The RSPCA yesterday warned it was "watching" hunts and would bring any that broke the law to justice – after successfully prosecuting the Prime Minister's local pack.
Speaking after the animal charity's first corporate prosecution of a hunt for illegally pursuing a fox, RSPCA chief executive Gavin Grant, indicated more legal actions could follow.
"I have a message for those involved in hunting," he said. "If you break the law the RSPCA and others are watching and we will bring you to justice."
The RSPCA spent nearly £330,000 prosecuting Prime Minister David Cameron's local hunt, the Oxfordshire-based Heythrop. But hunts across the Westcountry, many of which have thrived since the 2005 ban, could be next on the animal charity's list.
The Heythrop, based in Oxfordshire, pleaded guilty yesterday to four charges of intentionally hunting a fox with dogs on land in the Cotswolds.
Former huntsman Julian Barnfield, 49, and recently retired hunt master Richard Sumner, 68, also pleaded guilty to the same charges during a hearing at Oxford Magistrates' Court.
Mr Cameron, MP for Witney, has previously ridden with the hunt.
District Judge Tim Pattinson fined the hunt £4,000, Sumner £1,800 and Barnfield £1,000.
The hunt was told to pay £15,000 towards RSPCA legal costs, Sumner £2,500 costs and Barnfield £2,000. Each defendant was also ordered to pay a £15 victim surcharge.
Passing sentence, District Judge Tim Pattinson said he found it "quite staggering" the RSPCA had spent £326,980.23 bringing the prosecution.
"Hunting of foxes provokes extremely strong feelings on both sides of the argument," he said.
"The hunting debate provoked equally strong feelings in Parliament prior to the passing of the Hunting Act and indeed ever since the Hunting Act came into force in February 2005.
"The debate continues. Some people see the hunting of foxes as cruel and immoral, others see it as an essential tradition, part of countryside management, and say criminalising the activity is inappropriate.
"The coalition Government has indicated the possibility of a free vote in Parliament at some point in the future.
"I must put all of these matters to one side. I must sentence fairly and accordance with the law."
The district judge referred to the RSPCA costs of nearly £330,000 – without the expected 30-day trial – as a "quite staggering figure".
"Members of the public may feel that RSPCA funds can be more usefully employed," he said.
"It is not for me to express an opinion but I merely flag it up but I do find it to be a quite staggering figure.
"Essentially I was told by Mr Mott that defence costs for all five defendants were in the region of £35,000 – so that's not much more than one tenth of the prosecution costs."
The judge said that the RSPCA has asked for a £50,000 contribution from the three defendants towards its costs.
He said he was rejecting that figure as the costs should not be "grossly disproportionate" to the fines he had already imposed.
In total the hunt, Barnfield and Sumner were ordered to pay £19,500 between them.
Jeremy Carter-Manning QC, prosecuting for the RSPCA, said it was not in the public interest to continue proceedings against hunt master Vanessa Lambert, a director of the hunt, and whipper-in Duncan Hame following guilty pleas from the other three defendants.
The court heard the hunt was filmed on several occasions in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire during November last year and in February and March this year by members of the Protect Our Wild Animals group.
The footage was passed to the RSPCA, which, after reviewing it, decided to prosecute.
Philip Mott QC, representing the three defendants, said the hunt was involved in legal trail hunting – that of laying a scent for the hounds to chase – and had pursued foxes in the course of that legal activity.
"In 500 hours of recorded footage we have unlawful hunting totalling no more than 15 minutes," he said.
Mr Mott said the defendants, who were all of good character, should be given credit for their early guilty pleas.
He said both Barnfield, of Worcester Road, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, and Sumner, of Penhill Farm, Salperton, Gloucestershire were of limited financial means.
Speaking after the hearing, Barnfield described the prosecution by the RSPCA as political."They have picked on the Heythrop Hunt because it is in David Cameron's constituency and they are trying to put pressure on him not to give a free vote," he said. "I just hope the supporters and donors of the RSPCA know what they are doing with their money."