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The Wynnstay Hunt comes out of National Trust land

National Trust: failure to enforce ban emboldening hunts

The National Trust (NT) banned so-called trail hunting back in October 2021, after a hard-fought battle by members and campaigners who took a motion to the Trust’s AGM in Harrogate. But more than three years later hunts continue to trespass on its estates. Protect the Wild takes a look at the charity’s inaction as wildlife continues to be hunted and killed on its land.

Hunts need land to hunt on, and the NT is one of the UK’s largest landowners. It owns 620,000 acres of land, as well as 780 miles of coast. It’s also one of the UK’s most popular charities with more than 5.73 million members. In its 2023 annual report, the charity stated that it earned:

“£110.4 million from individual donors, charitable trusts, grant funders, corporate partners and gifts in wills. This is a record level of income, boosted most significantly by legacies exceeding £70 million for the first time.”

It has the influence, weight and funds to enforce its own ban. There is simply no excuse for it not following its members’ and donors’ wishes. After all, these precious members can always revoke their membership, and donors can give their money to other causes.

Let’s look at some of the hunts, their actions on NT land, and the charity’s response (or lack of) to illegal hunting.

 

The Wynnstay trespasses on Erdigg Estate

The Wynnstay Hunt – whose ex-huntsman was recently convicted of illegal hunting – has been blatantly ignoring the NT ban since it was put in place. And now hunt monitors have captured footage showing the hunt actually riding out of an estate through the NT’s own gates. So what action is the landowner taking?

On 14 January 2024, Cheshire Borderland Monitorsit captured damning video at the Erddig estate, near Wrexham in north Wales. The monitors have known that the hunt has continued to use National Trust land since the 2021 trail hunting ban came in, but this recent footage – of riders, horses and hounds leaving through the estate gates – surely means that the NT now needs to take firm action.

 

 

Wynnstay Hunt trespasses on National Trust land
The Wynnstay Hunt is videoed coming out of the National Trust’s Erddig Estate gates. Video still via Cheshire Borderland Monitors

Protect the Wild contacted the National Trust to ask the charity whether it is taking any action against the Wynnstay Hunt for trespassing on its Erddig Estate. It gave the same vague response familiar from accusations several years ago that the Trust was ignoring the issue and using a ‘bot’ to answer similar questions posted on social media:

“We do not allow illegal activity on our land and we take any reports of illegal activity seriously. We are no longer issuing licences for any trail hunting activities and we take any validated reports of trespass very seriously. We carefully consider all information submitted to us, but we are not able to comment on the outcome of any reported incidents.”

We replied to the Trust, asking it why it won’t publicly clarify the steps it takes to enforce its trail hunting ban. The Trust replied:

“We carefully assess all information we receive, and consider all options available to us as a charity. We will take action where appropriate. We continue to work with our partners in the police to ensure incidents of illegal activity on National Trust land are robustly investigated.

We emailed the Trust again with further questions, but it wouldn’t give us any more information. So we emailed North Wales Police. The force didn’t say that the NT had reported the incident to the force, but that:

“The Rural Crime Team is aware of the footage circulating online of the hunt on Erddig land, however, it is a civil matter of trespass.”

It continued:

“Any enquiries in relation to the trespass need to be passed to the National Trust.”

When pressed more, the police forced confirmed:

“Given it is a civil matter of trespass, it is not something that the police would investigate or deal with.”

North Wales Police also stated to Protect the Wild:

“Officers are not aware of any footage or witnesses of an illegal hunt of a wild mammal being evidenced and passed on to investigate as a criminal matter under section 1 of the Hunting act 2004.”

So the landowner avoids taking action by referring to ‘illegal activity’ and pointing the public to the police – who in turn confirm that they deal only with criminal matters and do not act in civil matters like trespass. It will all be music to the Hunt’s ears. Frustrating as it maybe the police are correct of course. The footage does not show illegal hunting. But the Trust could still act. As Cheshire Borderland Monitors point out:

“The question is, if the Wynnstay was actually legally ‘trail hunting’, then why did they lay it through National Trust land, which they are banned from?”

