One of Britain’s leading hunting figures has been charged following a police investigation into webinars in which advocates allegedly discussed how to cover up their activities and avoid prosecution.
Mark Hankinson, the director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, was charged by Devon and Cornwall Police with intentionally encouraging or assisting others to commit an offence under the Hunting Act, the force said.
The 60-year-old resident of Sherborne in Dorset is due to appear before Plymouth Magistrates’ Court on 4 March.
While police have investigated the webinars covering two separate dates, the force said the charges related to a digital meeting of hunting advocates on 11 August last year.
A string of landowners banned trail-hunting on their property after specialist officers confirmed they would work with the Crown Prosecution Service to assess the secretly recorded meetings for criminal offences.
One of the online meetings was allegedly attended by more than 100 hunters, many of them hunt masters, representing more than half of the country’s established foxhunts.
Hunting wild mammals, including foxes, with dogs has been illegal since 2005 – but hunts say they stay within the law by laying scent trails for hounds to follow.
Opponents to the practice dispute whether such trails are ever laid, instead insisting hounds are trained to track down foxes in autumn cub-hunting.
When police first began investigating, Forestry England, which manages the country’s 1,500 publicly owned woods, said in response that no hunts would be allowed. Natural Resources Wales and the Lake District National Park quickly followed suit in a move that was celebrated by conservationists.
At the same time the Hunting Office, which administrates hunting with hounds across the UK, issued a statement aimed at hunters and supporters that dismissed claims of impropriety,
It said: “The Hunting Office is facing allegations that training webinars run during August were organised for the purposes of covering up unlawful hunting.
“The truth is that two, hour-long, Hunting Office webinars clearly dealt with the operation and promotion of legal trail hunting and managing animal rights activism.
“The allegation that they were organised to discuss covering up unlawful activities is totally incorrect and can only be made by taking a few individual short comments completely out of context.
“As you will be aware hunts face almost daily spurious allegations of illegal activity from anti-hunt saboteurs and professional activists, and therefore not only have to operate within the law, but also have to be able overtly to demonstrate that they are doing so at any time.
“We would encourage you all to avoid commenting on these allegations on social media or other public forums.”