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Chase of the thrill

 The Big Issue in the North (UK) 01 April 2019

It is six years since foxhunting with dogs was outlawed in the United Kingdom. Today, supporters of the legislation are employing undercover methods to determine whether opponents are remaining within the law. (1416 Words) - By Mark Metcalf


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 Foxhound activity recorded by LACS monitors. Photo: the League Against Cruel Sports

For more photos click here.

It's a cold, wet, miserable Sunday morning but Paul Tillsley, operations manager for the League Against Cruel Sports, is in a remarkably cheerful mood. He's travelled hundreds of miles and is not going to be put off by a "bit of rain", especially when his task involves preventing cruelty to animals.

The Forest of Bowland in Lancashire is an area of barren gritstone fells, peat moorland and deep valleys. Getting to it is made easier by the road signs depicting a hen harrier, the poor bird being almost extinct locally following its decimation to make way for the profitable sport of grouse shooting, much of which is organised by the Duke of Westminster from his 19,000-acre Abbeystead estate.

Between November and March, Hodder Valley Foxhounds has a license to "prevent foxes doing serious damage to livestock". Tillsley and his three colleagues from the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) have turned up to see if those involved keep to the conditions imposed by the landowners, the Forestry Commission. 

Tillsley, now in his eleventh year with LACS, is armed with just a notebook and a small, easily hidden video camera. This is perfect for monitoring on foot. At other times his team observe activities from miles away using long-range camera equipment.
With two or three field visits each week he's monitored almost 500 hunting events since Labour, against strong opposition from the Conservatives, outlawed hunting with dogs in England and Wales from 2005 onwards. On only one occasion can he recall a hunt clearly staying within the law by laying a trail in advance. He estimates that in at least "six out of ten cases the law is flouted and rules ignored". 

Monitoring and recording the breaches requires courage. Living in Exmoor Tillsley largely ignores the pubs after abuse from locals involved in the many deer and fox hunting groups that exist there. His photograph has been posted on sites that would like to see the Hunting Act repealed, as has that of Ed Shephard, LACS investigations officer.

Not so the other two men on this operation, who have received covert surveillance training similar to that provided by the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). Their aim is to get close enough to see the action whilst remaining inconspicuous enough not to be identified and challenged. It doesn't always work out that way and both reported being attacked last year. Keen to protect their anonymity, neither was willing to be interviewed.

The four, motivated by a desire to prevent animal cruelty, had travelled a long distance using hire cars to avoid being tracked. Staying locally for the weekend they hadn't told anybody the reason for their visit.

Tillsley first got involved as a volunteer more than 25 years ago. Ten years ago many people felt that proposed legislation would be enough to end the foxhunting practices they found objectionable and the number of volunteers fell away. But many were disappointed with the new laws and, with the majority of Conservative MPs in favour of repealing the legislation, Tillsley says that more people are now coming forward to get involved.

"They need to be fit as on some days you end up walking 20 miles," he says. "They must also be able to remain calm and understand our role is not one of intervention but monitoring."

Tillsley estimates that the weekend's work would cost LACS around £2,000 - a hefty sum for an organisation that relies on donations. It was a lack of money that forced a change in direction four years ago, LACS abandoning the private prosecution route that was costing a minimum of £60,000 a case. Now it collects evidence to submit to the police and Crown Prosecution Service.

The response can vary. Each force has a wildlife crime officer. Yet with wildlife well down the list of priorities it's often undertaken by a volunteer working in their spare time. Tillsley says most are sympathetic - either on animal welfare grounds or because they don't admire lawbreakers - but some are keen hunters themselves. Polls indicate that a majority are opposed to fox hunting but it's not socially unacceptable. He knows of judges, barristers and high-ranking police officers who are still regularly involved. 

In an ideal world he'd be happy to be made redundant as it would mean every hunt was remaining within the law. As they don't he's pleased to gather evidence for a successful prosecution.

Last year Alistair Robinson, a terrierman with the Ullswater Foxhounds, Cumbria, was found guilty of breaching the Hunting Act by illegally hunting a wild mammal in October 2009. Video evidence collected by LACS showed Robinson digging out the fox from underground, beating it to death and then trying to hide the horrifically injured animal. Robinson was fined £250 and ordered to pay £900 in costs.

According to LACS chief executive Douglas Batchelor, this was a "vicious attack on a wild animal which would have gone unnoticed had it not been for League evidence".

Approaching the designated area where permission for controlling foxes had been granted to Hodder Valley Foxhounds, Tillsley tries to see if any of the Forestry Commission conditions are being flouted. Recently he witnessed a gunpack in the south that was using a busy public footpath to shoot from and over. Thankfully, things don't turn out as dangerous this time.

But there are no signs up warning that shotguns are being used in the area. And if there is any "marshalling at an appropriate level to exclude access to the area by people other than participants" it's difficult to see where. When I ask if it is safe to enter a shotgun bearer he admits he "isn't sure".

Keen to see if the hunters might have ignored other terms of the Hunting Act, especially the one making it a requirement for a fox flushed out of its hiding place to be shot quickly before it can be torn apart by the hounds, two monitors enter looking for dead foxes.

We have heard a number of shots but if anything has been hit or killed it is never located. Any deaths should be recorded in an annual report that must go to the forest management director.

Whether this report will also include a blatant breach of the condition that no more than two dogs be used remains unclear. With at least eight times as many clearly visible they run off to continue the chase on land well away from the designated hunting areas.

In their wake trail around half of the hunting pack of eight people openly carry their shotguns. This could contravene section 19 of the Firearms Act 1968, whereby it is an offence to carry a firearm in a public place. Cyclists, emerging from tracks through the forest, blink in confusion as they speed on by.

With the rain now chucking down the sanctity of a warm car and a change of clothing comes as a welcome relief. Contemplating a long journey home, before being back out on operations in Somerset the following morning, Tillsley is already compiling his report that the LACS legal team is still examining.

The Forestry Commission though is content that nothing irregular has taken place. In reply to a series of questions, Mark Thornycroft, its head of estates, says: "We do expect any permit holder to comply with terms of the permit regardless of the activity, and where firearms are involved compliance is essential.

"The conditions on this permit were significantly tightened this year because of recent concerns, and we were given assurance that these would be fully complied with. On this occasion, and having operated a reasonable level of monitoring, we have no evidence of transgressions."

Convictions under the Hunting Act last year rose to 57, up from the previous figure of 33, and is something, which encourages Shephard, who says: "Every conviction in court is really sending through a strong message that the Act works. We are making progress against a good number of people who are determined to break the law."

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Originally published by The Big Issue in the North ©

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