ITV News Correspondent Rupert Evelyn reports on the trial which dealt a serious blow to the reputation of Britain's hunting community
One of Britain’s leading huntsmen has been found guilty of encouraging or assisting others to commit an offence under the Hunting Act.
Mark Hankinson was a director of the Hunting Office that runs the sport. He was caught in a leaked online training webinar in 2020 telling hunts how to hunt illegally.
Speaking to 103 hunt-masters on the call, he explained how “to create a smokescreen” to enable them “to portray to the people watching that you’re going about legitimate business”.
The training webinar included details on trail hunting, which involves laying a scent, similar to the smell of a fox, for hounds to follow instead of a real fox. Hunts created trail hunting to replicate their bloodsport following the ban on actual fox hunting in 2005. During the trial the court heard that trail hunting is a “potent excuse” for real fox hunting, with the laying of the fake scent simply acting as a cover.
Mark Hankinson, 60, was found guilty of intentionally encouraging huntsmen to use legal trail hunting as “a sham and a fiction” for the unlawful chasing and killing of animals via two webinars held in August 2020, revealed by ITV News in November 2020
The convicted huntsman “thought he could speak freely without consequence,” said prosecution lawyer Gregory Gordon during the trial and that “his intention was to encourage illegal hunting”.
Hankinson, from Sherborne, Dorset, had described a legal exemption to the Hunting Act as “a good wheeze for holding up”. When asked what he meant by “wheeze” he said “a useful thing to do”.
The Hunt Saboteurs Association were responsible for exposing the webinars. Reacting to the result spokesperson, Lee Moon, said: “We're delighted that Mark Hankinson has been found guilty and the sentence is of little importance.”
The League Against Cruel Sports said the case “has proven beyond doubt that trail hunting is nothing but a sham”.
It continued: “It’s hunting dressed up as something illegal, it uses this “smokescreen” [which] is nothing but an attempt to deceive somebody, an attempt to disguise illegal or nefarious activities. And this court case has proved that.”
Hankinson had denied the charge he faced and his lawyer had argued “the title of Mr Hankinson’s [webinar] presentation was ‘Overt Trail Laying’. Its entire focus was therefore on the disruption of legal hunts by saboteurs and evidence-gathering in that context. All attendees would have been fully aware of that.”
Andrew Osborne, Chairman of the Masters of Foxhounds Association said: “Mark Hankinson, the Director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, was today found guilty of charges brought against him.
"This verdict is hugely disappointing however we are considering an appeal. The Masters of Foxhounds Association is aware that this outcome raises concern over the perception of our lawful trail hunting activities and as a result, we will be setting up a review which will be conducted to ensure that hunts are in a position to offer reassurances to all landowners and other stakeholders that hunts are operating within the law.”