On Trial – Evo Shirley, Master Huntsman for the Portman Hunt

In March 2017, two hunt monitors filmed huntsman Mr Shirley illegally hunting a fox with hounds in the Kingston Lacy (National Trust) area in Dorset..  The evidence was passed to the Dorset Police, the Crown Prosecution Service agreed there was enough evidence to prosecute and in February this year Shirley was up in court.

Day 1

It started badly.  District Judge Stephen Nicholls had barely sat down when the defence counsel Mr Mooney stood up and suggested he read the expert witness reports first, because “you may not understand the issues.  And there is film evidence from March 8ththat you should watch… and another film of a separate incident, but that’s nothing to do with this and can be ignored.”  Mooney added that the Judge should “follow the defence counsel’s guidance” on hunting.

In her opening statement the prosecuting counsel, Ms Davies, made it clear the trial was about ‘intent’.  Did Shirley intend to hunt a fox, or was it a tragic accident because they were really ‘trail hunting’

The court watched the film upon which the prosecution was based.  It showed a fox running across a field towards some woodland with the hounds in pursuit, crying as they ran.  Behind them came Shirley, his horse cantering very slowly.  There was no attempt to control or call off the hounds.  At the other end of the wood one could see the field of riders waiting.

Fox and hounds disappeared into the wood and the hounds fell silent.  Two men on quad bikes drove up to the wood, and the drivers also went into the wood.  Ms Davies described them as ‘terriermen’.

Defence had another description.  Just as hunts had invented ‘trail hunting’ to circumvent the 2004 Hunting Act, so the National Trust’s vote to allow trail hunting on its land without terriermen has resulted in another fiction.  Terriermen are now renamed ‘countrymen’.  They do not carry terriers on their quad bikes (despite numerous photos of them doing so) but are there to assist and ‘repair any damage caused by the hunt’.

The two hunt monitors gave their evidence.  They were an impressive pair with over 60 years of monitoring experience between them, working with IFAW, and obviously committed to protecting animals.

Peter White confirmed that he saw the fox being pursued by the hounds, followed (slowly) by Shirley.  At no point did Shirley attempt to direct the hounds; at no point were Shirley’s horn or whip used.  White also saw riders positioning themselves by the wood.

On cross-examination, Mooney tried to establish that White wouldn’t see any trail being laid before10:30 am(the filmed incident took place after2 pm).  It was unclear why the time was important. White said he had seen the ‘process’ of trail-laying occasionally.

Kevin Hill has also occasionally seen ‘trail-laying’.  Mooney really pressed him on this issue, as it is the only defence Shirley has.  This had little effect on Hill’s polite demeanour and clear answers.

The expert witness for the prosecution, Professor Stephen Harris*, then gave his evidence.  Defence had tried to get the judge to hear both expert witnesses ‘back to back’.  The judge preferred to be conventional; first day for prosecution evidence and the second for the defence.

Questioned by Ms. Davies, Harris described what a huntsman did to control the hounds – the use of horn, voice and whip.  He said that terriermen going into woods made it clear they were either going in to flush out a fox for further hunting, or to dig it out if it had gone to earth.  There were no other reasons for them being there.

Harris said the behaviour of the hunt was consistent with them expecting to hunt a fox.  Hunts claim using horns and voices will ‘encourage’ hounds to hunt their quarry.  “No,” he said, “if the hounds are working you let them get on with it.”

Shockingly, at this point Mooney intervened, leaning over to lay his hand on Ms Davies’ arm, trying to stop her line of questioning.  It didn’t work.

In cross-examination Mooney tried to get Harris to admit he was anti-hunting but, soft-spoken and careful with his answers, Harris refused to be bullied.  Playing the film again, Mooney tried to impress by using ‘horsey’ language.  “So at this point Mr Shirley was – what shall we say – two furlongs behind the hounds?” and was promptly stymied by Harris asking, “What’s two furlongs?”  Mooney didn’t know!

Harris was questioned about using fox urine for trail-laying.  He pointed out foxes don’t go round leaking urine, so the hounds would not follow a trail of urine.  Mooney  asked, “What do you think foxhounds are bred to do?”  Harris said they hunt foxes but also hunt deer, mink, and otters.  When the Judge asked for clarification, he pointed out that they have to be trained to follow a specific scent.

Day 2

Evo Shirley did not impress.  Questioned by Mooney, he described the incident taking place on ‘arable’ land, but as the film showed pasture he had to correct that to ‘farmland’.  Asked about the people who ‘laid’ the trail, he was very vague: they were hunt supporters; about 4 of them; no, he didn’t really know them and couldn’t provide their names.  He said he never knew where a trail would be laid, only the general area.

Photos were produced, reportedly taken by those laying a trail.  Most appeared to be of patches of grass with no proof of location.  The timings of trail-laying on 3 ‘sample’ days were given as being between9:30 am to 12:30 pm.

