Moving to Devon 18 months ago has been a real eye-opener in relation to wildlife crime. There is plenty of industrial-scale Pheasant shooting but Buzzards exist at high densities and even Goshawks seem to be doing well, with several breeding sites within a few minutes’ drive of the house. Raptor persecution no doubt occurs on occasion but if it does it’s out of sight and not at a level that prevents these species from breeding. And there is no Hare coursing locally, something I became all too familiar with when living in the Cambridgeshire fens.
The wildlife crime that stands out above everything else in mid-Devon is hunting with hounds. If you spend any time out and about in the local countryside in winter you’ll see hunts regularly. I bump into them about once every week or two on average. Having not come across many hunts before and having not been especially engaged with this issue in the past I initially assumed they must be trail hunting, at least most of the time.
Then, just by chance, I saw a Fox flushed from a hedgerow by a single hunt rider who called in a pack of about 10 hounds and rode with them in hot pursuit of the Fox. This in full view of a road and several houses. Genuinely surprised by the brazenness, if not so much by the activity itself, I did some digging around online, started speaking to local people, and paid a bit more attention to hunts whenever I passed them. Monitoring wouldn’t be the right word but if I come across a hunt and have time to spare I’ll pull over and watch for a while.
It’s now clear to me that this is criminal activity on a huge scale. I have seen Foxes chased several times and been all but certain of it on several more occasions. I have spoken to countless local people who have seen Foxes or Red Deer chased, including one lady who had a stag pass through her village garden, pursued several minutes later by the baying mob of stag hounds. I have repeatedly watched hunts operate in a way that is impossible to reconcile with following a trail but fits perfectly the concept of searching for and attempting to flush an animal.
This type of wildlife crime is very different from crimes that threaten wildlife populations. The only animals at risk are Foxes and Red Deer and both are thriving locally. In contrast to the illegal persecution of raptors in the uplands, the issue is about animal welfare rather than species conservation. Yet, having thought more about what is happening here, I think there is another important issue – one that relates to trust in our police and the way they operate.
My question to rural crime officers and senior police in Devon (and wherever else this is happening) is as follows. This is organised crime isn’t it? Not only that but it is carried out repeatedly, in broad daylight, and in a manner that almost seeks to draw attention to itself. There are vehicles and horse boxes all over the road, the senior hunt members wear a special uniform to advertise their role, and just in case your line of sight is obscured, horns are blown regularly, highlighting the focal point of the hunt, and audible for miles around.
If you remain unconvinced that crime is taking place and are (perhaps understandably) disbelieving of reports from anti-hunt groups then take a look for yourselves. Set aside the odd half day here and there next winter and turn up to watch a hunt – unannounced and not in uniform for obvious reasons. Have a look at what is happening. Do the horses and hounds look like they are following a pre-laid trail? If (when) you see an animal being chased does it look like an accident and is every effort being made to call off the dogs? Is there any plausible legal exemption that fits with what you are watching?
If hunts are allowed to continue operating as they do currently then what message does that send out about the way rural policing works? The almost complete lack of any enforcement activity can mean one of only three things:
(i) Incompetence. It could be that the police think most hunts are acting lawfully most of the time as per the careful wording on hunt websites. That would be naïve based on all the information that is available and, as suggested above, it could very easily be checked (and found to be wrong) with just a few hours work in the field or by talking to local people. I don’t think it’s down to naivety or incompetence.
(ii) Resources. Perhaps rural police are now so overstretched that there is simply no money and no officers available to address illegal hunting. If that’s true then what hope is there for any form of rural policing? Unlike most rural crime this is an activity that is undertaken regularly, in full view, with much fanfare, by individuals that can easily be identified. It is not contravening some ancient legislation that no-one is too worried about. It contravenes a recent law informed by extensive research and passed after rigorous debate in parliament, and the legislation enjoys overwhelming public support. If organised crime on this scale doesn’t justify the allocation of significant resources then what does?
(iii) Power and influence. Thirdly and, I fear, most likely, perhaps it’s a case of deliberately turning a blind eye to a crime that involves influential people. There certainly seems to be a contrast between the police response to hunting with hounds in Devon, and the response to hunting Hares with dogs in the eastern counties – where enforcement action is taken regularly and vigorously. Is the key factor here the relative lack of influence of the people who chase Hares with their long dogs?
I can’t help but reflect on these points every time I pass a hunt and, every time, it weakens my respect for rural policing (and policing in general) that this is allowed to happen. I imagine many other people (the largely silent majority) have a similar response. Hunts are apparently able to operate above and beyond the law with utter contempt for the legislation, those tasked with enforcing it and the majority of public opinion. In short, they are making a mockery of rural policing.