Six arrests, 22 dogs seized, armed police, four police forces and multiple addresses.
It is believed to be the largest ever criminal investigation in the UK associated with fox hunting and focused on animal welfare.
ITV News can reveal that, acting on intelligence, a series of dawn raids have been simultaneously conducted by police and RSPCA officers across the country, both at hunt kennels and homes belonging to those who use dogs for hunting.
Led by the animal welfare charity and supported by police from Kent, Norfolk, Sussex and Thames Valley, six men have been questioned by police and 22 dogs seized and removed from where they had been living.
ITV News understands that those questioned by police are suspected to be involved in terrier work for fox hunts.
The RSPCA say it was a “large scale operation across several counties looking into alleged animal welfare and wildlife offences”.
The dogs “who were mostly terriers and some lurcher dogs - have now been placed in RSPCA care. Other supporting evidence was also seized by police”.
The “other supporting evidence” is understood to include mobile phones.
As the raids began early on Wednesday morning, hunts across the country were quickly alerted. A WhatsApp group message circulated to those inside hunting and shared with ITV News says the RSPCA and the Police were “looking for damaged terriers” and they should “alert everyone in your area they could be visited”.
Kent Police said: “Officers from the Rural Task Force, assisted RSPCA officers with a number of warrants in East Kent during the morning of Wednesday 18 January. Four men were arrested as part of the ongoing investigation: two from the Canterbury area aged 21 and 66 years old, a 37- year-old man from the Ashford area and a 44-year-old from the Folkestone area.
“They have been released under investigation while enquiries continue.”
Police in Norfolk told ITV News: “Officers joined forces with the RSPCA as part of a large-scale operation carrying out warrants at properties in Norfolk in relation to animal welfare and wildlife offences on Wednesday 18 January.
“Officers from the Op Randall team from Norfolk Constabulary carried out two warrants in the Wisbech area with a man in his 50s from the area arrested in connection with the investigation. He has since been released under investigation while enquiries continue.”
Rural Crime Officer PC Chris Shelley said: “We will continue to work with partner agencies to tackle animal welfare and wildlife crime.”
While in Berkshire, Thames Valley Police said: “We worked with the RSPCA to carry out a warrant at an address in Faringdon.
“A 31-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of causing unnecessary suffering to a protected animal. He has been released with no further action but the RSPCA investigation is ongoing. Officers also seized three dogs and placed them into the RSPCA’s care.”
The Hunt Saboteurs Association told ITV News: “We're pleased that these raids have happened and it's great that the RSPCA and police are finally clamping down.
“The leaked Hunting Office webinars described terrier men as the ‘soft underbelly’ of hunting as it's difficult to justify their presence if the hunts are operating within the law. If hunts are indeed hunting within the law, as they still claim, then there is no need for terriers and terrier men.”
The organisation that represents hunting is the British Hounds Sports Association (BHSA).
They confirmed to ITV News that they were informed of the raids, adding: “The BHSA is not aware of the detail of the allegations and cannot comment on an open investigation.
"However, we expect the highest standards of animal welfare from all of our members and accredited hunts at all times and would condemn any persons found to have ill treated animals.”
The website Huntingact.org describe the role terrier men play in hunting.
“In traditional fox hunting the hunt would employ one or more terrier men. Their role was to stop or block fox earths and badger setts in the area where the hunting was to take place to prevent foxes from going to ground and they were also responsible for dealing with hunted foxes that had gone to ground.
“These foxes would be located using terriers and then dug out and shot or alternatively the fox would be bolted to be hunted again by hounds. Terrier men would have at least one terrier with them as well as equipment such as spades, nets and terrier locating devices.
“They normally followed the hunt on quad bikes but also in 4x4s or on foot depending on the terrain. Hunts now refer to terrier men as ‘countrymen’ and say they are employed to open and close gates, repair fences and lay trails. Terrier men were also used during mink hunts and would use terriers to locate and bolt the mink that went to ground in holes in river banks.”