Melbreak Huntsman Christopher Nixon convicted of assault (Part One)

On the 12th of June, Christopher Nixon, the Melbreak Hunt’s huntmaster, was convicted of the common assault of Darren Ward, and fined a total of £945. The assault by Nixon, who was challenged while walking with seven dogs on land owned by Mr Ward, was recorded on a phone and used as evidence in court.

The court case wasn’t covered by local media – the reporter was sick that day – but there is far more to this story than the headline might suggest.

The background that led up to this assault and the legislation that hunts are apparently exploiting, is just as important as the assault itself. It also highlights just how frequently hunts trespass (contradicting what Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance often asserts) and the efforts that landowners – who simply want to have the right to say no to access and have that request respected – are forced to make to keep them out.

Details like these are rarely discussed, but in this case Mr Ward (Darren) has given Protect the Wild specifics of his long and frustrating attempts to keep lawbreaking hunts off his land – which included sending six hunts a pre-action letter [see below] signed by ten local landowners (who have formed Landowners Against Hunting With Dogs) explicitly denying the hunts permission to go onto their land (which was carefully mapped and highlighted). He has also sent us the two-minute video, filmed on the 2nd of January this year, that secured the assault conviction.

Between us, we’ve decided to write up the report in two parts: the first looking at the background that culminated with the assault itself; the second analysing the video from a Protectors of the Wild perspective, which we both think will be extremely useful for anyone finding themselves in a similar position when confronting a hunt (Protectors of the Wild is our free database which has been designed to ‘put eyes in the field’ by helping us all to Recognise, Record, and Report crime and wildlife crime: links to Protectors pages are preceded by > – so, for example, > The Hunting Act 2004).

While hunt lobbyists may try to say that the incident below is trivial, it is nothing of the sort. Any assault is a crime, and everyone involved in tackling illegal hunting will have heard accounts like this time and time again. It relates to a pattern of harassment and intimidation that many, many people in the countryside are subject to. Behaviour like this wouldn’t be tolerated on a high street, and there is absolutely no reason why it should be tolerated because it takes place in the countryside.

Hunts simply don’t care what other people think. They lie and they exploit any loophole in the law they can find. And they rely on the public not speaking out because they fear intimidation from their neighbour.

And for years they have also relied on police forces doing absolutely nothing to stop them and absolutely nothing to help the individuals whose land they ride over. It takes a lot to speak out. This must change. The police need to make sure that individuals like Darren Ward are protected from the thuggish elements within hunting. There must be no ‘retribution’ for telling the truth.

Finally, the law on hunting must be replaced, the exemptions removed and the loopholes closed. Protect the Wild is campaigning for a new Bill that will end hunting for good. For more information please go to A Proper Ban on Hunting and please sign our petition to support our Hunting of Mammals Bill.






Fell packs and the pre-action letter

The > Hunting Act 2004 banned hunting with hounds, but crucial exemptions were inserted by pro-hunting Parliamentarians to allow hunting to continue largely unchanged.

One of these exemptions is so-called ‘trail hunting’, a supposedly ‘lawful activity’ invented after the passing of the Hunting Act that allows hounds to follow pre-laid scent trails rather than chase foxes. Trails are rarely if ever laid, though, and hounds – trained to hunt from a young age – routinely roam over huge areas of countryside under the direction of huntmasters where they ‘accidentally’ come across foxes. ‘Trail hunting’ is now almost universally acknowledged as a smokescreen for illegal hunting, discredited completely by the infamous series of webinars given by senior hunt staff on how to use so-called ‘trail hunting’ as a smokescreen for illegal hunting which was leaked online by the Hunt Saboteurs Association.

‘Trail hunting’ is typically done on the back of a horse, but where the ground is steep and uneven, like areas of the Lake District where Darren Ward and his neighbours live, ‘trail hunting’ is often done on foot by what are known as ‘fell packs’. Despite the Hunting Act and despite ‘trail hunting’  – on foot or horseback – being permanently banned on their land by both the National Trust and the Lake District National Park Authority who own huge areas of the Lake District between them, numerous fell packs still hunt across Cumbria and the Lake District.

How? Largely by trespassing on areas of land owned by people like Darren and Landowners Against Hunting With Dogs…

Part of the pre-action letter sent to local fell packs Nov 2022

Six packs were specifically singled out in the Landowners Against Hunting With Dogs’ pre-action letter banning them from their land: Cumbria Beagles, North Cumberland Foxhounds, Black Combe and District Beagles, Eskdale and Ennerdale Foxhounds, Blencathra Foxhounds, and the Melbreak Foxhounds.

The Melbreak are a particularly infamous fell pack, in the news in November 2022 when a fox was photographed cowering on the roof of a house to escape the Melbreak’s hounds (see ‘Shocking moment fox cowers on residential roof to escape hunt‘). It was a senior member of the Melbreak that was convicted of Darren’s assault.


