Police and CPS investigating webinars held by hunting's governing body

Warning: This video report contains footage some may find distressing

Fox hunting is in the spotlight as the organisation that runs hunting in this country faces a police investigation.

It follows allegations made to numerous police forces about the contents of online meetings it held.

ITV News can reveal that webinars hosted by The Hunting Office, the sport’s governing body, are being examined by police officers in conjunction with the Crown Prosecution Service to see if any criminal offences have taken place.

According to a senior police officer, they will “consider exactly what’s being said and what is going on” and the police say they now plan to review their relationships with hunts.

The online meetings were held in August, ahead of this year’s hunting season.

The Hunting Office say the seminars “clearly dealt with the operation and promotion of legal trail hunting and managing animal rights activism” but activists argue the seminars, organised to discuss trail hunting, raise questions about the motives of some in the sport.

Trail hunting involves laying a scent similar to that of a fox for hounds to follow.

Often it is a ‘liquid derived from humanely dispatched fox carcasses’ and following the trail enables hunts and their hounds to replicate traditional hunting.

Hunting groups maintain they follow the letter of the law but, they say, accidents happen.

When dogs follow a fake trail, it frequently leads them to a real fox instead. That is not illegal.

Animal rights activists have a long-held belief that legal exemptions like trail laying offer little protection to foxes and make illegal activities difficult to prove.

More than 100 hunt staff and masters of hunts attended the online webinars which are almost three hours long.

Opponents of hunting have focussed on a few moments and specific language such as the term “smokescreen” which they argue casts doubt on the motives behind trail hunting.

During the webinar one contributor says: "I think the most important thing 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 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.”

Trail hunting involves laying a scent similar to that of a fox for hounds to follow. Credit: The Beaufort Hunt

He goes on to explain how an exemption to the Hunting Act might be used in his words as a “wheeze” or "cover", as some might describe it: "The law states you can use a pack of dogs to flush a wild mammal to be hunted by a bird of prey.

"Now, that's a terribly good wheeze for holding up and I think that everyone during Autumn Hunting ought to be considering that.”

It is common when out hunting for hunt saboteurs to gather video evidence of hunts and similarly for hunts to film the activities of those watching them.

The webinar audience were told by another speaker to be careful of what they’re recording, to “only record” the legal things they do.

“What you don’t want to be doing is filming them after you’ve finished laying your trail and filming something that you then don’t want to be shown to anybody, so the answer is yes, everybody with cameras and videos and recording has got to be very careful about what they're recording.

"Make sure that we only record all the legal things that we do because of course we only do legal things.”

Pro and anti-hunting groups often clash. Credit: North London Hunt Saboteurs

The 2004 Hunting Act was designed to prevent foxes being killed by packs of dogs but not to prohibit hunts from going out.

The police regularly receive calls to investigate hunts and their opponents.

The webinars are a case in point with forces across the UK and wildlife crime officers being alerted to them.

In an exclusive interview with ITV News, Detective Chief Constable Paul Netherton, the UK policing lead on hunting.

He told ITV News this issue is “highly emotive, and people have very strong views on both sides.

"It is for the police to review it calmly in conjunction with the Crown Prosecution Service and come to a conclusion about exactly what has taken place.”

The Hunting Office chose not to comment on the police investigating the webinars but they say: “Viewed objectively, the purpose of the webinars is very clear and the allegation that they were organised to discuss covering up unlawful activities is incorrect and can only be made by taking a few individual, short comments completely out of context.”Their opponents see it differently.

The League Against Cruel Sports is a campaign group arguably best known for their opposition to hunting, their Director of Communications, Chris Luffingham told ITV News: "In our view, there are serious questions to be answered by the Hunting Office and Countryside Alliance, so we welcome the investigation by police.

"We have long said that exemptions in the law, such as trail hunting, make it very difficult to prosecute illegal activity and are actually just a cover for real hunting.

"If hunts can continue to be allowed to use trail hunting as a defence, nothing will change and foxes will continue to be killed by packs of hounds."

The police say they are planning to meet with representatives of the Hunting Office and the Countryside Alliance later this week to discuss the content of the videos.

No decisions are expected to be taken on whether or not to make it a more formal inquiry until after that.