Adopt

‘Balaclava wearing thugs”: Wiltshire PCC Philip Wilkinson doesn’t like sabs.

When Wiltshire councillor Jonathon Seed was disbarred from standing for the role of Swindon and Wiltshire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), animal rights campaigners celebrated. An ex-army major and ex-fox hunt master, Seed has a long history of fox hunting, and was master of two local hunts for 20 years.

But Swindon and Wiltshire’s PCC seat was then won by another Tory, Philip Wilkinson, a man who is proving to be just as impartial in his policing of illegal hunting as Seed would have been.

Wilkinson does, of course, pledge to tackle rural crime, but this doesn’t extend as far as cracking down on fox hunters. The hunting lobby is very aware that supporting pro-hunting Tories to get into PCC positions will enable them to continue their hunting largely unchallenged. So having Wilkinson in this key role is a massive boon to them.

Wilkinson himself felt confident that he would win the role of PCC, being “blessed in living in such a true-blue county”. Like Seed, Wilkinson is a Tory shaped by a very long spell in the army, including in the Royal Artillery and the Special Forces. It is, perhaps, unsurprising then, that he speaks with an entitled obnoxiousness and impatience when challenged about Wiltshire’s policing of hunts.

There are a number of hunts under Wilkinson’s watch: Avon Vale Hunt, Royal Artillery Hunt, and often VWH Hunt and Blackmore and Sparkford Vale Hunt too, as they span counties. Courtenay Tracy, which hunts mink, is also kennelled at Avon Vale. He hasn’t been in his role all that long, but the hunts – and their supporters – must be rejoicing as he consistently ignores police bias and police harassment of hunt saboteurs, and is completely disinterested when shown photos of mauled foxes.

When Keep The Ban contacted Wilkinson’s office to ask him to comment on the biased policing of hunts in Wiltshire, the staff refused to answer. They told us it was an “operational issue” and should be directed to another department.

A consistently useless and biased police force

When looking at Wilkinson’s — and Wiltshire police — bias, it’s useful to outline a few key examples of incidents that have occurred with the Avon Vale Hunt.

The Avon Vale is notorious for its violence and criminal activity, which is well documented by sabs. A few violent incidents that stand out are:

  • In 2005, Avon Vale hunt stewards were arrested after attacking those attempting to monitor a hunt.

  • In 2009 saboteurs reported being attacked by “15 armed men wearing balaclavas”.

  • In early 2020 the Independent reported that saboteurs were chased by masked pro-hunt men on quad bikes.

  • On 27 December 2021, Wiltshire police sent just two police officers to the famous Avon Vale Boxing Day meet, one of whom — PC Laura Hughes — is said to be a paid-member and rides with the Avon Vale Hunt. The failure of the police to intervene when protesters were being harassed, and their failure to call for back-up, emboldened Avon Vale thugs as they assaulted protesters. Bath Hunt Saboteurs filmed the assaults, and stated:

“Wiltshire police knew there would be violence, and they chose to send a fox hunter to watch it. No wonder the police didn’t intervene, it was her friends beating people in the street.”

  • And most recently, in 2022, a hunt sab was hospitalised by Avon Vale staff. The Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) reported:

“Alongside a Hunting Act investigation [into Avon Vale], there are investigations into assaults on sabs: in January, a Bristol sab was punched in the head by an Avon Vale terrier man who had been stopped digging out a fox from a badger sett. The saboteur was knocked unconscious and spent several nights in hospital with a brain bleed…”

Despite Avon Vale Hunt’s consistently crooked form, Wiltshire police continues to put all of their resources into monitoring and harassing hunt saboteurs — the very people who are trying to prevent illegal activity from taking place. For example, Devon County Hunt Saboteurs reported on the policing of one of Avon Vale’s meets, which took place on 19 February. It wrote:

“Sab vehicles were stopped by police, sabs were unlawfully detained on public footpaths, a sab was arrested and later released without charge, and other sabs were threatened with arrest for trespassing. The same police officer who threatened to arrest sabs was earlier seen laughing and shaking hands with members of the hunt. A formal complaint will be made against him and his colleagues.”

The sabs continued:

“Whenever the hunt were drawing a covert and flushing wildlife in all directions, police Forward Intelligence Teams had their cameras trained exclusively on sabs. When we asked why they weren’t focusing on the wildlife crimes happening right in front of them, they told us it’s ‘not the police’s job to say what’s right and what’s wrong’.”

