Leicestershire Police can’t decide whether it has powers to stop illegal hunting

Hunt saboteurs were out in numbers on Saturday 18 February, monitoring and sabbing the Cottesmore Hunt. The sabs witnessed the hunt chasing a fox in full view of Leicestershire police. Following the event, the police stated to Protect The Wild that officers had no powers on the ground to intervene and stop the hunt.

Northants Sabs were out that day. They reported on events, and said:

“Hounds soon went into cry and as we turned around on the road, a fox ran straight past us with the Cottesmore hounds only metres behind… As the fox scrambled under the hedge, one sab dived across the gap in the hedge to block the hounds breaking through to the fox. This gave the fox vital seconds to escape. This incident was witnessed by senior master Bee Bell who, when challenged, remained silent and rode off. One Leicestershire police officer also witnessed this blatant act of illegal hunting from the Cottesmore and demanded to master William Bell that they call their hounds off. Hounds would then be put back up to Round Hill Spinney to try and search for the fox once more.”

The incident was also caught on video. Indeed, a police officer is filmed saying to hunt staff:

“Get some control of those dogs, now! They’re chasing foxes.”

But, of course, this did nothing to stop the hunt from continuing their illegal business.

Can police actively stop a hunt on the ground, or not?

Protect The Wild contacted Leicestershire Police to ask the force why it took no further action against the Cottesmore that day. The police’s media relations officer replied that “a crime report has been created and an investigation is continuing.”

But the officer also stated:

“I have spoken to officers from our rural crime team and been informed that, under the Hunting Act, police do not have any powers to intervene and stop a hunt in progress.”

A Freedom of Information request, which was released back in 2006, confirms as much. The response to the FOI included a letter from the now-defunct Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), dated in 2005. This letter offered “tactical considerations for forces” about how to enforce the Hunting Act, but was “not intended as a template into which forces should feel obliged to “shoehorn” their individual circumstances”.

The letter went on to say:

“It is difficult to envisage a situation in which it will be practicable for police to intercept a hunt and persons in the act of hunting – indeed, to do so is likely to present considerable difficulties, both in executing such action and discharging our duty for prisoners’ property (including animals). It follows then that an entirely appropriate reaction may well be evidence gathering, either by police or in statement form from members of the public, to identify offences and offenders with a view to subsequent action, whether by summons or arrest.”

The ACPO has since been replaced by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC). Protect The Wild contacted the NPCC, asking it to clarify whether police on the ground have powers to shut down a meet in order to prevent a fox from being killed, but received no reply.

Contradicting itself

We then contacted Leicestershire Police once more, asking the force:

“to clarify what it means when it says that under the Hunting Act police are not able to stop or intervene when a hunt is taking place? Please can you confirm that this is the instruction for all police officers in England and Wales, even if they see that a fox is about to be killed?”

The force then contradicted its original answer, saying that it can, indeed, actively intervene. It said:

“A hunt in progress that isn’t committing any offences would not be able to be intervened with. If a criminal offence was being carried out, officers would have powers to intervene.”

Protect the Wild reiterated that a crime had indeed taken place – after all, their officer even commented on film that a fox was being chased, and they themselves had filed a crime report – but nevertheless, the hunt had been allowed to continue with its day. We asked the police to clarify:

“whether in that situation the police could have stopped the hunt and forced it to pack up because a crime was taking place, or whether it wasn’t in their power (like you initially said in the first correspondence with us?)”

But the force refused to directly answer the question, saying instead:

“Officers are aware of the incident and the footage posted online. A crime report has been created and an investigation is continuing.”

The role of sabs is vital

The police’s response shows just how vital the role of hunt saboteurs is on the ground. All too often the police don’t bother to do anything when they see illegal hunting, and this email correspondence has confirmed that even if a fox is about to be torn apart, it’s unlikely that the police will act, anyway.

As for the Cottesmore Hunt, it is certain to continue to make headlines before the hunting season ends. On 14 February 2023, police arrested huntsman Sam Jones after he trampled a hunt saboteur with his horse. And on 25 October 2022 Northants Hunt Saboteurs shared footage, showing a speeding car hitting a sab during a Cottesmore Hunt meet. Leicestershire police went on to arrest a woman on suspicion of attempted wounding with intent. The hunt insisted that “the incident did not involve any member of the Cottesmore Hunt.”

The hunt is continuously caught by sabs hunting foxes. And so if the only useful remit of the police on the ground is “evidence gathering”, hunt staff will continue to get away with murder. After all, too many Hunting Act investigations and court cases fall apart because the CPS deems that evidence gathered isn’t quite good enough for a conviction, or because intent must be proved in order to find hunt staff guilty.

Showing our support to hunt saboteurs and monitors is essential. After all, who will save animals if the sabs aren’t at the scene? Certainly not the police.

You can donate to Northants Hunt Sabs here.