Police forces around England regularly ignore reports of illegal fox-hunting and fail to bring charges even when they are handed overwhelming evidence, a hard-hitting report claims.
Some chief constables and senior officers routinely turn a blind eye to fox hunts, while certain police on the ground often appear biased towards hunts or show no interest in accusations that the law has been broken, according to the document.
Anti-blood sport campaigners have complained for years that police repeatedly dismiss reports of illegal activity, fail to follow up complaints and are slow to attend when called out to wildlife crime – if they attend at all.
Now, what is believed to be the first ever report on enforcement of the 2004 fox-hunting ban alleges widespread failures by authorities to take action, even when people monitoring hunt activities provided video evidence that they say shows trained hounds chasing the wild animals.
The investigators, from the Action Against Foxhunting (AAF) group, compiled police responses to more than 80 incidents reported during the 2019-20 winter hunting season.
Their report, Counting the Crimes, seen exclusively by The Independent, says many officers appear to have very little understanding of the hunting ban, and a lack of training means many cannot recognise illegal hunting.
However, a number of police officers appear to support hunts, and some – even including the occasional wildlife crime officer – ride with them, it is claimed.
The 2004 Hunting Act made it illegal to chase wild mammals with dogs in England and Wales, but hunts insist they act within the law, following artificially laid scent trails.
In an introduction to the report, Richard Barradale Smith, a retired officer who was at the centre of a high-profile investigation in Herefordshire last year, condemns “the catastrophic failure of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in dealing with hunting and hunting-related crimes that take place every week across our country”.
He writes: “The systemic failure in dealing with hunting crimes since the hunting act came into force has been deliberate.
“The legislation introduced was designed to make the act virtually unenforceable, and successive chief constables/senior officers across the country have chosen to turn a blind eye to it ever since. This places many frontline officers sent to deal with those incidents in an impossible position.
“The claims of any force that they take animal cruelty seriously have to be questioned when illegal hunting takes place under their noses and with their knowledge, every week.”
Relations between police and hunt monitors or saboteurs are strained in many areas, with hunt opponents claiming they are often treated as the criminals because they are watching or videoing events.
Dozens of cases documented in the report include fox killings; roads being blocked by hunts; hounds running into private gardens and frightening kept animals; hunters reportedly trying to intimidate “wildlife guardians” and hunt supporters playing loud music and obstructing filming of suspected illegal activity.
In the 81 cases recorded by the group, nobody was prosecuted, and calls to police from the public with complaints about hunts went unreturned.
In October, a pack of hounds invaded a smallholding, running through groups of goats, sheep and pigs, scattering them, trampling on vegetables and breaking fences. Surrey Police took more than an hour to respond to the 999 call, and took a statement but allegedly did not want to see the damage. “There was no follow-up action against the hunt. The owners of the smallholding concluded the police were not interested”, the document states.
Another example given is: “At the Boxing Day protest in Blandford, a hunter crossed the road to push an elderly protester into the gutter. When she got up, she asked the police officer if he could take action. He told her to stand aside. Later, the lady saw a police officer shaking hands with the person who had pushed her over.
“She reported the incident to the police and gave a statement. She had a witness and photographs of the assailant. The police dropped the case saying that they could not identify the assailant. By not taking action, and failing to help the victim, the police prevented this criminal from being prosecuted. AAF believes this was deliberate.”
The report also uses a photograph of a Staffordshire police officer wearing a lanyard from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, who approached monitors sitting in a car and moved them on from a pub where a hunt were meeting.
During the year, several incidents were reported of hunters calling the police, falsely claiming they had seen “frontline wildlife guardians” (FWGs) with handguns.
Police searched the monitors but found no guns. “AAF understands that police must act if they receive calls of this nature. However, the police’s prompt attendance for these calls is not matched by prompt attendance for a call from an FWG. This happens whatever the call is – about illegal hunting or intimidation and violence,” the document states.
