The fall-out from the leaked/secretly recorded Hunting Office ‘trail hunting’ webinars is beginning to look rather like an avalanche: the snowball that began the whole thing may have taken some time to start to roll down the slope, but boy is it picking up pace now.
For those that aren’t up to speed on this story on November 13th the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) published a series of secretly-recorded webinars given by the so-called Hunting Office (the organisation set up to run hunting after the Hunting Act 2004 came in to force) on so-called ‘trail hunting’ (see Hunts on the Run). In the webinars, which last over three hours, leading figures in hunting (including Lord Mancroft [Chair of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA)], key Countryside Alliance figures, and former senior police officers) offer advice on using exemptions in the Hunting Act 2004 to avoid being caught breaking the law. The HSA called the recordings evidence of ‘mass criminality’.
News outlets took some time to carefully go over the material and come to their own conclusions, but stories began to appear, first off in The Canary (‘Leaked webinar catches retired police chief advocating a ‘smokescreen’ to help fox hunters‘) on the 18th, followed by The Times, The Mirror, and others, and perhaps most damningly early morning yesterday on the ITV news website (‘Police and CPS investigating webinars held by hunting’s governing body‘).
Now both The Telegraph and ITV News are tonight reporting another blow to the hunts: Forestry England have suspended licences for ‘trail hunting’.
All trail hunting has been suspended on Forestry England land while the police investigate content of webinars hosted by The Hunting Office .
ITV News revealed yesterday that police are investigating the online meetings held by hunting’s governing body. It is being led by Devon & Cornwall Police working with the Crown Prosecution Service.
In a statement to ITV News, Forestry England said it has “suspended all licences for trail hunting in the nation’s forests. This is in response to confirmation that the police are investigating webinars hosted by the Hunting Office” .
Mike Seddon, Forestry England Chief Executive, said: “We are clear when we give people licences or permission for activities in the nation’s forests that they must behave legally and responsibly or risk losing the right to carry on.
“Once we had confirmation from the police that they were investigating activities involving the Hunting Office, we suspended all licences granted to organisations that delegate work to them. The Hunting Office is the central organisation which runs the administrative, advisory and supervisory functions of six Hunting Associations.
“We do not intend to make any further comments until the police have concluded their investigation.”ITV News, Exclusive: Trail hunting suspended on Forestry England land, 25 November 2020, 5:35pm
Why should this matter? Even though all hunting in England has been suspended during this second nationwide lockdown, this is still significant because as independent hunt monitor Jack Riggall has been explaining in a series of posts for this site, Forestry England, the government department responsible for managing and promoting the nation’s forests, is one of our largest landowners and has licenced hunts to use their land for ‘trail hunting’, including hunts with wildlife crime convictions (see for example Forestry England, National Trust, and Fox Hunting).
This may be a ‘suspension’ during a period where hunting activity has been stopped anyway, but it is hugely symbolic. While some pro-hunt lobbyists have been shouting ‘fake news’, clearly the leaked webinars have shaken some nominally neutral organisations – like Forestry England – which seem to have until now supported the myth that ‘trail hunting’ is above board. Will FE begin to grant licences again after the lockdown ends in the first week of December? We’ve obviously no way of knowing that for now, but if a police investigation reveals what we’ve known all along – that ‘trail hunting is a smokescreen for illegal fox hunting – it would be extremely difficult to do so without facing incredibly strong criticism.
The question now is what will the National Trust do? They are another major landowner to offer hunts licences to ‘trail hunt’ after their Chair used proxy votes at their 2017 AGM to shut down a popular member-supported motion to ban hunting on NT land (see National Trust and Trail Hunting 101).
Along with many other activists – including Chris Packham – we have regularly tweeted the National Trust (an organisation which we have made clear on many occasions do an otherwise superb job protecting the nation’s ‘special places’), and we have just sent another their way. How will they respond? Probably with yet another ‘auto-response’, but they should know that we’re watching…