The reputation of Britain’s hunting community has been dealt a serious blow after a prominent huntsman was convicted of encouraging others to hide the illegal hunting of live foxes behind a “smokescreen” of trail hunting.
Mark Hankinson, the director of the Masters of the Foxhounds Association, was found guilty of encouraging or assisting others to commit an offence over his comments in two webinars in front of an audience of more than 100 MFHA members.
The 60-year-old, of Frampton Farm, Sherborne, Dorset, was charged after footage from the training webinars, broadcast in August 2020, was obtained by hunt saboteurs, who passed it to the media and the police.
In trail hunting, devised after the Hunting Act banned the hunting of foxes with dogs, a “trail layer” goes out ahead of the hunt, dragging a rag coated in an animal scent. Huntsmen cast the hounds to this scent, and follow it to the end of the trail.
A demonstration by the League Against Cruel Sports outside Westminster magistrates court during the case. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian
Speaking on the webinars, Hankinson had said: “We need to have clear, visible, plausible trail laying being done throughout the day … It’s a lot easier to create a smokescreen if you’ve got more than one trail layer operating, and that is what it’s all about, trying to portray to the people watching that you’re going about your legitimate business.”
Giving his verdict at Westminster magistrates court on Friday afternoon, deputy chief magistrate Tan Ikram quoted extensively from transcripts of Hankinson’s comments. “In my judgment he was clearly encouraging the mirage of trail laying to act as a cover for old-fashioned hunting,” he said.
“Perhaps most incriminating was the advice that trail laying had to be as ‘plausible’ as possible. There would be no need to suggest that [a trail layer] was needed unless it was a sham or a smokescreen.”
Ikram added: “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.”
Ikram fined Hankinson £1,000 and told him he must pay a contribution of £2,500 towards costs.
Members of the Hunt Saboteurs Association and the League Against Cruel Sports were outside the court.
“This is the most significant case since the Hunting Act came in in 2005,” Chris Luffingham, the league’s director of campaigns, said. “This means the edifice of respectability that the hunting community has carefully constructed around trail hunting has been completely smashed to pieces.
“Trail hunting is nothing but a fiction. We have been saying this for years and now it’s truly gratifying that the truth has come out in court. Any excuse of the use of trail hunting in the future is not worth the paper it’s written on.”