Mark Harkinson, a former director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association and of the Hunting Office has had his conviction for encouraging illegal hunting quashed after a hearing at Southwark Crown Court.

Harkinson was found guilty of encouraging others to break the law after the release, by hunt saboteurs, of a recording of a webinar which Harkinson led. During the webinar, he described the importance of creating a ‘smokescreen’ by laying trails.

At his original trial the prosecution successfully argued that this suggested that trails were being laid to disguise an intent to hunt illegally. Judges hearing the appeal agreed with Harkinson’s defence and ruled that his words could have been interpreted in a different way from that which the prosecution claimed and that they were not adequate for him to be convicted.

Lawful hunting

The presiding judge, His Honour Judge Gregory Perrins, said: “We accept that his role within the Hunting Office was to ensure compliance with the law and that the Hunting Office itself is committed to lawful hunting.”

He went on to say: “We also take into account his good character and all that we have read about him as someone of integrity.”

Speaking after the appeal verdict, Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance said: “Mark Hankinson’s successful appeal raises big questions about the knee jerk reaction to the original conviction. Some institutional landowners banned legal trail hunts and the police and CPS have brought a spate of prosecutions against hunts, many of which have already failed.

“Trail hunting is a legitimate activity carried out by hundreds of hunts across the country. As this successful appeal shows, the police, public and politicians need to be extremely careful about believing spurious allegations made by prejudiced anti-hunt activists.”

The National Trust, the Lake District National Park Authority and several other public bodies have cited Harkinson’s conviction as part of the justification for bans on trail hunting. Anti-hunting bodies responded with anger to the judgment with the League Against Cruel Sports saying it strengthened the case for tightening up the law.