Darren Ward

Darren Ward owns 160 acres of open access land near Loweswater, inside the boundaries of the world-famous Lake District National Park. A public footpath runs through part of the land which is properly and well-maintained. He and his partner have set up a CIC, Buy Land Plant Trees CIC – Helping nature recover, primarily aimed at giving the land back to nature. The local area has been long recognised for its value to wildlife. It is especially good for voles, which in turn attract foxes. It is, in his words, “very galling that the hunt uses our fox-attractive land to satisfy their blood lust”.

Darren has contacted Cumbria Police on a number of occasions to report the hunts.

He told Protect the Wild that up until fairly recently the response to his calls had been underwhelming and unenthusiastic, but he feels ‘reasonably confident’ that has changed since four officers (a chief inspector, an inspector and two PCs) visited him and other land owners also harassed by the hunt early this year to discuss their concerns. A new system of logging reported incidents has been implemented, and incident log numbers are now texted directly to him. He has also been told that because gaining convictions under the Hunting Act 2004 is very difficult, police officers have started to look more into issues around the Traffic Act and > quad bikes, control of dogs in public, anti-social behaviour – and assault.

He feels that there has been a change in the way that forces are generally responding to hunts. While it’s difficult to say how widespread that may be, it was reported in February 2022 that several police forces had begun to recognise hunts as ‘organised crime gangs’. High-profile and blatantly illegal incidents saw police take action throughout 2022 and early 2023 (by which time the visit to Darren’s home had taken place). In December 2022 Warwickshire Police took the highly unusual step of issuing the Warwickshire Hunt with a Community Protection Notice. In February 2023 the general public was disgusted and outraged by footage released by ITV News and shared online that showed members of the Avon Vale Hunt illegally digging out a fox and throwing the terrified animal to their hounds. Just days later, senior police officer Matt Longman, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for “Fox Hunting Crime” described illegal hunting as “prolific”.

There is still a long way to go, and serious errors of judgement still occur, like Wiltshire Police’s Rural Crime Team announcing in February 2023 a new recruit with known links to both the Beaufort and Avon Vale Hunts  (the latter at the time being investigated by Wiltshire Police itself for the digging out crime!). Nevertheless, some welcome progress (albeit not yet universal) is being made.

But we say again, police forces across the country need to understand how threatened people feel if they stand up to hunts – and they MUST ensure that those people are protected and their concerns are listened to and taken seriously.



The CRoW Act and the devious nature of the fell packs

Darren first contacted Protect the Wild earlier this year. He emailed us shortly after we first posted Protectors of the Wild, which carried a page on > The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (known widely as the CRoW Act). The CRoW Act covers England and Wales and is a limited form of ‘right to roam’, giving a public right of access to land mapped as ‘open country’ (mountain, moor, heath and down). This includes privately-owned land in parts of the Lake District.

Darren said that all the local hunts were very aware of the Landowners Against Hunting With Dogs ban on accessing their land, but hunts were still doing so anyway. When challenged they were frequently citing access rights supposedly given to them under the CroW Act. His understanding of the CRoW Act was that it may allow public access to land but that it certainly didn’t give anyone permission to hunt. He wondered whether we were aware of any examples he could use where the Act had been cited by hunts but those claims had been fought off.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have any examples we could pass on, but even though (as Protect the Wild states on every page of Protectors) we are not lawyers and the information we post is not legal guidance, the CRoW Act legislation is absolutely clear: in no way at all does it permit fox hunting.

For instance, the Act:

  • Gives access to land for ‘the purposes of open-air recreation’ – which means activities such as hiking, climbing, running, birdwatching and picnicking, not hunting.
  • States that access is ‘on foot only’ (not on quad bikes or horseback)
  • States that a person can not take with them ‘any animal other than a dog’, and dogs must be on short fixed leads (of no more than two metres) between 1 March and 31 July to protect ground-nesting birds, or at any time when they are near livestock (‘near’ is not defined unfortunately).
  • Even more relevantly Schedule 2 section (j) of the CRoW Act states explicitly that the Act ‘does not entitle a person to be on any land if, in or on that land, he engages in any operations of or connected with hunting, shooting, fishing, trapping, snaring, taking or destroying of animals, birds or fish or has with him any engine, instrument or apparatus used for hunting, shooting, fishing, trapping, snaring, taking or destroying animals, birds or fish’.


So how could hunts like the Melbreak be claiming access to Darren’s land under the CRoW Act? It allows open-air recreation only; it gives access on foot only; dogs should be kept on leads during the last month of the so-called ‘hunting season’ and should be on leads ‘near’ livestock; and according to the legislation anyone using the permissions given under the CRoW Act must not engage in any form of hunting whatsoever.

