Smokescreen was to cope with ‘aggressive saboteurs’, says hunt chief

Smokescreen was to cope with ‘aggressive saboteurs’, says hunt chief
Mark Hankinson says he would have written a different speech had he known his words would be read in court

A leading huntsman has told a court he was educating fellow riders in how to follow the law during confidential webinars that were leaked online.

Mark Hankinson, director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA), said the Zoom meetings were organised to manage the presence of “aggressive saboteurs”.

Videos of the webinars were posted by anti-hunt activists who claimed they revealed how hunters discussed creating a “smokescreen” for the illegal hunting of wildlife.

It is legal for riders and hounds to follow a scent laid before a hunt instead of chasing a fox. But it’s claimed Hankinson gave advice on avoiding being caught out during outlawed activities.

Hankinson, 60, of Sherborne, Dorset, denies intentionally encouraging or assisting the commission of an offence under the Hunting Act 2004, which banned chasing wild mammals with dogs in England and Wales.

During his trial at Westminster magistrates’ court, when asked about his use of the term “smokescreen”, Hankinson said he meant creating one so that huntsmen could continue their “legal and legitimate” trail-hunting without interference by saboteurs.

After the Zoom meetings were leaked last August, big landowners including the National Trust, Forestry England, Lake District National Park, United Utilities and Natural Resources Wales suspended licences for trail hunting.

Asked to explain his language during the webinars, Hankinson said there needed to be “clear, visible and plausible” trail-laying.

“The people we are trying to deceive with a smokescreen are the saboteurs who are trying to destroy a day’s hunting,” he said.

He added: “Looking back in hindsight… if I knew I was going to be hauled over this [in court] I would have written a complete different speech. My intention was not to mislead,” he said.

The Hunting Office, of which Hankinson is an employee and which represents more than 170 hunting packs in England and Wales, hosted the webinars.

Lord Benjamin Mancroft, former chairman of the MFHA, chaired them.

The court also heard evidence for the defence from Nicholas Leeming, joint master of the Cottesmore Hunt, who said he found the webinars “gave us good guidance” and were “extremely instructive”.

Hankinson was arrested after the League Against Cruel Sports submitted complaints to police about the content of the meetings.

After three days of evidence, the hearing was adjourned. Hankinson will be back in court on 15 October, when deputy chief magistrate Tan Ikram is due to issue a reserved judgment.