Dorset huntsman Mark Hankinson wins appeal against conviction for encouraging illegal fox hunting

Mark Hankinson previously leaving Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London

A prominent huntsman has won his appeal against a conviction for encouraging illegal fox hunting in an online talk.

Mark Hankinson, 61, then director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, was alleged to have told members of the Hunting Office to use legal trail hunting as a "smokescreen" for criminal activity.

The prosecution was brought after saboteurs leaked footage of a webinar he hosted for police and the media on 11 August, 2020. It was attended by 100 people, including police officers, lawyers and a member of the House of Lords.

Hankinson was accused of intentionally encouraging huntsmen to use trail hunting - where horseback riders and hounds follow a previously laid scent - as "a sham and a fiction" for the unlawful chasing and killing of animals.

Hankinson, of Frampton Farm in Sherborne, Dorset, was last year found guilty of encouraging the commission of an offence of unlawful hunting at Westminster Magistrates' Court and ordered to pay a £1,000 fine and £2,500 in costs.

Mark Hankinson was convicted for giving a masterclass on how to break the Hunting Act - he has now had his conviction overturned Credit: ITV News

An appeal in front of a judge and two magistrates at Southwark Crown Court hinged on whether his words in the webinar were capable of encouraging an offence and whether he intended to encourage an offence.

Hankinson did not deny saying words including: "It's a lot easier to create a smokescreen if you've got more than one trail layer operating and that is what it is all about, trying to portray to the people watching that you're going about your legitimate business."

Judge Gregory Perrins said on Wednesday: "Someone listening to his words might well have taken the view that he was encouraging illegal hunting."

But giving evidence, Hankinson said he was referring to the practice of laying dummy trails to fool saboteurs, who presented a threat to legal hunting.

The judge said he and the magistrates were not satisfied to the criminal standard it was his intention to encourage illegal hunting and allowed the appeal against his conviction, highlighting a second webinar in which nothing he said was the subject of any charge.

"We accept his role within the Hunting Office was to ensure compliance with the law and the Hunting Office itself is committed to lawful hunting," he said.

"In those circumstances it would be unusual if they now took the decision to host a series of webinars which included advice on how to work around the ban."

He added: "However, what is perhaps more significant is the fact that the appellant's words in the first webinar do not amount to clear evidence of encouraging illegal hunting."