Television chef Clarissa Dickson-Wright today escaped punishment after she admitted being a spectator at an hare coursing event.
Ms Dickson-Wright and the leading race horse trainer Sir Mark Prescott joined hundreds of hunt supporters for two days of the traditional field sport held on farmland near Malton, North Yorkshire, in March 2007.
Coursing, in which hares are driven by beaters into a field to be chased by greyhounds, was outlawed under the Hunting Act 2004.
Many former participants now attend what have become known as greyhound field trials – a similar activity in which the dogs are muzzled in an attempt to avoid prosecution under the new legislation.
The North Yorkshire event was secretly filmed by animal rights activists and the case against Ms Dickson-Wright, 62, and Sir Mark, 61, was a private prosecution brought by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
Ms Dickson-Wright, a former barrister who found fame in the television programme Two Fat Ladies, and Sir Mark, a Newmarket-based trainer, did not attend today’s hearing at Scarborough Magistrates Court.
The court heard that both were invited to the event by the Yorkshire Greyhound Field Trialling Club, which organised the trials, and had believed that what they were watching was lawful.
John Cooper, prosecuting for the IFAW, said that it had been “a sophisticated, large and well-attended gathering” at which 46 trials were held over two days, each involving two dogs chasing hares.
“During the course of both these events the dogs were muzzled but that does not stop the damage and harm to the wildlife they chase and harry,” he said.
“It in no way ameliorates the suffering that the hare would feel from the chase. It does not ameliorate the cruelty.”
In mitigation for Sir Mark, Stephen Welford said the trialling club had sought advice from a firm of solicitors and leading counsel and believed it was running a legal and “above-board” event.
District Judge Kristina Harrison gave both defendants an absolute discharge and awarded no costs against them, but warned that future offenders would be dealt with more seriously.
She described the case as “odd” and said she believed that the club had tried to stay within the law. The two defendants had “held their hands up” once they were told that what they had done was wrong.
In a linked trial in July, Peter Easterby, the former champion jumps trainer, and a huntsman, Major John Shaw, were convicted by the same judge at the same court of allowing their land to be used for the two days of coursing.
Mr Easterby, 79, and Major Shaw, 56, who were also both found guilty of attending the coursing, were also given absolute discharges with no costs against them.
Speaking in July, the judge criticised the “extreme difficulty” that all involved in the case had experienced in “wrestling with what Parliament meant by the Act”.
She also noted that the greyhounds involved had been muzzled and that a police officer who went to the first day of the event had left, apparently satisfied that no unlawful activity was taking place.
Today, Judge Harrison sought to clarify her earlier comments.
“I found the previous defendants guilty of hare coursing. I don’t want anybody to be under any illusion that I was doing anything other than saying what they did was wrong and it was unlawful,” she said.
“What I had sympathy with was there were complexities within the Hunting Act which made the administration of it a little difficult at first.”
The judge advised field sport enthusiasts to “forget about what an expert says is hare-coursing, forget about what hare-coursing was before”.
“If what’s happening fits within the definition set down by Parliament within the Hunting Act, it’s hare coursing. It’s unlawful, people will be prosecuted and will be dealt with severely.”
In July, the court heard that during the two days of coursing, beaters waving flags forced hares past a canvas “shy” in which a man was holding two muzzled greyhounds wearing collars of different colours.
The dogs were then unleashed to chase the hares around an arena created by the spectators lining the field. Three judges decided which dog had performed best, raising coloured flags to match the winning dog’s collar.