copyright, antis persuaded ITV News in England to carry the item about the videos.