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On 15 October 2021, Mark Hankinson, the director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA), the governing body for registered packs of foxhounds in England and Wales, was found guilty at Westminster Magistrate Court of encouraging and assisting people to evade the ban on foxhunting.

Since the Hunting Act 2004 was enacted, hunting mammals with dogs was banned in England and Wales, but the more than 200 registered hunts continued hunting either exploiting some of the exemptions that still allow hunting mammals under certain circumstances or especially by inventing a new activity, “trail hunting”, in which, supposedly, hounds follow a trail of artificial scent laid by people rather than foxes, deer, hare or mink (the four victims of organized hunting in the UK).

Anti-hunting campaigners have long exposed trail hunting as a false alibi to operate as a cover for illegal hunting, but despite there have been several successful prosecutions showing this, not until now a judge has recognized there is indeed a certain level of conspiracy to commit illegal hunting instigated from the top of the hunting community.  

Deputy Chief Magistrate Tan Ikram said: “I am sure that the defendant through his words was giving advice on how to illegally hunt with dogs.” He added: “In my judgement, he was clearly encouraging the mirage of trail laying to act as cover for illegal hunting”.

Mr. Hankinson was fined £1,000 and ordered to pay £2,500 to contribute towards legal costs.

This landmark conviction was achieved thanks to the work of investigators of the Hunt Saboteurs Association, who managed to record a webinar run by the Hunting Office in August 2020 when top hunting officials advised hunts about how to avoid being caught hunting illegally. The defense team alleged that no such advice had been given but the judge in London disagreed.

Mr. Hankinson was recorded in such a webinar saying this: “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 legitimate business.”

After the verdict, Lee Moon, spokesperson of the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) stated: “We’re delighted that Mark Hankinson has been found guilty and the sentence is of little importance.  This result shows that he, and indeed the entire hunting community, are guilty of perpetrating a smokescreen to hide their illegal hunting for the past 15 years.” 

The HSA now demands that the rest of the webinar’s panel (Lord Mancroft, ex-police Inspector Phil Davies, ex-police officer Paul Jelley, Alice Bowden and Richard Tyacke) also face charges for their part in this conspiracy.  Several major landowners that allowed trail hunting in their land had stopped licensing hunts while this trial was in progress. Now they will have to decide if they renew the hunts’ licenses. One of the major landowners, the National Trust, is now under pressure not to do so. In their upcoming AGM, there is a resolution to ban trail hunting and exempt hunting. Any member of this organization can now vote online for such a ban.