Why is it so hard to prosecute wildlife crime?

All wildlife crime investigations are extremely complex and without sufficient, strong evidence, it can be very difficult to bring about a successful prosecution. We know this is frustrating to members of the public and it is frustrating to our officers but we can only act within the legislation available.” North Yorks Police

During the fox hunting ‘season’ (a ridiculous term to describe a banned activity) social media is awash with images of hunts ‘breaking the law’ and/or being ‘protected’ by the police from monitors and sabs. Harassment and assaults seem to be ignored. Police resources appear to be utilised to allow hunts to continue rather than stop hunts from taking place. There is a great deal of resentment at what seems in too many cases to be a less than even-handed approach. And why are conviction rates so woefully low?

The 2018 hunting season alone saw 550 reports of illegal hunting, though these figures only represent known incidents. There were few convictions despite video footage existing in some cases. We’re not offering excuses for poor police work here, but it is worth bearing in mind just how difficult it is to get a conviction in court even with what many of us would consider sufficient evidence.

While there is no doubt at all that some police officers on some forces actively support illegal fox hunting (either because they hurt themselves or their colleagues do) one problem of course is that in the eyes of the law ‘trail hunting’ is legal and therefore they are obliged to ensure it can be carried out. Yes, we all know that so-called ‘trail hunting’ is a smokescreen for illegal hunting (even hunters acknowledge that) and that hunts are doing exactly what they did before the passing of the Hunting Act which banned hunting with hounds, but the law says differently.

It’s why hunters fought so hard for exemptions like ‘trail hunting’ and flushing to guns to be worked into the Act and why there is little genuine effort on the part of fox hunters to repeal the Act: the status quo pretty much allows them to do what they want so why risk calling for a Parliamentary vote that might lead to a proper ban? (We’re not counting the Countryside Alliance in our thinking on this as in our opinion they exist more to foment division than actually stand for anything.)

Another problem might lie in the fact that while police (some police in some forces etc) might want to prosecute the complexity of the law (including those loopholes) makes it difficult (and, understandably given the violence associated with hunt supporters and the fact they’ve been ignored so often in the past, witnesses are sometimes reluctant to come forward).

That’s the thrust of a recent article in the Yorkshire Post, which makes interesting reading – even for cynics like us (it was written incidentally by Grace Newton who has been doing great work highlighting raptor persecution in North Yorkshire – see for example North Yorkshire ‘black hole for raptors’ says Yorkshire Post).

Like fox hunting cases, raptor poisoning cases which – despite sometimes even having the dead bird to hand and the notoriety of the estate the corpse was found on – often founder on the very hard rocks of lack of witnesses, lack of evidence pointing to a specific individual, and the complexity of proving the case in court. It’s not difficult to acknowledge that fox hunting cases may be failing for the same reasons as well.

Hunt lobbyists often sneer about how few convictions there have been under the Hunting Act (actually considering its limitations and the willingness of hunts to break the law it’s a relatively successful piece of legislation), but it was almost set up to fail as it went through the House of Lords.

The Act (ie the legislation) needs strengthening to remove the exemptions which make evading the law so easy and pursuing hunters in court so difficult. Which won’t be an easy thing to achieve. Despite overwhelming support for the Hunting Act (or, at least, for a ban on chasing wild mammals with dogs) the faults in the Act are not likely to be water-cooler discussion points or what the average couple discuss over dinner.

But we can do it, and every incident we highlight every person we convince, every story in the news or on social media will help us all protect the wild animals that mean so much to us.


North Yorkshire Police have been unable to progress an investigation into illegal fox hunting after witnesses refused to co-operate.

A number of people monitoring the activities of the unnamed hunt on land near Selby submitted video footage of alleged illegal hunting to the police, but only one of them agreed to provide a formal statement required for the case to proceed to court.

Two individuals were interviewed over the incident but there was not enough evidence to bring criminal charges against anyone.

North Yorkshire Police have now published a full account of the investigation and explained why many wildlife crimes are difficult to prosecute without the co-operation of witnesses, including those who reported the offence.

The alleged incident took place on October 1 last year.

The police statement reads: “Video footage was supplied but although a number of witnesses were present, only one individual would come forward to give a formal statement.

“Having carried out extensive enquiries, reviewed the limited video footage available, and conducted interviews with two individuals involved, the case was then reviewed by a senior wildlife crime officer. Upon reviewing the information, the decision was made that there was insufficient evidence to successfully bring about a case under the Hunting Act 2004. This decision was made in consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service.

“All wildlife crime investigations are extremely complex and without sufficient, strong evidence, it can be very difficult to bring about a successful prosecution. We know this is frustrating to members of the public and it is frustrating to our officers but we can only act within the legislation available.

“If anyone takes video footage or photos, or witnesses a wildlife crime offence we ask that you contact the police immediately without taking action yourself. We have 28 specially trained wildlife crime officers in the force who are experienced in the complexities of these investigations and can ensure that evidence is gathered correctly and meticulously to give the investigation the best chance of reaching prosecution.

“We want to reassure our communities that we take all reports of wildlife crime very seriously and will continue to do everything we can to protect the diverse range of animals and birds which makes their home in our beautiful county.”

Grace Newton, Yorkshire Post, 10 April 21