Shirley said his training was ‘to try and stop the hounds’ if they flush out a fox, but the film showed he didn’t even try.  Using his horn would ‘encourage’ the hounds to hunt the fox.**  Anyway, “the hounds were hunting, doing what they wanted to do”.

This is where that ‘nothing to do with this’ film came into play.  It showed Portman hounds spilling out onto a busy main road.  Whether hounds were hunting or not, Shirley used his horn to bring them under control.

Under cross-examination Shirley fell apart.

Ms Davies asked why no one in the field (there were 20-30 riders out with the hunt) appeared to express any concern that a fox was being hunted.  She got Shirley to admit that “5 or 10” foxes were hunted over the season.

She queried the lack of records kept by Shirley.  At the preliminary court hearing in October he had said there were no films of trail-laying, having told the police there were, but not available to view.  He now said there were films, but he wasn’t sure how you accessed them.***  There was quite an argument about this, with Shirley claiming that the police ‘had not inquired further’.

Ms Davies then took Shirley through the film, almost frame by frame.  “Why did you not try to get in front of the hounds?  Why were you putting the horn into your pocket as you cantered after the hounds?  Why did you not use your horn when you reached the wood?”  He said he ‘had to go into the wood to control the hounds.’  His horn wasn’t blown until the hounds were visible outside the wood.

As she grilled him about the lack of control, his answers became garbled and contradictory, until he admitted that he had ‘allowed’ the hounds to do what they did.  He tried to claw back the word but it was too late.

The next witness was the man (no longer living inDorset) who laid the trail.  He said that the night before a Meet, he would see Shirley and, using maps, discuss with him where he wanted the trail laid.  Again photos were shown of a fur lure lying in grass, supposedly laden with scent, to be dragged along the route.

He couldn’t guarantee the photos were his, just ‘typical’ of the kind of photos taken.  He never saw anyone when he was trail-laying, although he ‘might’ have seen monitors on two occasions.  He claimed he had done ‘several dozen’ trail-laying days – sometimes up to 5 a week.  Too eager with his evidence, he rather spoilt the Portman’s story.

And finally, the Hunt’s (and everyone else’s) ‘expert’ witness, Dr Daryl Hamilton Wallis.  His expertise is in computer forensics, his company Field Associates appears somewhat questionable, he has no qualifications in animal sciences and says he is an expert in hunting, having run the Llynfi Vale Drag Hunt in Wales.****

Viewing the film yet again, Hamilton Wallis treated the court to a dissertation on ‘scent’ hounds  and ‘sight’ hounds.  When foxhounds were running with their heads down they were hunting by scent, but with a quarry/fox in sight they ran with their heads up, magically converting them from ‘scent’ to ‘sight’ hounds, and not ‘hunting’ but ‘coursing’ (which is also illegal).

He tried to make something of Shirley’s horse not being able to run fast enough to overtake the hounds, and that therefore, he would have done what Shirley did, which was nothing.

He is adamant that sounding the horn will only ‘encourage’ the hounds, and that the huntsman has to get in front of them in order to stop them, so – his conclusion, whether meant or not, was that a pack of hounds will always hunt illegally when a quarry is found.

Ms Davies takes him to task for not using the phrase ‘in my experience’ in his written report, but claiming, as a statement of fact, that a huntsman ‘will always’ encourage the hounds by sounding his horn.  When he tried to argue against this, she said, “No, you underlined the word ‘always’, implying this is an absolute fact, which it isn’t”.

At the end, the Judge ordered both counsels to send him their written depositions.  Ms Davies was quite amenable but Mooney not so.  After some argument about dates it was decided by the Judge that he would give his judgment on March 14.

The judgment was, to say the least, disappointing.  The Judge said that both sides had given ‘honest views’ and that neither had ‘exaggerated’ their evidence – this despite the continuing lack of verifiable evidence for trail-laying; that Shirley admitted he allowed’ the hounds to hunt the fox; the contradictions between the trail-layer’s evidence and Shirley’s; an expert witness who was privately described to me as ‘an expert on telling lies’; and the unprofessional behavior of the defence counsel when trying to control the trial.

Even with all that, the Judge was not ‘satisfied’ that the case had been proved, and Shirley was acquitted.

And three days after the trial, he was filmed ‘trail hunting’ through a farmyard.

Lesley Docksey ©14/03/18

* Stephen Harris, professor of environmental sciences, founded Mammal Research Unit atBristolUniversity. He spent six years studying foxes inLondonand launched his long-term study ofBristol’s foxes in 1977.

** Hunt saboteurs often use horns to distract hounds in full cry after a fox.

*** I understand that, in his initial interview with the police, he turned up with no evidence for trail-laying, even though this was his only line of defence.

**** The only ‘clean boot’ drag hunt in Walesis the Three Counties Bloodhounds