Joe Duckworth of the League Against Cruel Sports, calls for enforcement of the hunt ban.Over the weekend, many of the twenty or so hunts that operate across Devon and Cornwall met for the first time this season, the seventh since the ban came into force.They’ll talk about hunting being resilient in the face of the ban. They’ll say that they have more members and supporters than ever. And their message will be that they are supported by everyone in the countryside. This is, they claim, an issue of town versus country.The problem for hunts, years on from the ban without even the prospect of repeal on the horizon, is that no-one believes them, and the majority of people in the countryside support the ban on hunting. Week in, week out, people across Devon and Cornwall witness hunts up to no good.But they aren’t just breaking the Hunting Act. Members of the public call our Hunt Crimewatch line to tell us of the havoc that hunts bring with them. The hounds riot through private gardens. They trespass on railway lines. They chase their quarry into the sea. They even kill family cats and dogs. Try and stop them or ask what they’re up to, and you might well face a barrage of verbal or even physical abuse. Twice this year, including one case in the Westcountry, hunt representatives have been convicted of assaulting my staff and volunteers.But listen to the apologists who campaign hard for a return to legal hunting, and they’ll tell you that all is rosy, and proof that there is no problem is the fact that there haven’t been any convictions in Devon and Cornwall. But it’s only half the story; a lack of convictions doesn’t mean a lack of illegal activity after all. Indeed, during the last hunting season we had more than double the number of reports of illegal hunting in Devon and Cornwall than for the next highest police force area, neighbouring Dorset. The lack of convictions isn’t down to a lack of evidence. On several occasions over the last few years, we have provided what we believed to be good evidence to Devon & Cornwall Police, but the police haven’t even moved from the starting blocks by interviewing suspects. Some cases have run out of time and sometimes the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decide to take no action.The police National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) identified hunting as a specific problem in Devon and Cornwall, and urged the police here to take account of this. It’s clear to me that we need to have a dialogue with the police about where this sits in their priorities, not least to reflect significant public concerns.On Saturday we launched the first stage in a million-pound investment in our investigations and operations department, to support the police in their efforts to tackle wildlife crime. These are professional, highly trained investigators who operate covertly to try and capture evidence of illegal hunting, and over the next few months, we’ll be recruiting another ten of them, right across the country.These investigators achieve results. Their efforts in another region were praised by a judge who, dismissing an appeal by the huntsman and terrierman earlier this month, described them as “professional and knowledgeable” whilst the defendants were “unconvincing and shady” and the hunt were engaged in “cynical subterfuge” by pretending to hunt a trail. It was our investigators’ hard work that brought these wildlife criminals to justice.Our investigators rely on information from the public, and that’s why we’re advertising in the Western Morning News and other regional newspapers, to raise awareness of Hunt Crimewatch. It’s this data that we pass to the NWCU, and which informs our work with police.Policing of wildlife crime, including hunting, is a world away from what it was just a few years ago. The NWCU has really helped to push the issue up the policing agenda. Through the Association of Chief Police Officers, the chief constable of Lincolnshire Police has a national responsibility for wildlife crime, amongst other things.Our own Police Liaison Officer delivers training to police officers on the Hunting Act, based on many years’ experience as a front line police officer. That training is approved by ACPO, and the impact is impressive. Our evidence-gathering operations are intelligence led, and our database and operating systems are designed to mirror the police’s own system. We are winning high praise for our efforts. The League’s staff and volunteers, all of whom operate to a very high standard and code of conduct, will be out this season collecting evidence to present to the police. The challenge for Devon & Cornwall Police and the CPS is to show a determination to pursue hunting cases with the vigour displayed by their colleagues ‘up country'.
Deerstalking near Hartland with Nick Wellington and Paul Messenger. Film by Adam Wilshaw.
Red deer and large stag captured on film by Richard Austin in November 2010.