John Twyford: Charity right to chase huntsmen all way to court
I'M planning to give a donation to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals following its sterling work in successfully prosecuting the Heythrop hunt.
I think we've all suspected that many hunts across England have been defying the ban on hunting with dogs. Some may have benefited from the fact that the law was badly drawn up and open to interpretation, while others may simply have defied the law because they did not believe there would be any consequences.
From the outset of this law, in 2005, the police have appeared disinterested in enforcing it, and it has become one of those rules which seem to be laws in name only, like speeding.
There have been hardly any prosecutions; only a handful of individuals have been taken to court in the seven years since the law was made. But I believe this recent case was the first in which a hunt itself has been convicted.
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Two former members of this group of Oxfordshire hunters, as well as the Heythrop hunt itself, pleaded guilty earlier this month to unlawfully hunting a wild fox with dogs.
The only reason the prosecution got so far was because the RSPCA brought it, at considerable cost. I understand the Crown Prosecution Service had earlier been handed alleged evidence of earlier law-breaking by this hunt, but had declined to pursue it.
The conviction of the hunt, and two of its former members, was greeted with howls of outrage by such as the Countryside Alliance, which accused the RSPCA of targeting the Heythrop simply because it was David Cameron's local hunt and he had once ridden with it. Even the judge criticised the RSPCA for spending more than £325,000 of the money given to it by the public on the prosecution.
But why shouldn't it? It was important for the RSPCA to bring a prosecution against a high-profile hunt, because it wanted to show all such hunts that there is a law and it should not be broken, and high profile equals much publicity.
And, as I wrote recently in response to MP Neil Parish's attack on the animal protection charity, the RSPCA was set up to prevent cruelty to animals, so why shouldn't it use its funds to campaign against foxes being torn apart by hounds, as much as against the intended slaughter of thousands of badgers in a misguided attempt to prevent the spread of TB among cattle?
What supporters of hunting fail to realise is they are very much in the minority, even in the countryside.
A poll for the Guardian newspaper earlier this month found that 76 per cent of the public were opposed to any repeal of the ban on fox-hunting. The figures were even higher for deer-hunting and hare-coursing.
And last week a Government minister appeared to rule out in the near future a free vote in Parliament on repealing the ban on hunting with hounds, which was promised by the Conservatives. I suspect Environment Secretary Owen Paterson was not the only member of the Government to realise that such a vote would almost certainly be lost. So it's not been a good month for the fox-hunters and their dwindling number of supporters, despite the claimed high turnouts for the Boxing Day meets.