R v Hankinson 2021 (Judgment: https://www.judiciary.uk/judgments/r-v-hankinson/?fbclid=IwAR0BTO-nX9S5FyhV-j0egl9sfHfTlwXNob8P8k0ggS_4Z-iNdPsddNk1B9M)
Mark Hankinson, director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, on 15 October 2021 was found guilty at Westminster Magistrates’ Court of encouraging or assisting others to commit an offence under the Hunting Act 2004.
Mark Hankinson was the director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, one of the governing bodies for hunting in the UK. On 11 and 13 August 2020, Hankinson spoke at webinars organised by the Hunting Office (which runs the administrative, advisory and supervisory functions of the Hunting Associations) and attended by over 100 hunt masters.
Other speakers at the webinars, obtained by the Hunt Saboteurs Association and made available online in November 2020, included:
Lord Mancroft – Conservative Peer, Chair of the Masters of Foxhounds Association and former Chair of the Countryside Alliance.
Phil Davies – ex-Police Inspector and Police Liaison Consultant to the Countryside Alliance.
Richard Tyacke – Chairman of the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles, Hunting Office Executive Director and former Master and Huntsman of the Wynnstay Hunt.
Paul Jelley – Master of the Chilmark and Clifton Foot Beagles from 1990-2013 and a police officer for 30 years.
Richard Gurney – former Master of the Old Surrey and Burstow Hunt
Fox hunting was banned in 2005, when the Hunting Act 2004 (the “Hunting Act”) came into force. Traditionally, fox hunting involves the use of a pack of around 30-40 hounds who, under the control of the huntsman, seek out, chase, and kill foxes. The huntsman and hounds are usually accompanied by members of hunt staff, hunt masters, and riders who pay to attend for the day. Trail hunting, which started after the Hunting Act came into effect, involves the use of an artificial trail, usually fox-based, which the huntsman and hounds seek out and follow. Anti-hunt activists claim that trail hunting does not exist, and that it was invented to subvert the Hunting Act. The argument is that by using a fox-based scent, it is possible for the hounds to chase and kill a real fox, meanwhile the hunt can claim that it was an “accident” and avoid prosecution.
At Hankinson’s trial, the prosecution argued that, during the course of the webinars, the defendant offered advice on how to hunt illegally, behind a smokescreen of trail hunting. They said that his advice was aimed at making it difficult for anyone watching, or filming, to know whether they were witnessing a trail hunt or an illegal fox hunt, and therefore to reduce the likelihood that a member of the hunt would be prosecuted, or convicted, of illegal hunting.
In particular, during the webinars Hankinson made the following statements, among others (emphasis added):
“…it’s a lot easier to create a smoke screen if you’ve got more than 1 trail layer operating, um, and that is what it’s all about, trying to portray um, to the people watching that you’re going about your legitimate business.”
“…I think the most important thing that, that we need to bear in mind is that if you’ve got saboteurs out with you in any shape or form, we need to have clear, visible, plausible trail laying done throughout the day.”
“Um, it’s probably just as well to have something pretty foul smelling on the end of their, end of their drag just in case an anti leaps out from behind a gateway and grabs hold of it and says this is just a clean silk hanky or something.”
“Um, a lot of people in the past have tried to say oh we laid trails earlier, or we lay them the day before. In a situation where you’ve got saboteurs out, or antis or whatever, that’s not really going to work too well. We need to have clear and visible trail laying going on, on the day, and it needs to be as plausible as possible.”
“Um, I always love Will Day who might be joining us on Thursday, when he lays trails for the New Forest he has emblazoned on the back of his sweatshirt ‘TRAIL LAYER NO. 3’.”
“Some people say well what’s the point in laying trails? Well I think it’s fairly self-explanatory. Er, if you haven’t you’re not going to be covered by the insurance.”
“Um, obviously we also need it um, if we’re going to get any support from the Police, particularly when they’re dealing with saboteurs and the like, if you haven’t got any viable trail laying evidence, how on earth are we going to refute these allegations?”
“Um, so coming back to the, to the sort of modus operandi of the day, um, the trail layers, in my view, you need to have at least 1 trail layer out there, particularly if you’ve got the presence of undesirables.”
In giving judgment, Deputy Chief Magistrate, Judge Tan found Hankinson guilty of an offence under section 44 of the Serious Crime Act 2007, namely committing an act capable of encouraging the commission of the offence of hunting a wild mammal with a dog, and that he intended to encourage its commission.
Judge Tan rejected the defence’s suggestion that Hankinson’s choice of words was “bad language” or “clumsy”.
In reference to Hankinson’s repeated statements about trail laying needing to be “plausible” or “credible”, the court’s position was “Why would you need to try to portray anything as legitimate if you were in fact engaged in legitimate business?”
In relation to Hankinson’s statement that laying trails is required so that the hunting is covered by insurance, the court held that “Trail laying is essential if that is what is genuinely going on. It is a simple answer and an unnecessary question. This was clearly a warning of the risk to those watching on if they could not show trail laying going on. It was a clear statement that in order to hunt illegally, there would have to be trail laying as a cover or smoke screen to be protected through insurance”.
In relation to Hankinson’s statement that “you need to have at least 1 trail layer out there”, the court held that “If it were genuine trail hunting, it goes without saying that there would be at least 1 trail layer for it simply couldn’t happen with one. There would be no need to suggest one was necessary unless it were a sham and a smoke screen.”
In concluding, the court held:
“I am sure that the Defendant through his words was giving advice on how to illegally hunt. This was through the pretence of laying trails which it could be said the hounds were following. As he himself said, he was speaking to ‘like-minded people’ and could therefore speak freely. He did not expect his words to be recorded and released into the public domain. It was clearly advice and encouragement to commit the offence of hunting a wild mammal with a dog. I am sure he intended to encourage the commission of that offence.”
Hankinson was fined £1,000 and ordered to pay £2,500 as a contribution towards costs.
The conviction has been met with celebration and relief from members of the anti-hunt community, who for many years have sought to expose trail hunting as a smokescreen for illegal hunting, which has continued despite the ban.
As director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, Hankinson is a senior figure in the hunting world; there are 170 packs registered with the Masters of Foxhounds Association in total. The other speakers were similarly senior figures in the hunting fraternity. The webinars were attended by over 100 hunt masters from across the country. The webinars ran for several hours across multiple days, with no one attempting to question or correct any implication that illegal hunting could take place.
Following this conviction and the damning conclusions of the court, one would struggle to conclude anything other than that trail hunting is used as a smokescreen to cover for illegal hunting.
If it is true that trail hunting has been used as a smokescreen for illegal hunting since the ban, it begs questions about how many other criminal offences have been committed during that time.
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