Enough surely to make any claim by a hunt to land access via the Crow Act ridiculous, brazen and disingenuous.

But fell packs (and hunts in general) are nothing if not devious and dishonest chancers. Fell packs repeatedly claim access because they are on foot and not using horses (which is true) and say that if they have dogs they are either ‘trail hunting’ (which is untrue and requires landowner permission anyway) or simply ‘exercising their dogs’ and not hunting with them (which is again untrue). As Nixon states openly in the video of the assault, when challenged they will say that the dogs are not ‘hounds’ but ‘personal dogs’. This brings up some interesting points of law which we’ll consider in Part Two.

Overall, though, there are obvious parallels with the ways that hunts are using confusion and exemptions to sidestep the Hunting Act. And as with the Hunting Act, getting someone into a court of law and then proving they are lying is notoriously difficult…a charge of attacking a member of the public while on camera is not quite so easy to wriggle out of though.

Something that occurred to both Darren and ourselves when we were thinking about the CRoW Act is that it states that access is allowed ‘with a dog’ – but nowhere specifies how many dogs or how many dogs per person that means. We both wondered if that might be one way to push back against hunts: surely the legislation was designed so that someone could walk their dog (or maybe two dogs) on open access land, not so that they could take a whole pack with them?

Intrigued, Protect the Wild left a message on the Natural England Open Access helpline asking for clarification. Later the same day we were called back by a very friendly member of staff who said that he’d asked around various departments but the answer was – no-one knew. Presumably this scenario hadn’t been envisaged when the Act was drawn up (fox hunters testing the limit of the law? Who could have guessed?) and he said that as far as anyone could tell this section of the legislation had never been put to the test. He thought in all likelihood it would require a ruling in court to obtain a definitive answer.

No clear answer then, but if they’re really serious about finding alternative ways to tackle the scourge of illegal hunting and the harassment and assaults that follow it around, perhaps this is another angle for local police to look into.


The assault

By early 2023 relations between the landowners and the hunts that they were working so hard to keep off their land were breaking down completely, setting the scene for what happened on January 2nd.

On that day (and he believes the date is relevant as he feels sure the hunts were out thinking that sabs would not be back on the ground just after the New Year meets), Darren was warily watching a hunt (presumably the Melbreak) working the valleys. As he describes below he then saw an individual, who turned out to be Christopher Nixon, walking across the crags above him. He hiked up and challenged Nixon just after he’d gone over a stile onto Darren’s land with five foxhounds and two terriers.

He described to Protect the Wild what happened:

“On the 2nd of January this year, my partner and I were up on Low Fell to make sure the Melbreak Hunt didn’t use our land to illegally hunt foxes. They’ve been using our land regularly despite being served with legal requests not to do so and removing all their access rights. After spending a few futile hours running about and keeping an eye on them we noticed an individual on Watching Crag just north of Raven Crag. He had hounds and two terriers (locked together with a ridged chain as is the way with fox terriers to prevent them from entering foxholes too readily). He moved south onto our land travelling along the Wainwright route looking for something to kill. We were about half a kilometre south so started to move toward him to catch him in the act. As I approached filming him and calmly thanking him for providing evidence of the hunt’s contempt for our requests, he became aggressive and threatening. He ran at me with his raised walking stick and attempted to hit me. He would have beaten me if it wasn’t for my partner arriving and also filming.”

The encounter was recorded on separate phones by both Darren and his partner. We’ll analyse the video – which does not show physical violence – in more detail in the second part of this post, but it’s notable immediately how polite and measured Darren is – and how belligerent Nixon is from the outset.


It’s also interesting to note that Darren says above ‘attempted to hit me’. Contrary to what many people might think, ‘assault’ doesn’t need to involve contact of any sort.

In fact, common assault (which is covered by s.39 Criminal Justice Act 1988) is when a person inflicts violence on someone else (battery) or makes them think they are going to be attacked. Threatening words, running a finger across a throat, or raising a fist is enough for the crime to have been committed provided the victim thinks that they are about to be attacked.

Nixon is a big man. As the video shows he is holding a thick walking stick, swears aggressively, and launches himself at Darren. It’s difficult to imagine that he isn’t trying to intimidate, and little wonder that Darren thought he was about to be hit. Which is why Nixon was convicted of common assault in court.



With the caveat that we’re not lawyers and not providing legal guidance, in Part Two we look in more detail at the video as we feel it might be very useful for anyone finding themselves in a similar position. We’ll discuss the different forms of assault. Explain the rules about filming someone. And in explaining the exemptions in law given to ‘working dogs’ we ask whether Nixon could have been prosecuted because his dogs – which he clearly says are his ‘own personal dogs’ – weren’t wearing collars.


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