A senior huntsman has been found guilty of animal cruelty after activists secretly filmed him apparently preparing to throw fox cubs to a pack of baying hounds.
Animal rights campaigners claim the conviction is significant because it shows a master of hounds “blooding” the animals – training them to kill foxes – 15 years after the ban on hunting with dogs was introduced.
The footage was obtained by members of a group called HIT (the Hunt Investigation Team), who say they include ex-services personnel and that they have had training in covert investigative methods.
They obtained evidence for the prosecution by fixing a tracking device to the vehicle of a man they believed to have connections to the South Herefordshire Hunt and mapping his movements out into the wilds, where they suspected he was catching fox cubs.
The activists also set up cameras at the hunt’s kennels and obtained footage that showed the then master of hounds, Paul Oliver, taking fox cubs into the kennels.
Though the footage does not show what happened inside the kennels complex, the prosecution at Birmingham magistrates court claimed he was blooding the hounds.
Oliver, 40, and kennel maid Hannah Rose, 30, both of Spalding, Lincolnshire, were found guilty of causing unnecessary suffering to fox cubs. Joanna Dickens, the district judge, convicted Oliver of four counts of animal cruelty and Rose of three counts of the same charge.
The pair and two others who pleaded guilty were due to be sentenced later on Monday.
The Masters of Foxhounds Association suspended the South Herefordshire Hunt after the footage emerged and it has disbanded.
A spokesperson for the association said Oliver’s actions were “completely disgraceful” and had no place in hunting. “It is incumbent on everybody involved in hunting to see that this sort of behaviour never happens again.” It insisted that it was an isolated incident.
HIT said it began investigating after a tipoff. In March 2016, activists put a tracking device on to the Land Rover of man said to be connected to the hunt and followed his movements. The group said it believed it was permissible in law to put a tracking device on a vehicle it suspected of involvement.
The activists claim it became evident the man was catching cubs and then heading straight to the hunt kennels in Wormelow, near Hereford. The evidence obtained through the use of the device was admitted in court.
The investigators took legal advice from lawyers and animal welfare organisations to work out their next step. The advice they received was that they could not try to recover any cubs as this would amount to theft. They said they did not turn the case over to the police because they did not believe officers would have the resources to follow it up.
Instead they trespassed – a civil rather than criminal offence – on to the land where the hunt kennels were based and set up hidden cameras. They argued it was the only way to expose what was happening and compare it to undercover journalism.
A team of four or five were involved in setting up and monitoring the cameras and in May 2016 they found what they claim was evidence that fox cubs were being taken from their mothers and thrown live into the hounds’ kennels.
The prosecution alleged the footage showed Oliver preparing to throw fox cubs in with the hounds. It was claimed that Rose, like Oliver a hunt employee, stood by as he did so.
Oliver denied feeding cubs to the dogs. He claimed the dogs did not hunt foxes but only followed aniseed-based scents. Rose said she knew nothing about cubs being fed to the hounds.
The prosecution claimed it was the vehicle of a man called Nathan Parry that the HIT activists tracked. The court was told he was not employed by a hunt but was a terrier man. Traditionally terrier men work with hunts.
Parry was found not guilty of causing suffering to four foxes after the judge accepted that he believed the animals would be relocated in the wild.
One of the activists involved in the operation, who asked not to be named, said HIT had received reports about other hunts across the country, which it was investigating. The HIT members are worried about reprisals and one who gave evidence during the trial was allowed to do so from behind a screen.
Julie Elmore, 55, of Abergavenny, south Wales, and Paul Reece, 48, from Chepstow, admitted causing unnecessary suffering to fox cubs.
Deborah Marshall, a spokesperson for the Hunt Investigation Team, said: “We are clearly pleased that the hard work and integrity of the Hunt Investigation Team has resulted in convictions. This case has taken far too long to come to court and we have faced false allegations against investigators and obstruction throughout. We are glad that justice has finally taken its course.
“The capture of fox cubs to be used to train hounds is nothing new and is widespread across Britain.. We will continue to expose cruelty and wildlife crime and our message to hunts everywhere is ‘Expect Us’.”