Animal charity criticises prosecutors for letter claiming Dorset hunt was 'media savvy' and would use specialist lawyers
An investigation into a Dorset hunt has been abandoned amid a row between animal welfare monitors and the Crown Prosecution Service over the text of a letter explaining why no arrests should be made.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has accused the CPS of ignoring filmed evidence and using the fact that members of the Cattistock Hunt can afford "specialist" defence lawyers as grounds for giving up their legal inquiries into allegations of fox hunting with hounds.
The hunt has denied doing anything illegal and prosecutors insist the reason for not proceeding is that there is "insufficient evidence to convict beyond reasonable doubt".
Seven years after the Hunting Act came into force, outlawing the pursuit of mammals with hounds, monitors and hunts are locked in a state of mutual suspicion involving covert surveillance and counter-surveillance in the countryside.
The letter at the heart of the dispute was sent by a senior prosecutor in Dorset to IFAW explaining why allegations made against the Cattistock Hunt and accompanying video footage would not be followed up.
The hunt was on 8 October last year, near the village of Wraxall in west Dorset. IFAW monitors, at a distance, captured what they claim was evidence of hounds chasing a fox and no one calling dogs off the pursuit. The quality of the pictures means that individual hunt officials allegedly involved are not identifiable.
In its letter, the CPS official said: "Any arrest ? would inevitably mean that they will be represented by specialist solicitors ? funded by the Countryside Alliance. They will be advised to go 'no comment' and to decline to identify themselves on the footage obtained by your monitors.
"There would be insufficient evidence to convince a court beyond reasonable doubt ? that the person standing before them committed the offence alleged.
"May I suggest that arrests and release without charge or, worse still, a failed prosecution, could, potentially, be a media disaster for your organisation? The Cattistock Hunt are very media savvy."
IFAW responded with a complaint to the CPS suggesting that the "methodology stated in the letter is surely contrary to the normal practice in dealing with cases".
It continued: "We cannot imagine any other possible offence which could be dealt with in this way. Does the burglar in Dorset who always gives no comment and is legally represented not get investigated?" The fact that a hunt is "media savvy" should not, IFAW added, have any relevance to a decision on prosecutions.
But a CPS spokesperson said: "It is absolutely right for prosecutors to consider the most likely defence in deciding whether there is sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction. We accept, however, that this letter was somewhat clumsily worded.
"The Crown Prosecution Service carefully reviewed this file of evidence three times in accordance with the code for crown prosecutors. These reviews were conducted twice by the initial charging lawyer and then a third time by a second lawyer.
"Both are specialist lawyers in wildlife cases and both concluded that we cannot prove to the criminal standard which of the two men it was, since the footage is unclear and both men are dressed similarly.
"We cannot bring any prosecution without being certain which offender committed the crime. As a result, we concluded that there is insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and therefore no action should be taken against any individual in this case."
Since the act came into force in February 2005, six people involved with hunts have been convicted of offences. No one associated with the Cattistock has ever been prosecuted.
Will Bryer, master of the Cattistock Hunt, said he had been unaware of the complaint. "Our intention is to hunt within the law and lay trails. We practise [legal] trail hunting," he said, and there had been no breach of the ban. "It's extraordinary. These people spend hours and hours monitoring. We hunt within the law."
Tim Bonner, of the Master of Foxhounds Association, said: "This is the third investigation of the Cattistock in the past 12 months. The other two times they were questioned.
"[Animal welfare monitors] are wasting police time. That's hundreds of hours spent by Dorset police that have come to nothing. The people of Dorset don't want their money spent on chasing pointless allegations.
"No one likes being followed around or finding people hiding in bushes filming them. There's a huge question around some of this activity, especially the surveillance."
David Cameron has promised MPs a free vote on repealing the ban within this parliament. A small but significant number of the 2010 Conservative intake, however, are opposed to bloodsports.
Conservatives Against Fox Hunting claim there are 26 anti-hunting Tory MPs and point out that "Margaret Thatcher herself voted on more than one occasion to ban hare coursing, a sport that would make an immediate comeback if the Hunting Act was repealed".