Meanwhile, in a further muddying of the waters, the monitors were told by the Erddig Estate’s manager that the Trust is, indeed, liaising with the police about this particular trespass – at least at a local level. It is unclear to Protect the Wild why we are receiving contradictory information, and why the national NT office states that it is “not able to comment on the outcome of any reported incidents”.

As a charity with almost 6 million members and a landowner that looks after swathes of the UK on behalf of the nation, we argue that it has a duty to be transparent.

Quantock Staghounds

It’s not just the Wynnstay that illegally hunts on NT land of course. The Quantock Staghounds (QSH) is one of England’s most brutal hunts, and has been killing stags and hinds in the southwest of England for years. The NT Ruling Council banned the QSH from hunting on their land back in 1997, more than twenty years before it outlawed all trail hunting. Despite this, the QSH has continued to trespass over the charity’s estates, while the NT has taken absolutely no action.

Protect the Wild spoke to Bobbie Armstrong of Somerset Wildlife Crime, a group that has spent years tackling the QSH. Armstrong told us:

“The NT never actually enforced the ban, and they never monitored it. By not looking they could claim it wasn’t happening: plausible deniability. They have never cared that horrific cruelty is taking place on their land. They have never cared that guns are being illegally carried and used on their land either.”

Armstrong continued:

“Back in 2019, when I challenged the NT estates manager about why they don’t do anything about the constant trespass, why they don’t even call the police, she claimed that staff were receiving death threats, and this was why they didn’t challenge or get involved with the stag hunts.”

 

However in 2019, the QSH did find itself in court for illegally hunting stags on NT land at Trendle Ring. Video evidence collected by monitors was shown in the court, and in his summing up the magistrate stated that he was in no doubt that a stag was being hunted illegally. But the case failed on a technicality. Armstrong said of this case:

“The NT KNOWS this is happening and has taken no proactive steps to stop it. After that court case we were certain that the NT would want to put a stop to it. We made an assessment that they wouldn’t want to face police enquiries again, or risk further bad press. We were astounded to see that despite them having been briefed in full at meetings by our team, despite their own claims of death threats, despite being dragged in for questioning by the police, and despite being given copies of our report, they still preferred to take the position of an ostrich – heads firmly buried in the sand.”

In 2022, Stop Hunting On The Nation’s Land – which highlights hunting on public land – also spoke out strongly, outlining links between the NT’s own staff and hunting:

“There was no response from National Trust staff to Friday’s reports of illegal hunting by the Melbreak Foxhounds, even though NT had been made aware at both local and national levels early in the day. But that is not surprising, as National Trust’s Estate Manager for this area of the Lakes is Robin Witchell, an overt supporter of bloodsports. In 2016, he made a submission to the Bonomy Review, not just objecting to the further protection of wildlife in Scotland, but also arguing that more than two hounds should be used to kill foxes. Witchell’s wife, Rowena, who shamelessly admits to being ‘a Member of the Berwickshire Hunt’, and ‘a supporter of the Atholl and Breadalbane Hounds’ , also submitted an objection on the same grounds.”

 

Other hunts

The Wynnstay and the Quantock Staghounds are not the only hunts to deliberately trespass on NT land and get away with it.

In 2024 alone, hunt saboteurs have reported these incidents:

  • 7 February: Blencathra Foxhounds were caught hunting on NT land around Newlands Valley and Causey Pike;
  • 30 January: Melbreak Foxhounds were spotted on National Trust land around Buttermere;
  • 27 January: Hounds from a joint meet of North Cornwall & East Cornwall hunts illegally chased a fox onto National Trust-owned land at Roughtor;
  • 25 January: Devon and Somerset Staghounds hunted a hind and her calf across NT moorland in Exmoor;
  • 25 January: Hounds, horses and quad bikes from a joint meet of the Cattistock and South Dorset Hunts trespassed onto Eggardon Hill fort;
  • 21 January: Black Combe Beagles chased a hare on NT land near Braithwaite, Lake District;