Impartial”

After these events, Action Against Fox Hunting wrote to Wilkinson, asking him why Wiltshire police is biased in their operations against sabs when they attend hunts. Ironically, his reply emphasised the importance of impartiality. He said:

“it is not my job or that of Wiltshire Police to pander to any agenda simply enforce the law impartially.”

Protect the Wild contacted Wilkinson’s office to ask the PCC about Wiltshire police’s obvious bias, particularly at the Boxing Day meet. We were told:

“there is a criminal process, which is currently ongoing through the courts, and it would inappropriate to comment further. In any event, the questions relate to operational policing and would have to be directed to Wiltshire Police press office.”

While he speaks time and again about “impartiality”, his office palms off questions about obvious police bias to another department. It is all too easy for PCCs to wipe their hands of taking action on obvious fox hunting crimes, and of the policing of these crimes.

But let’s compare Wilkinson to North Wales PCC Andy Dunbobbin, who believes that the Hunting Act is “not fit for purpose”. Dunbobbin announced that there would be an independent review into hunting in his region. Hitting back at criticism from both the Countryside Alliance and his PCC predecessor, who slated his announcement of a review, Dunbobbin said:

Far from being either naive of operational issues, or being unconcerned with rural matters, my Police and Crime Plan places the tackling and preventing of rural and wildlife crime, and the people of North Wales, at its heart and I make no apology for fighting their corner.

This begs the question why, even when presented with numerous cases of wildlife crime and hunt violence, Wilkinson can’t take these same steps.

Covertly” attending hunts

In trying to prove that he has seen sabs which he calls “black clad, balaclava wearing thugs” terrorising hunts, Wilkinson admitted to a member of public that he has “been to two hunts covertly”.

Wiltshire Hunt Saboteurs urged its supporters to submit FOI requests to the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Wiltshire and Swindon, arguing:

There’s no such thing as our PCC doing a ‘covert’ op. All of his visits and interactions as PCC will have to be recorded, and for transparency they must also be disclosed in an FOI.”

Wilkinson was forced to issue a reply, in which he said:

I have attended hunt meetings in my personal capacity, as a resident, a few times to witness, first-hand, what happens. I used to make it clear that I was not attending in an official capacity and was not recognised as such when doing so. The use of word ‘covert’ in this instance was loose terminology. I should have made that clearer.

When Protect the Wild contacted Wilkinson’s office for further comment, we were told: “He will not be commenting further on the matter.”

So even if he wasn’t attending hunts as a “covert” PCC, he was, likely, attending as a hunt supporter. If he had been there in his personal capacity, witnessing with “impartiality”, he would have seen with his own eyes Wiltshire police’s bias against sabs, and he might have even witnessed a fox being mauled to death. Anyone acting “impartially” would then have been forced to act accordingly.

Obnoxious language

While holding a top role, Wilkinson should be counted on to be respectful in his correspondence with the public. Instead, he is obnoxious and sarcastic. When asked on a Facebook post whether he will tackle the unlawful persecution of foxes and badgers, he replied:

Maybe we should start a campaign to stop badgers killing hedgehogs.”

He has also made a comment, which was written when he was “angry”, saying he would ignore “unbalanced hunt BS from the sabs and the other class warriors”.

Protect the Wild spoke to a local hunt sab who is regularly on the ground in Wiltshire. He told us:

“After sabs managed to get rid of [Jonathon] Seed, the Tories put forward someone with the same libertarian views on hunting. But Wilkinson isn’t just anti-sab, he’s just completely incompetent. He rants on social media and in real life and is totally unprofessional. He makes stuff up and then backtracks.

Most PCCs manage to take their £70,000 salary and never get noticed by anyone. It’s not usually a controversial role. He’s not old-school Tory, and has never had much to do with politics from what I hear, so it makes you wonder how and why he was picked for the role.”

Hold Wilkinson to account

The hunting community has found itself in more and more hot water recently, especially since former Director of the Master of Fox Hounds Association, Mark Hankinson, was found guilty in court for encouraging illegal fox hunting (a conviction later overturned on appeal). Hunts and their staff are finding it more difficult to get away with murdering foxes, and some, like Royal Artillery huntsman Charles Carter, are also finding themselves on trial.

The spotlight is on both the Avon Vale and the Royal Artillery hunts right now. And so the spotlight is also on Wilkinson to speak out about these hunts’ criminal activity in his area, and if he doesn’t, to hold him to account.

  • Feature image copyright BBC