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OPINION: As another hunt prosecution fails, defence solicitor calls for the repeal of the hunt ban

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: April 14, 2014

By Jamie Foster

George Milton leads out the Weston and Banwell

George Milton leads out the Weston and Banwell

Comments (7)

Two Somerset huntsmen were earlier this month cleared of illegal fox hunting after evidence provided by hunt saboteurs failed to persuade a judge. Defence solicitor Jamie Foster says the case is another blow for the League Against Cruel Sports.

George Milton, the Master and Huntsman of the Weston and Banwell Harriers, has earned himself a special place in legal history. He has been unsuccessfully accused of four offences by the League Against Cruel Sports in a twelve-month period. He has been through two trials, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, and remains as innocent as he was before the League decided to target him. The most recent trial ended at Taunton Deane Magistrates’ Court on April 3. I was George’s advocate. His amateur Whip, Toby Lee, was accused of a fifth offence, and was also found to be not guilty. Make no mistake; this was not for lack of trying on the League’s part.

So determined was Joe Duckworth, the Head of the League, to make an example of George and the Weston and Banwell that he tasked six of his top monitors to each trespass on private land and capture hundreds of hours of footage of the hunt going about its lawful business. What the footage proved beyond doubt is something the League has been trying to claim for nearly eight years doesn’t happen. It proved that the Weston and Banwell trail hunt, and, if a fox appears, they call off their hounds and wait until it is safe to trail hunt again.

In many ways George owes a debt of gratitude to his trail layers in this regard. Julian Masters and Kelly Weaver both volunteer to lay trails. They do it out of a love of hunting, the Weston and Banwell and, I suspect, George. They lay trails from a quad bike and they do something that every hunt in the country ought to be doing. They video some of the trails that they lay. They do this by Julian sitting backwards on the quad and filming the scented rag that makes the trail as it bounces across the ground. They do not film all the trails they lay, after all there would be no need to, but by filming some of them they are able to remind themselves of the dates, times and general areas in which trails are laid. Given that it is often several months after the event that a Hunt is first made aware that the League has been spying on them it is essential to for the trail layers to be able to look back at the footage they have captured and remind themselves of this information.

The League sought to argue in George’s case that trails had not been laid, and that trail hunting was a massive subterfuge that hunts engage in to cover up the fact that they are actually breaking the law. The very experienced District Judge hearing the case rejected this argument and accepted that trail hunting was exactly what George and Toby were engaged in. Backing up their case the League relied on the evidence of a man called Professor Stephen Harris. He is an expert on foxes based in the Bristol University and he has given evidence in several high profile hunting cases. His evidence is extremely dangerous to anyone seeking to defend a Hunting Act case because it is expert opinion evidence. It was Professor Harris’s opinion that trail laying could not have taken place, partly due to the fact that a quad bike moved more quickly than a fox so the trail would have been laid too quickly. The judge rejected this argument, accepting that it is the speed that a trail is followed, not that a trail is laid, that is important.

Professor Harris also formed the view that hunting horn calls were standard sounds that were always the same and had clear unambiguous meanings. He managed to get hold of a bluffers guide to hunting published in the 1940s which came with a 78rpm record on which a number of horn calls had been recorded. Armed with this book and record he decided that he was able to interpret the single horn call that George gave during the course of the alleged hunt as a doubled call designed to encourage the hounds on. George said in his own defence that he had blown his horn to get the hounds to lift their heads up and come back to him. I suspect one of the reasons that the judge preferred George’s version of events to Professor Harris’s was that, looking at the covert footage of the incident, what George said was exactly what happened.

This case involved four minutes of action. A fox was sighted and two minutes later hounds appeared moving in roughly the same direction as the fox. By the time George was told by a person who had seen the fox that it was in the vicinity he took less than a minute and a half, and the length of a single field, to stop his hounds. The defence expert said this was one of the most impressive examples of a huntsman bringing his hounds under control that he had ever seen. The Prosecution expert said there was no doubt this was unlawful hunting.

