On Monday in Oxford Magistrates' Court two men pleaded guilty to four charges, each under a minor piece of legislation which carries a maximum penalty of £5,000. Their company – one was an employee, the other a director – pleaded guilty to four identical offences. The judge fined one of the men £250 for each offence and the other £450. The company was handed four £1,000 fines.
You might think that is the end of a not-very-interesting story but you would be wrong, because the offence the two pleaded guilty to was breach of the Hunting Act and the company was the Heythrop Hunt Ltd.
If a prosecution involving a hunt was not enough to get media juices flowing, the Heythrop Hunt happens to be the only one based in David Cameron's constituency – and the Prime Minister is known to have hunted with the Heythrop hounds..
Such a coincidence was bound to put the story on the front pages but the fact that it was David Cameron's local hunt was no coincidence. The two men, Julian Barnfield and Richard Sumner, and the Heythrop Hunt were not investigated by the police and prosecuted by the CPS, but targeted by the RSPCA. Of the 175 packs of foxhounds in the UK, the RSPCA chose to bring only one private prosecution – against the Heythrop. Nor was this the first attempt to prosecute the Heythrop and huntsman Julian. In 2008 the CPS brought four charges against him based on allegations by animal rights activists, but that prosecution failed. Last year the RSPCA summonsed Julian on another two charges, but again the prosecution failed.
So this year the charity returned with a prosecution unprecedented since the Hunting Act came into force in 2005. It brought no fewer than 52 charges against the hunt, its masters and employees, detailing ten allegations of illegal hunting.
The trial was due to start last week and would have lasted until the end of February. The cost of defending the case would have been well into six figures and then there were the RSPCA's costs to consider. There was clearly a big legal team at work and it did not look cheap. The RSPCA did not use its in-house solicitors, but hired top-end city firm Fishburns, which was clearly ready to spend whatever it took to get a conviction.
Julian and Richard took a pragmatic decision that defending such a big case was practically and financially almost impossible. They accepted that on four occasions they had allowed hounds to chase foxes that had jumped up while they were hunting artificial trails. The RSPCA dropped all other charges against them and against two others who had originally been prosecuted.
District Judge Tim Pattinson noted that in 500 hours' hunting last season the four allegations totalled just 15 minutes of criminality. He then handed down the fines, at the low end of the scale, and came on to the sticky issue of costs.
The RSPCA had been extremely reluctant to divulge how much it had spent on the case and when the judge calculated the total it was clear why – it had spent £326,980.23 on solicitors, barristers and associated costs. The judge called the figure "staggering", asking whether "the public may feel RSPCA funds could be more usefully employed". While Judge Pattinson was only commenting on this case, his question has wider implications. Increasingly, the RSPCA is becoming not simply an organisation focused on protecting animal welfare, but a political campaigning group promoting an animal rights agenda. New chief executive Gavin Grant has already ruffled feathers with his threat to "name and shame" people involved in the badger cull trials and by calling for boycotts against farmers in cull areas. Judge Pattinson's question can equally be applied here: is such a campaign the best use of RSPCA funds? Indeed, is it in the best interests of animal welfare?
There is something monstrously hypocritical about such profligacy and waste when the RSPCA is placing fundraising advertisements , claiming that "animal cruelty, neglect and suffering are reaching unprecedented levels in modern times". Paying a handful of lawyers more than £300,000 for a few weeks' work which had no impact on animal welfare, months after announcing 130 redundancies to address deficits on its £115 million annual turnover, suggests an organisation that has lost its way.
RSPCA membership has plummeted to just 29,000 and, while it will not disappear overnight, unless it refocuses on real animal welfare issues rather than a political animal rights agenda it will progressively lose the support of the moderate majority.
Tim Bonner is Director of Campaigns for the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance