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Melbreak Huntsman Christopher Nixon convicted of assault (Part Two)

As we reported in Part One of this article, in June 2023 Christopher Nixon (pictured above), a huntsman with the notorious Melbreak Hunt was convicted of the common assault of Darren Ward and fined £945.

Mr Ward (Darren) had been trying for months to keep the Melbreak and five other fell packs off his land, which lies inside the Lake District National Park near Loweswater. That was proving incredibly difficult because laws banning hunting and land access are complex and far too many exemptions exist that hunts are exploiting. But while in many cases hunts simply ignore the law (and ignore landowners who don’t support them) what constitutes assault is clear. In early January 2023 when Darren found Nixon with seven dogs crossing his land yet again, he reminded him that hunts were banned, and recorded the assault on him that subsequently took place.

Darren has given Protect the Wild the details of the incident (which we covered in Part One) and permission to reproduce video taken on the day. We’ve chosen to publish a relatively short edit. It does not show a physical attack, but nonetheless highlights in around ninety seconds numerous key issues that we both think could be relevant to other members of the public (and even to some more-informed sabs and monitors) who might find themselves in a similar position.

With the caveat that we’re not lawyers and not offering legal guidance, we’re framing the following discussion around Protectors of the Wild, a free resource Protect the Wild has been building to help us all become ‘eyes in the field’ by learning how to recognise, record, and report wildlife crime and wildlife persecution. Protectors pages are arranged as FAQS and aim to answer, for example, questions around assault, trespass, the Hunting Act 2004, the CRoW Act 2000, and the laws on dogs – all of which are pertinent in one way or another to this video.

 


 

The video

The short video below – which does not show the assault but does contain some swearing – was created by splicing together two separate recordings. They were made at the same time, but the second was recorded by Darren’s partner who was standing a little distance from him. Her phone picked up Nixon’s words more clearly as he continued to argue while walking away from Darren and towards her. The first 30 seconds or so of this edit, then, are Darren’s and the last 50 seconds are his partner’s.

 

 

The edited film starts with some contextual footage (note the sheep in the background) and then shows Christopher Nixon of the Melbreak Hunt striding across private land in the Lake District. Nixon is accompanied by five foxhounds (which are loose) and two terriers that are on a ‘couple’ (a short double collar linking them together and – in theory – making it easier to stop them both disappearing down the narrow entrance to a fox hole at the same time: it’s equipment widely used by hunts).

In the video Darren reminds Nixon that he should not be hunting on his land. Nixon repeatedly says that the dogs are his ‘own personal dogs’ implying that he is not hunting and just using the footpath (which cuts through open access land designated under the CRoW Act).

We’ve broken down the questions raised in the video using ‘Protectors of the Wild‘ pages as references and have linked to them prefacing each Protectors link with ‘>’. While some laws are perfectly straightforward, it’s surprising just how many are open to interpretation and – on the ground – appear very difficult to enforce.

But then that might just be us. While we spent months researching the ‘Protectors’ pages we want to reiterate that we’re not lawyers and the information below should not be taken as legal guidance. If on the other hand, anyone who reads this IS a lawyer and would like to offer advice or clarification, we would be very grateful.

 

 

 

 

The importance of recording evidence is absolutely clear. The common assault conviction came about because it was captured on a phone. Whether using a mobile phone or a digital camera, as a general rule it is good practice to have timestamping software turned on or an app installed which can collect the same metadata. Defence solicitors in some hunting cases have argued that video evidence should be thrown out if it’s not timestamped and/or has been edited. Proving hunting (which usually involves proving intent over the course of a chase) is far more complex than proving an assault which may be over in seconds, but the video evidence Darren used in court (which was not edited) clearly showed the assault taking place.

Nixon can be heard complaining (in colourful language) that he is being filmed. The law is clear though. There is nothing preventing people from taking images in public/in a public place. Ironically, if an individual is taking photographs while they are ON private land then technically the land owner’s permission is required: in other words, assuming the law is not different because it’s public access land, as the landowner Darren would have been within his rights to stop Nixon taking photographs or video (he wasn’t in this case, but if he had been) because he was the landowner.

 

 

We’ve mentioned several times that Nixon was convicted of assault.

We elaborated in Part One, but haven’t yet explained on this page that Nixon didn’t actually make physical contact with Darren. Many people think that for them ‘to have been assaulted’ they need to have been hit or at least shoved, but the law is clear: common assault (the least severe form of assault according to the law) does not have to involve physical contact. Threatening words, running a finger across a throat, or raising a fist is enough for a crime to have been committed provided the victim thinks that they are about to be attacked.

In this screenshot taken from the video, Nixon is grim-faced and carrying a large walking stick. On the audio he is swearing, Just a second or two later he launches himself at Darren, who clearly thinks that he is about to get thumped. The fear of attack here is common assault.

Knowing that assault doesn’t necessarily involve physical contact could be very useful to anyone finding themselves in a similar situation and wondering whether to report an incident to the police. Assault is a crime. If there is evidence (or witnesses prepared to come forward) the police must act upon it.

 

 

In Part One of this post we explained how various fell packs have been claiming access rights to land in the Lake District by citing the CRoW Act. We’ll be repeating that explanation here as it has such a bearing on the case.

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. Much like the law in Scotland, that access comes with responsibilities though.

Local hunts were fully aware of the ban on accessing Darren’s land but they were still doing so. When challenged they were frequently citing access rights supposedly given to them under the CRoW Act. However, while the Act does indeed grant access to Darren’s land, the legislation is absolutely clear: in no way at all does it permit fox hunting.

For instance, the Act:

  • Gives access to land expressly for ‘the purposes of open-air recreation’ – which means activities such as hiking, climbing, running, birdwatching and picnicking, not hunting.
  • Staes that access is ‘on foot only’ (not on a quad bike or a horse).
  • States that you can not take with you ‘any animal other than a dog’ and they ‘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’ (how close ‘near’ is, was 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’.

 

In fact, as Darren pointed out via email, not only does coming onto open access land with hounds, horns, radios and any other hunt paraphernalia invalidate access rights under the CRoW Act, but any watcher, scout, or audience (ie supporters or hunt followers) that are there because of the hunt are also engaging in the operation of a hunt and therefore equally lose the access rights given by the Act.

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.

How? Fell packs claim that they are on foot (which is true). They also say they are ‘trail hunting‘ (an invention made after the passing of the > Hunting Act 2004 to enable hunts to carry on much as before while they worked for repeal) but that requires a landowner’s permission. Hunts also claim that the CRoW Act gives them permission to bring ‘a dog’ with them. But the CRoW Act doesn’t specify how many dogs or how many dogs per person that means. 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?

Protect the Wild left a message on the Natural England Open Access helpline asking for clarification on that point. Later the same day we were called back by a 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.

 

 

As well as claiming to be ‘trail hunting’ (and, to reiterate, a hunt needs a landowner’s permission to ‘trail hunt’ and Darren had made clear on multiple occasions that he did not and would not give the hunts permission to come onto his land), as the video clearly shows members of hunts are also claiming that the dogs with them are ‘personal dogs’ – ie not working dogs.

That’s important, because UK laws on, for example, dogs worrying farmed animals, dogs wearing collars, picking up faeces, or preventing dogs from running onto roads are straightforward enough – but as is so often the case exemptions have been made for dogs used for hunting and shooting.

So-called working dogs (which do also include proper working dogs like police dogs and dogs used by rescue organisations as well as gun dogs and hunting hounds) are exempted from some of the laws that cover the companion animals we might live with. Because many hunts involve farmers, and farmers give hunts permission to ride over their land, the legislation was written in such a way that they are exempted from laws on worrying livestock where the hunt has permission to be on the land. The dogs don’t have to wear collars with identifying tags when they’re ‘working’ because when the law was being drafted lobbyists pushed for an exemption saying that collars could tangle a dog up and cause injury (the same reason some gun dogs are tail docked, a mutilation condemned by the British Veterinary Association): so while The Control of Dogs Order 1992 requires every dog while “on a highway [which includes public footpaths] or in a place of public resort to wear a collar with the name and address of the owner inscribed on the collar or on a plate or badge attached to it”, hunting hounds – as anyone who has seen a hunt will know – don’t have to.

At least, while the dog is being used for ‘sporting purposes’.

Which brings us to a relatively minor point but one that perhaps speaks of intent.

An experienced huntsman, Nixon will know the law (even if it is to exploit it rather than conform to it). He will know that exemption about collars and ‘sporting purposes’. When he set out in the morning with the rest of the Melbreak (which, remember, were simultaneously hunting the valleys below the crags) he wanted his dogs to be able to run freely if they got onto a scent. But he says – twice – that the five fox hounds and two terriers with him are his ‘own personal dogs’ – so, just out for a walk on a footpath (which is – in law – a highway). If that’s the case, like every other companion dog in the country they must be wearing a collar with an identifying tag. That is the law.

As can be seen in the featured image and in the screenshot from the video we have posted below, Nixon’s dogs are not wearing collars.

 

Nixon and two of his foxhounds, neither of which are wearing collars with identifying tags

 

It looks to us that Nixon has trapped himself with his own words. By not fitting collars he clearly intended his dogs to be used for ‘sporting purposes’ (ie hunting) and while he legitimately could bring with him ‘a dog’ under the CRoW Act, he was not entitled to bring with him any engine, instrument or apparatus used for hunting, shooting, fishing etc (which is the point that both Darren and his partner can be heard making in the video).

Darren is also heard saying that the dogs must be on a lead. Turning to that point, there is actually no law that specifically requires dogs to be kept on a lead. Dogs must be kept under control at all times, and it would be difficult based on the footage to claim that Nixon’s seven dogs are out of control or dangerous in any way (though anyone who had also been using that footpath and suddenly found five foxhounds bounding towards them might have legitimately felt at least anxious).

However, the CRoW Act, which hunts are citing and which gives access with ‘a dog’, specifically says that “dogs must be kept 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“.

The incident took place in January, no birds are nesting, so that is not relevant here. But as can be seen in the first few seconds of the video, there are sheep in the field. They appear to scatter – but it’s not obvious whether that was because they were moving out of the way of Nixon or his dogs. They’re not scattering in panic, the dogs appear to ignore them. Should the dogs – who are not working according to Nixon – be on leads, then? The sheep and the dogs are in the same field, but this seems like another of these instances (like the definition of ‘a dog’) where the law isn’t clear: just what is meant by ‘near’?

What ‘near’ means might seem like common sense, but unless it’s defined is it one metre, five metres, in the same field? Defence barristers have got hunts and huntsman off using semantics far more obscure than this in the past. If anyone reading this has experience of a case where ‘near’ was defined, we’d be very grateful to hear it.

 

 

Finally, is Nixon trespassing on Darren’s land?

It’s difficult to answer that. We’re not lawyers and we don’t have experience of hearing arguments in court, but in England and Wales (the law is different in Scotland), trespassing is defined as entering – or putting property on – land that belongs to someone else without their permission (technically “unjustifiable interference with land which is in the immediate and exclusive possession of another”). Nixon does not have permission, so that should be straightforward…

Not so fast. The situation is complicated because there are exceptions to that, one of which is where there is some right of access for the public via our now familiar friend The Countryside and Rights of Way Act!

So Nixon has every right to be there. As we have seen, though, using that access lawfully is dependent on adherence to the rules – which bans any form of hunting whatsoever. Nixon knows that, which is why he says he’s just out walking his dogs. And so the circle grinds back around…

One issue with tackling trespass is that as long as it’s not ‘aggravated’ or ‘armed’, it’s a civil matter. The police will usually only get involved in a civil case of trespass when a landowner has tried and failed to peacefully remove trespassers from their property. Darren has tried, repeatedly, to keep hunts off his land, but they still come. Does the law mean that the police are not interested until he’s tried to remove them?

How might he go about doing that anyway? A landowner is allowed to use ‘reasonable force’ (another almost indefinable where force is considered reasonable ‘if a reasonable person would think it necessary to use force and would have used the same level of force as the defendant’) to remove trespassers, but how exactly is one individual supposed to remove an entire hunt and their dogs who are spread out and moving across the landscape? Quite rightly, Darren can’t wave a gun in the direction of hunters (and he would expect to be arrested soon afterwards if he did) but to face down a hunt on your own and use ‘reasonable force’ to remove them is impossible.

With that option closed, why aren’t the police doing more? It appears to us that maybe this loops back to the fact that ‘trail hunting’ is considered a ‘lawful activity’ – and that many police forces have usually gone along with that.

It’s unreasonable to expect any under-resourced force to keep officers stationed on remote hillsides on the off chance a hunt will break the law of course (yes, no doubt the police know exactly when these people will be out hunting, but we don’t know that and certainly can’t prove it), so what does a landowner who has tried everything he can to keep hunts off his land, have to do to get help from officers of the law?

As Darren explained in Part One of this discussion, he feels that there has been a change in the way that forces are generally responding to hunts and (locally at least) are more sympathetic to his concerns than in the past. Are the police officers in contact with the hunts? Have the police told them to stay away from Darren and his neighbours now one of the Melbreak has been convicted of assault?

You would have to hope that the situation will be made clear to them, and these landowners at least will be left in peace when the whole hunting charade starts up again in the autumn.

 

 


 

 

As we acknowledged at the top of Part One of this post, the incident we’ve just looked at may appear trivial to some (especially hunt lobbyists). But 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 is symptomatic of a pattern of harassment and intimidation that many, many people in the countryside are subject to and are totally fed up with. 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. As this account lays out, they lie and they exploit any loophole in the law they can find.

Hunts typically rely on the public not speaking out because they fear intimidation, and for years hunts have relied on police forces doing absolutely nothing to stop them and doing absolutely nothing to help the individuals whose land hunts ride over. It takes courage 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, while there needs to be clarifications made to some laws (and the ridiculous privileges given to those who want to hunt and shoot must be got rid of) the law on hunting in particular must be replaced, and the exemptions 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.

 

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