In a way this case illustrates the real problem with hunting prosecutions. Those involved in the investigation of allegations of illegal hunting are feverishly opposed to hunting in any form. They are zealots who have devoted their life to a cause. They are simply unable to see anything that points towards people on horseback in red coats behaving lawfully. While I have nothing against anyone’s deeply held beliefs, the criminal court is not the place for those beliefs to be relied upon. A court demands cogent evidence, and, yet again, the League was unable to provide it.

I was very pleased for George and Toby. I do not underestimate how difficult it is for people who have no experience of the criminal process to be accused of a crime they did not commit. It placed an enormous strain on them and their families, but they withstood the pressure extremely well and made a very good account of themselves in court. One very amusing thing did happen during the course of the trial and I can’t blame my opponent for it entirely as neither he nor those assisting him clearly know much about hunting. It was that, at the beginning of cross examining George, my opponent made the cardinal error of saying to George “ You are a hunt servant aren’t you Mr Milton?” George being a very mild and tolerant fellow managed to restrain himself and said, “That is very rude, Sir, I am a Master and Huntsman.” I couldn’t help wondering wryly if my opponent had asked the same question of Captain Ian Farquhar or Captain Brian Fanshawe in their prime whether he would have emerged from the trial unscathed.

In the end, justice was done but at a considerable cost. The League must have spent in excess of £100,000 of charitable donations on the case. The police, the CPS and the court all had to commit public money to it and the taxpayer faces a hefty bill for the legal costs run up by George and Toby in their defence. It is impossible to see how any of this expense can possibly be justified by a case in which a fox, two minutes ahead of the hounds was pursued for less than the length of a single field and would never have been aware of the existence of its pursuers. Surely it is time to repeal this legislation and allow the League to go back to waving placards and gnashing their teeth freeing up the criminal courts to deal with matters that really are in the public interest to prosecute.

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  • NBGooner  |  April 17 2014, 10:06AM

    Time line of an independent expert witness as used by the CPS in the recent hunting case involving the Banwell hunt, can also be referred to as a diary of deceit. 1998 – The report "How will a ban on hunting affect the fox population" is written by Professor Stephen Harris and Phil Baker and made available to the MP`s the public and the press. The report contains corrupt evidence and was not validated by the two professors in what has been termed a dereliction of academic duty. 2000 – The report is exposed at the Burns inquiry when the original author of the data writes to the inquiry stating "There has been a continuing problem with misinterpretation of my data that apparently began with an anti-hunting group in the U.S. That group's web page attributed changes recorded in trapped foxes to changes in foxes chased by dogs. This is blatantly incorrect and, I suspect, wilfully done." 2000 – Professor Stephen Harris submits his research contract to the Burns inquiry, a good piece of work with one major flaw. He takes the average from just two studies on why farmers control foxes instead of the five available to conclude farmers control foxes to reduce numbers. This is because it fits in with his argument and the possibility of future funding from IFAW rests on it. A more independent David Macdonald took the average from the five studies and concluded farmers controlled foxes to reduce predation on livestock. 2002 – With funding now secure from the anti-hunting organization IFAW Professor Stephen Harris produces a study into fox numbers this is announced a few days before the portcullis hearings into hunting take place in an attempt to influence the outcome. At these hearings Professor Harris continues to refer to the corrupt data exposed at the Burns inquiry. 2003 – At a Labour fringe meeting organised by the Campaign for protected animals the study into wounding rates from shooting by the middle way group is refuted and it is announced Professor Harris`s own study which counters the Middle way will be peer reviewed, Eleven years on and still no peer reviewed study. 2004 – Another study into fox numbers is conducted by Professor Stephen Harris and funded by the anti-hunting organization IFAW, surprise, surprise, its findings are announced to the public and MP's a few weeks before the Tony Banks Banning bill is debated in parliament. Hunting is banned 2014 – Professor Stephen Harris is used as an independent expert witness by the CPS. Can I suggest the Attorney General remove his head from his backside and move quickly to reassure the public independent expert witnesses will be properly vetted and zealots overlooked, saving money, freeing up court time and more importantly not having innocent people go through such trauma.

