An undercover investigator at the centre of three Northumberland huntsmen’s convictions claims the “horrific” practice of fox hunting is still widespread.
Andy Swinburne, of the League Against Cruel Sports, gave evidence at the trial of Joint Master Timothy Wyndham Basil Smalley, Huntsman Ian McKie and Kennel Huntsman Andrew Proe of the College Valley and North Northumberland Hunt, where they were found guilty of hunting a wild mammal with dogs on Tuesday at Berwick Magistrates’ Court.
In an exclusive interview with The Journal, the 52-year-old has there is still ‘widespread flouting’ of the Hunting Act across the country - not just in the North of England.
He has also appealed to the public to help prosecute individuals responsible for disobeying the 2004 Hunting Act, which outlawed hunting with dogs.
Mr Swinburne, who worked first for the Metropolitan Police before a 22-year Northumbria Police career, including seven years as a wildlife crime officer, and was one of two investigation officers who secretly filmed the actions of the hunt near West Kyloe Farm on February 27, equipped with hi-tech cameras, binoculars, two-way radios and a GPS device.
He said: “In relation to the investigation and covert surveillance operation on the College Valley and North Northumberland Hunt, intelligence had been gained from a number of sources indicating the hunt was potentially engaged in wildlife crime and after detailed planning the operation was carried out.
“I was very happy with the verdict and sentence that the District Judge passed, and I hope it sends a strong message to hunts across the country not to break the law and cause harm to animals.”
During his wildlife crime career, which saw him work for the International Foundation for Animal Welfare in 2011 and 2012 before joining the League, Mr Swinburne has investigated a wide range of wildlife crimes, including mistreatment of endangered species, bird egg thieves, bird crime, animal blood sports and illegal hunting.
He explained: “I always had a passion for animals - for wildlife - and always enjoyed the countryside. I had an interest in learning about and investigating wildlife crime.
“Our investigation team is an intelligence led organisation which conducts operations against illegal hunting as well as other illegal activities such as hare hunting, otter hunting, badger baiting, dog fights and stag hunting, where there is sufficient intelligence to suggest criminal or likely criminal behaviour will occur.
“The operations have to be justifiable and proportional to achieve success in detecting illegal behaviour which can be passed on to the authorities for further investigation and potential prosecution.”
He added: “Having been a wildlife crime officer and investigation officer for many years and having carried out multiple operations and gained valuable intelligence, I believe there is widespread flouting of the Hunting Act across the country and it not just applicable to the North of England.
“I am passionate about bringing to justice those who take pleasure in subjecting our nation’s wildlife and animals to cruelty, including foxes.
“All too often this can result in horrific suffering and ultimately death of the animal. Many perpetrators show no regard whatsoever for the law of the land and have even less respect for the welfare or safety of their own animals.
“I would urge anybody with concerns about possible wildlife crime, particularly blood sports, to call the League’s Wildlife Crimewatch number or if they believe a crime is being committed, their local police force.”
Smalley, McKie and Proe were each convicted on one charge of hunting a wild mammal with dogs, while another count was not proven.
Tim Bonner, director of campaigns at the Countryside Alliance, said: “We were surprised by this judgement and will support the individuals from the College Valley in whatever further action they may decide to take.
“We believe that the hunt was operating openly and that no attempt was made to break the Hunting Act.”
The League’s Wildlife Crimewatch team can be contacted on (01483) 361108.