The anti-foxhunting group says the absence of a clear, consistent national policy on policing hunts is a key factor in the lack of prosecutions. Some forces have policies – which officers do not always follow – but other forces, such as West Mercia, do not.
In a survey of blood sport supporters, 79 per cent were happy with police responses to calls, but a survey of opponents found 86 per cent were dissatisfied by the responses.
The activists who compiled records during the year say the 81 incidents recorded is lower than the real number because many hunting opponents do not trust the police to be interested in complaints.
Among other proposals, AAF is calling for all police officers to be open about any personal interest in hunting and that those who back it to be barred from investigating hunt incidents.
Mr Barradale Smith, who said he was the victim of a smear campaign for investigating cruelty claims, adds: “Please do not for one minute attribute those failures to lack of resources/funding/training or any other excuse that a police force may attempt to use. It simply isn’t true.”
In 2018 the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) with the College of Policing issued revised guidelines on hunting to police forces in Britain but Action Against Foxhunting says many officers appear unaware of them.
Inspector Allison Wiggin of Warwickshire Police said: “We understand that hunting is a very divisive and emotive subject, and often investigations can be extremely complex. Our operational response is based on advice from the National Police Chiefs’ Council. As a force, we remain committed to ensuring we meet our duties to uphold the law.
“We are fully committed to investigating and, where evidence exists, bringing to justice any person found breaking the law by participating in illegal hunting.
“Last year, we launched our dedicated rural crime team to help tackle rural and wildlife offences within the county and this summer, the team was expanded. Our specialist rural crime officers work with local farmers, communities and the wider workforce to provide advice, prevent crime and disrupt and prosecute criminal activity.
“We remain committed to tackling rural crime and to understanding, listening and reacting to concerns of our communities, and would encourage anyone who has evidence of illegal hunting taking place to please report it to us.”
Chief Superintendent Sue Thomas of West Mercia Police, said: “I am aware of the report published today and would like to reassure the public and all those with an interest in this subject that West Mercia Police will always make every reasonable effort and attempt to enforce current legislation.
“All reports of illegal hunting and animal cruelty are taken seriously, and all complaints investigated. Where possible these are presented to the CPS for prosecution.”
Staffordshire Police said in a statement they work closely, without bias, with those who support hunting and those against it, adding: “Images posted on social media in November 2019 showed a Staffordshire officer wearing a non-force issue lanyard, which had been distributed at an event attended by the officer in the course of his official duties, that gave rise to questions about impartiality.
“The officer was given words of advice about the need for all officers and staff to ensure they do not engage in any activity, including in this instance wearing a non-force issue lanyard, which may call their impartiality into question and undermine confidence in the force’s ability to serve local communities in a fair and balanced way.”
Surrey Police said in a statement: “We acknowledge the concerns raised within the report. Surrey Police works with hunt organisers and hunt monitors during the hunting season to ensure the safety of all those taking part.
“When we are notified that a hunt is taking place, a number of factors are taken into consideration as to whether a police presence is appropriate. The decision to provide a policing presence at a hunt is decided on a case-by-case basis, taking many factors into account.
“Surrey Police employs dedicated rural crime officers to work with our rural communities, including working with hunt liaison officers and anti-hunt liaison officers in an impartial and positive way to meet the needs of both groups, and to investigate any allegations of offences made.
“In relation to the specific incidents mentioned in the report, each case was assessed by one of our rural crime officers and all lines of enquiry were thoroughly investigated.”
A spokesperson for the CPS, which has legal guidance on prosecuting offences, said: “The CPS is committed to prosecuting unlawful hunting and wider wildlife crime. We carefully consider every case passed to us by police and will not hesitate to charge whenever the legal test is met.
“The CPS has a dedicated network of Crown Prosecutors who act as wildlife crime coordinators, and we work closely with specialist police officers and the National Wildlife Crime Unit to tackle all types of wildlife crime, including unlawful fox hunting.”
The Independent also asked the National Police Chiefs’ Council to comment but it did not respond by the time of publication.