Using a pack of hounds to chase a fox is illegal. Except, of course, when you can claim “it was an accident”.
Today, Lamerton huntsman David Lewis and former Lamerton whipper-in (now huntsman of the North Cornwall Hunt) Gareth Frain were found NOT GUILTY of illegally hunting a fox back in December 2019.
We are now finally able to share the footage from the case and we suggest that you make up your own mind as to what happened based on what you can see! Be sure to switch to HD in the settings to watch the video in its original quality.
There is no dispute in this case that the Lamerton’s hounds chased a fox. All parties agreed in court that this was the case. We are dismayed with the judge’s reasoning for letting the hunt off the hook and lay out our response in more detail below.
Whether you blame the letter of the law or its enforcement by the police and the courts, it’s clear that the legal system does not protect foxes. This is why we sab, and why we will always prioritise saving lives.
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Today’s not guilty verdict may seem incredible, given the whole incident was caught on film by our sabs, but sadly we aren’t the least bit surprised. This is, after all, a hunt that is hosted every year by former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, and a hunt that also got away with killing a vixen and her cubs in 2014, for which the League Against Cruel Sports took them to court. Just as they did back then, in this latest trial they claimed that they were trail-hunting and that the hounds accidentally came upon a fox. And yes, you guessed it, their terriermen are also their ‘trail-layers’.
Although the hounds are supposed to be well-trained and under their control, it appears that when they do the one thing the law is supposed to prevent them from doing (chasing foxes), hunt staff are suddenly powerless to stop them.
The hunt had met at the White Hart in Bridestowe. Within minutes of accessing the moor from Lake Viaduct, a fox was flushed from a patch of gorse and the hounds chased it for a total of five minutes. The first 2-3 minutes were caught on film.
The sab who filmed the main video clip from the road some distance away didn’t realise until later what she had captured on film. But look carefully and you can see just how close the hounds were to the fox. Fortunately, the hounds briefly lost the scent in a patch of sedge, which gave the fox a few seconds head start before the hounds were back on the line and the chase continued for several more minutes down in the valley below Tor Wood (the fox got away).
But it’s not the actions of the fox and hounds that really matter when it comes to proving illegal hunting. And, to reiterate, nobody from the hunt denied that a fox was chased by hounds! It’s what’s in the minds of the huntsman and whipper-in that needs to be shown to prove that they intended for the chase to continue.
So look carefully at the two red-coats on brown horses. They were the defendants in this case, both accused of hunting a wild mammal with hounds, contrary to Section 1 of the Hunting Act 2004.
The one who stays close to the hounds when they first begin to chase the fox is huntsman David Lewis. He remains the furthest up the hill throughout. Lewis claimed that he was attempting to stop the hounds, but where do we see any such attempt in the footage? When it was pointed out to him that the hounds briefly lost the scent and that he was sat stationary close by, he claimed that he could neither see nor hear the hounds at this point and therefore could take no action. He was much closer to the hounds than our sabs were, and yet you can clearly hear in our video footage one of our foot sabs further down the hill reporting that she could hear the hounds. Anyone who knows anything about hunting can see that there was ample opportunity to intervene, to get in with or in front of the hounds at this point and to rate them back, or indeed to call them back using the horn when they briefly lost the scent. But Lewis didn’t. And Gareth Frain, on the other brown horse, was riding down towards the viaduct, away from the hounds.
Nevertheless, delivering his verdict in the case, District Judge Callaway stated that “all the evidence” points to the fact that the hunt were engaged in trail-hunting.
The four pieces of evidence he listed were that:
1. the Master of the hunt, Mandy Heard, had taken the trouble of “clearing the ground” the day before (i.e. checking that the hunt had permission to hunt there),
2. two trail-layers (the terriermen) had specifically laid the scent to accompany the hunt and the hounds in question,
3. the record sheet was completed to this effect,
4. and the hunt had excluded itself from certain geographical areas (Tor Wood) where landowners had not given them permission.