 

Tenant farmers on NT property are often hunt supporters, and facilitate illegal hunting on their land. At the end of 2023, Cumbria Hunt Sabs wrote a report, saying:

“We feel strongly that the NT should own their ban of hunts on their land and actually face the hunts and prosecute. If a complaint goes in to enquiries@nationaltrust.org.uk a nice “on the fence” reply comes back…”

 

The National Trust can, and should, act

In 2018, Mark Harold, the now retired NT’s former Director for the South West, was asked at the charity’s AGM what the organisation was doing to prevent stag hunting on its land. Harold responded:

“The packs of hounds themselves, the hunts, know that they aren’t permitted on Trust land and we have our own staff out on the ground who are obviously aware of when they’re in the area and try to keep an eye on things… But it is difficult, you know. There are big open places and we like to follow up any incident. If we follow it up and have conclusive evidence that there has been a trespass then we take that up with the hunt and we’re very serious about that. The hunts know that as well. So you’re right to allude to how difficult it is to monitor in those areas and we do take seriously any reports that we have, and we investigate those as well, but that’s the best, the best we can do.”

But Protect the Wild argues that this is not the best that the NT can do at all. The Trust might claim that it is ‘difficult’ to prove whether hunts are trespassing on its land, but hunt monitors and saboteurs have more than enough photo and video evidence and have repeatedly said they would make that evidence available – IF the Trust seemed likely to act on it. These monitors are doing the job that the Trust itself should be doing.

 

What could the National Trust do?

At its AGM in November last year five candidates for the NT Council from the right-leaning and ‘anti woke’ Restore Trust who were all endorsed by the pro-hunt Countryside Alliance were rejected by members. There is no interest in repealing the ban on so-called ‘trail hunting’. Financial resources aren’t a barrier either. The NT was proud to announce that it received a record level of income in 2022/23. It undoubtedly has the mandate and the funds to take robust action to enforce their own ‘trail hunting’ ban.

Actions could range from the extremely simple to the more complex and could entail:

  • Speaking out against each individual hunt that trespasses on its land;
  • Sending each hunt a warning letter, complete with property maps and property boundaries;
  • Monitoring and penalising tenants supporting and hosting hunts, evicting them if necessary;
  • Working with the police to ensure that charges are brought against hunt staff;
  • Deploying NT staff on hunting days to act as a visible deterrent, to gather evidence, and to compile a dossier which can be used for civil proceedings or legal actions;
  • Taking out injunctions against hunts that trespass on National Trust land.

On that last point, Cheshire Borderland Monitors told us:

“Farndon Parish Council managed to tell the Wynnstay to keep away for good, by taking out an injunction against the hunt roughly nine years ago. Because of that injunction the Wynnstay has never been back. It’s shameful that a huge organisation like the National Trust doesn’t have the courage to do anything substantial at all.”

Meanwhile, Armstrong argues that if the NT were to actually act against illegal hunting, it could help bring an end to the brutality and cruelty of deer hunting. She said:

“If the NT took a stand then other land owners would follow. And if the NT properly enforced its ban on deer hunting with dogs, then the QSH would find it very difficult to operate over large areas of the Quantock Hills.”

And Cumbria Hunt Sabs have stated:

“We are now asking for pressure and complaints to go to hilary.mcgrady@nationaltrust.org.uk This public funded authority has to listen and take action against those who thwart rules. Please contact Hilary to express your disgust at letting members of the NT down and the general public. 🦊🐾

 

 

  • There is no appetite amongst members to reverse the ban, and while the National Trust is an undeniably important charity that successfully manages huge areas of habitat for biodiversity and the nation, it is their inaction and lack of enforcement that ensures hunts like the Wynnstay and the QSH continue business as usual, safe in the knowledge that nothing will be done to stop them.