    Rate   -2
  • NBGooner  |  April 15 2014, 3:51PM

    The fact is Jamie Foster was in court defending two men who had been charged with breaking the law, a law bought in by trickery, deceit and half-truths. Look no further than the expert witness in the Banwell trial from Bristol University. Along with everyone else taking part in the Burns inquiry was asked to keep quiet and not go to the press until the Burns inquiry had reported its findings. Knowing full well the Burns inquiry was about to inform Parliament there is no evidence hunting was cruel, evidence in the form of Autopsies from foxes and hares was leaked to the press. Who can we point the finger at for this blatant trickery and deceit? The headline screaming "Vets say hunted foxes dies in agony" and a Professor Morton (Just Another anti) from Birmingham university who was outside the gagging request got to offer his opinion on the suffering involved. A day or so before Jack Straw announced the Burns report findings and the bitter twist being The Burns inquiry found no evidence hunting was cruel and the Xrays were only ever used to determine how the quarry died, Ie neck dislocation. See the news report here. http://tinyurl.com/pkuhx7p Like asking Reggie Kray to be an expert independent witness for his brother Ronnie.

    Rate   3
  • nebcop  |  April 15 2014, 1:29PM

    Dear old Professor Stephen Harris, in another court action he said that he was neither pro or anti hunting but when you look him up on the net he says that he thinks hunting is unnecessary and cruel so not at all a biased expert, and I doubt his expertise on hunting as he doesn't go out with any hunts but the LACS is very quick to use him as a witness and of course he gets well paid and hotel expenses for the **** he comes out with, they really should stop using this biased ****.

    Rate   1
  • NBGooner  |  April 15 2014, 1:23PM

    Has the CPS become so corrupt it does not see wrong in offering up a vehemently anti -hunting Professor with a documented track record as an independent "expert"? "In How will a ban on hunting affect the British fox population?, the report written by Professor Stephen Harris and Phil Baker, the Kreeger studies are mentioned, but with two serious alterations. The first was that the two studies appeared to be combined into one piece of work, with the report stating, "yet studies in North America have shown that hunting (N.B. "chased" has been altered to "hunted" ) a fox for five minutes in a ten acre enclosure causes as much suffering as catching an animal in a leg-hold trap." The second was that the work was referenced as 'C.Waller (1997)', and an environmental website, without any reference to Dr Kreeger who had undertaken and published the two studies almost ten years earlier. Not to check the original data, easily available to an academic, was surely a dereliction of academic duty" What the author of the original study had to say, "With regard to his work, Dr Kreeger said in 2000, "There has been a continuing problem with misinterpretation of my data that apparently began with an anti-hunting group in the U.S. That group's web page attributed changes recorded in trapped foxes to changes in foxes chased by dogs. This is blatantly incorrect and, I suspect, wilfully done." The dregs of the establishment.

    Rate   2
  • Tony248i  |  April 15 2014, 12:35PM

    I don't think there I anything to stop a lawyer from publishing his opinion once a case has been decided. However, to call for a law to be repealed simply because someone has been acquitted of an offence does not appear logical. Certainly the CPS have to answer a few questions about their judgment; but there's nothing new in that, is there?

    Rate   3
  • Pink_Diesel  |  April 14 2014, 8:18PM

    Bit surprised that this has been written by a professional(?) criminal lawyer. (That's all.)

    Rate   -6
  • MacRimfire  |  April 14 2014, 7:01PM

    Its about time Lacs and the RSPCA stopped wasting money on percecuting country folk. This is a clear case of an extremist minority forcing their views on the majority by repeatedly dragging good people through the courts using so called evidence submitted and gathered by self appointed "Monitior" who are just people that thrive on confrontation and use bully boy tactics in an effort to force their will on people. reminds me of the IRA a bit!.

    Rate   8