All of these things are exactly what you would expect a hunt to do to create a “plausible smokescreen”. However, the fact that they set up this smokescreen has no bearing on the fact that instead of finding a pre-laid trail, the hounds then got onto a fox and hunted it, as shown in the footage!
Judge Callaway also inferred from the fact that the hunt had been asked by the landowner not to hunt in the vicinity of Tor Wood that huntsman David Lewis would have had “every incentive to stop the hounds”, rather than to encourage them on when they were headed for Tor Wood. Again, it simply does not follow from this mere assumption that Lewis therefore DID make attempts to stop the hounds (do we see any evidence of this in the footage?), nor that he wouldn’t seize an opportunity when one presented itself to hunt a live fox and encourage the hounds on. It is well-documented that hunts regularly trespass on land they are not allowed on.
What should have clinched it was that three eyewitnesses gave evidence stating that they could clearly hear Lewis using the voice-call “on-on-on” to encourage the hounds to hunt, a call he subsequently claimed he NEVER uses. Asked to explain how they knew what this call meant, two of the witnesses said they had heard Lewis use this call on previous occasions to encourage the hounds to hunt. Unbelievably, the judge deemed this evidence to be inadmissible because, in his words, the prosecution “purports to adduce bad character on the part of the second defendant [David Lewis] in furtherance of its own case by referencing the fact that the second defendant has engaged in illegal hunting before, and has encouraged hounds in a chase”. If this sounds like a ridiculous argument to dismiss evidence, that’s because it is! Hunting-on calls are used in the course of ALL forms of hunting with hounds, including the post-ban invention of trail-hunting. Witnesses stating that they had heard Lewis use this call on previous occasions to encourage the hounds to hunt therefore has nothing whatsoever to do with accusing Lewis of previous illegality or trying to bring in evidence of bad character.
In further calling into question witness testimony, the judge stated that the substantial delay in police collecting witness statements “cast an unwelcome and unavoidable shadow over the case in general and the evidence in particular”. Curiously, the judge repeatedly questioned the prosecution witnesses’ ability to recall events from that day given the delay in collecting their statements, but the same suspicion was not raised in reference to the defendants’ statements.
Nevertheless, we do feel the judge’s criticism of the police is warranted. We reported this case to the police in December 2019 and it took them until April 2020 to take witness statements, despite us chasing them about it every week. The judge stated that the police officer who was in possession of the video footage should have handed the investigation back when he was unable to act on it for several months and that delay such as this can be fatal to a case. We hope Devon & Cornwall Police will learn from this verdict and treat these cases with more care in future. We cannot fault the actions of more senior officers in the later stages of the investigation, but it is clear that the police’s original inaction and the way in which they treat the incidents we report to them more generally is simply not good enough.
In summarising the case for acquitting whipper-in Gareth Frain, Judge Callaway repeated Frain’s assertion that he had predicted the hounds would head for the valley and had sought to get ahead of them in order to stop them. The judge made no mention of the testimony from one of the witnesses who stated that Frain had merely caught up with the hounds but then took no action to actually stop them.
District Judge Callaway, who was brought in especially for this case, has presided over several hunting cases before. For example, he previously allowed the master of the Tedworth Hunt to avoid cross-examination in court after his dog attacked a walker, saying to him that “you’re not the sort of person we ordinarily have in court”. And last year the same judge decided not to hear a case against the Isle of Wight Hunt, because his only possible action was to fine them and the hunt “had no money”.
We await the trial later this year of Mark Hankinson, director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (the governing body for registered foxhound packs in the UK), who has recently been charged with intentionally encouraging or assisting others to commit an offence under the Hunting Act, following a series of webinars leaked by the Hunt Saboteurs.
The HSA say that these webinars “evidence a nationwide conspiracy by hunters to commit perjury and actively flout the ban on hunting with hounds”.