Traditional pack of hounds and riders on Dartmoor 2014. There is no suggestion intended that the individuals who appear in this image were, are, or ever have been engaged in illegal activities.
I wrote Fox Hunting Crimes on Mark’s blog back in April, based on my eye-opening experience of living in mid-Devon for two hunting seasons.
The new hunting season is now well underway and I thought I’d revisit the issue. I wrote to the Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall, Alison Hernandez, seeking her views. I made her aware of the original piece (and all the comments it attracted) and I made clear that her response might be reproduced on Mark’s blog.
Below is her letter, in full, but broken into sections, with my thoughts after each one. Overall, I thought it was an interesting response and rather less bland and generic than I was expecting.
Thank you for your email and for bringing Mark Avery’s blog to my attention.
It is fair to say that hunting divides opinion like few other matters I receive correspondence upon. The law as it stands is imperfect and was objected to by the police when in draft stage. Nonetheless we are where we are and have to find a way forward despite there being little middle ground.
I find the statement about trying to find ‘middle ground’ rather worrying. There are clear parallels here with raptor persecution and the Hen Harrier Action Plan. It seems she is seeking to find a compromise when, in my view, the main challenge to the police is what they might do to tackle ongoing, organised criminality. I was especially alarmed by the way she points out the police’s opposition to the law as it was drafted. Perhaps I’m misreading between the lines but, given the context, is she hinting that the police do not treat this issue as seriously as they might because they don’t much care for the legislation passed by parliament?
Unfortunately, both sides of the argument occasionally let themselves down – from time to time stirring up strong feelings and sometimes spreading inaccurate information via social media rather than passing information through to the police in a timely manner so that it can be assessed.
I hope she doesn’t mean me but perhaps she does. I have reported information to the police about hunting crimes many times. I’ve found them to be fantastically efficient and effective when dealing with hares illegally chased by dogs in Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, but rather disinterested when it comes to foxes and red deer illegally chased by dogs in Devon. The only reason I’ve started to make use of social media is because I have repeatedly come across organised crime within a few miles of where I live and the police apparently have no interest in stopping it.
It is true to say the police are stretched and need to be assiduous in deploying resources. The police are continually called upon to prioritise how resources are used to best effect. The transitory nature of hunting makes it a challenging matter to police coupled with the sheer volume of hunts taking place each season – often with several taking place at the same time.
This is fair enough up to a point, and we all understand the pressures. But this is widespread organised criminality on a huge and highly visible scale so I think it should be quite high on police priorities however they are set. Hunting may be ‘transitory’ in nature but it would be very easy to get a handle on it by being just a little more proactive and watching what hunts get up to. The ‘sheer volume of hunts’ would be a problem if we expected the police to attend them all, but no-one is suggesting that. All I’m suggesting is that some limited resources are deployed proactively, as with any other suspected major, organised crime, to properly investigate what is taking place. With that approach the ‘sheer volume’ of hunts becomes a distinct advantage rather than a disadvantage. And surely a high volume of any potential criminal activity should help push it towards the top of the priority ranking?
I am pleased that in recent days we have been able to establish a rural crime team. This provides for the first time dedicated officers whose full-time role will be to prevent and address rural crime. Whilst a small team, I am sure you will agree this is a positive step forward. These officers will work in supporting the national Police Chiefs Council rural affairs and wildlife crime strategies – again, the first time dedicated national priorities have been established in this field.
I do agree that this is a potentially positive step forward. These are just the sort of people who would be trained appropriately to spot the signs of organised criminality in relation to hunting. But this is only a positive step forward if the rural crime team engages with the issue proactively and meaningfully rather than continuing to ignore it whenever possible.
Earlier this year I facilitated a meeting between a lady from Devon and the Deputy Chief Constable Paul Netherton to discuss similar concerns to yours and Mr Avery’s. The lady was accompanied to the meeting by a hunt saboteur. Both put their points across very robustly. It was during this meeting that the plea was made for the police to take a more preventative approach to fox hunting by reducing the risk that there may be breaches of the law. The points made during that meeting were taken on board and subsequently incorporated into a review of operational guidance of policing hunting incidents issued to police forces across England and Wales.
I’ll take that last point at face value and I will be writing to the Chief Constable to ask about this in more detail once the coming hunting season has run its course. These are fine and encouraging words but they only mean something if the sentiments expressed translate into action. Let’s see what happens this season.
Additionally, the Deputy Chief Constable has written to all the hunts in the Devon and Cornwall area to outline his clear expectation that they operate within the law. This went on to suggest that hunt masters seek legal advice if there is uncertainty on how the hunt should operate within the law. Deputy Chief Constable Netherton’s letter also asked that hunts are able to actively demonstrate their compliance with the law including keeping a record and map of laid drags.
Again, taken at face value, this is very encouraging. If hunts have been asked by the police to keep a record of laid trails then this will be useful when investigative work finds that they are apparently chasing wild animals illegally. The police could ask, for example, how far away they were from a pre-laid trail – and to what extent the progress of a hunt observed by the police followed the trail marked on a map kept for record purposes. It wouldn’t be very difficult to do this, would it?
Operational policing matters are of course the responsibility of the Chief Constable. I would therefore strongly recommend that you put your concerns in writing to him also.
I plan to do just that at the end of this hunting season and will ask the Chief Constable how much of the actions described above have been put into practice and what the results have been so far. For example, how many hunts have the police attended covertly this season, for how long each time, and in what proportion of cases was illegal activity suspected or confirmed? How many times did the hunt follow the laid trail as shown on the map? Based on my experience up to this point I am not hugely encouraged that things will be any different this season but I hope I’m wrong.
I remain open minded about this issue.
Fair enough. We can’t expect police commissioners to be experts on every type of criminal activity. But the Hunting Act was passed 14 years ago. The only reason the police themselves might remain ‘open minded’ is because either they know the facts and ignore them, or because they are simply not interested in finding out the facts. If the actions alluded to by the commissioner are put into operation on the ground then the police will not be open minded for much longer. To remain ‘open-minded’ in the face of what I have observed in just two years (with no previous experience of fox or stag hunting) is laughable and I do not enjoy the feeling it instils in me about aspects of policing in this country. No doubt the criminals and their associates are laughing too – at the expensive of our police force and its reputation for fairness and propriety.
If I am doing the police a disservice and they are genuinely open minded after all these years then they can always gather the evidence required to reach a clearer view. Not to have done so already in the 14 years since the act was passed seems rather odd to me. It’s just the sort of thing that might lead people to make use of social media and ask difficult questions about the integrity of rural policing.