Is illegal hunting a type of organised crime?

This blog is part of a series of blogs that feature excerpts of IFAW’s report Trail of Lies, which is the most comprehensive study to date examining the hunting with dogs debate and the practices hunters take to undermine the ban. –The eds.

Are they all really ‘wise guys’?

We all have seen many gangster films with stereotypical tough guys spreading terror in the neighbourhood and yet getting away with it as they are well ‘connected’ and know how to intimidate witnesses.

But in real life, are these the only types of organise crime groups there are? If we move away from big cities, is there an equivalent crime syndicate in the countryside? Can the UK hunting fraternity be considered another type of organise crime group?

When I was asked to participate in the Hunting Symposium at the Winchester University last year I gave a talk titled ‘The Criminality of Hunting’, based on chapter in the Trail of Lies report which deals with organised crime. Following are extracts of such report which, together with the imbedded video in this blog which shows the entirety of my talk, will allow you to form your own opinion about whether we can say the hunting fraternity behaves as if it was a type of organised crime group:

An interesting aspect to explore is the criminality of trail hunters as a collective. Are their crimes a product of a level of organisation that has been overlooked by the enforcement authorities?  Do illegal hunters fit any defined criminal group category, such as ‘organised crime group’ or ‘corporate crime’?

The National Crime Agency defines organised crime as “serious crime planned, coordinated and conducted by people working together on a continuing basis. Their motivation is often, but not always, financial gain. Organised criminals working together for a particular criminal activity or activities are called an organised crime group” (NCA, a). Does the crime involving hunting fit this definition? To answer this we would need to know what is considered ‘serious enough’ crime, how ‘planned’ and ‘coordinated’ an activity needs to be to qualify, and how continuous such activity is to fit this official definition. (…)

When illegal hunting occurs, if it involves a registered hunt it often does not take the form of a single hunter breaking a law once. Each single hunter’s crime may be considered ‘minor’ because it does not carry a custodial sentence. Nevertheless, regardless of whether in the end only one person ended up being prosecuted, illegal hunting events may contain all the following criminal components [examples to illustrate these can be found in the full report]:

  1. Hunt members (more than three) conspiring to commit crime by planning an illegal hunt, in breach of general criminal justice legislation.
  2. Hunt supporters inciting others to commit crime and promote criminal behaviour in breach of general criminal justice legislation.
  3. Hunt staff (typically one to three people) engaging and participating in the pursuit of a live animal over ground in breach of animal protection legislation, on several counts.
  4. Hunt contractors (typically one or two) engaging and participating in the pursuit of a live animal underground, and disturbing protected animal dwellings, in breach of animal protection legislation, on several counts.
  5. Hunt officials (typically one to five people), developing false alibis and concealing evidence of illegality in breach of general criminal justice legislation.
  6. Hunt supporters blocking witnesses’ vehicles in breach of driving legislation.
  7. Hunt supporters intimidating witnesses in breach of general criminal justice legislation.
  8. Hunt members/supporters assaulting witnesses, in breach of public order legislation.
  9. Hunt members/supporters stealing witnesses’ equipment and destroying evidence obtained by them, in breach of general criminal justice legislation.
  10. Hunt supporters damaging witnesses’ vehicles and equipment in breach of criminal damage legislation.
  11. Hunt members and experts committing perjury in Court in breach of general criminal justice legislation.
  12. Hunt members intimidating and harassing members of the public for their anti-hunt beliefs.

(…) We are not saying that all these aspects of criminality occur in all illegal hunting cases. It is possible, however, that in cases where only one offender was found guilty of one single breach of one law, many more people could have been charged, particularly if the enforcement authorities had approached the case as an ’organised crime‘ case and used the full extent of their investigation and legal powers to the end.

IFAW's Wildlife Crime Investigators have had direct experience of witnessing (and being the victims of) this sort of criminality. They observe hunts, sometimes at close range, while other times at great distances, always using public land, roads, footpaths, bridleways or private land that they have permission to use. They peacefully observe and document their activities, always working within the law without any form of intervention. Unfortunately they are often targeted by hunt members and followers. They have received verbal abuse, threats of violence, real violence and damage to their vehicles. All this is criminal behaviour perpetrated by the hunting community. (…)

(…) the field reports of IFAW’s Wildlife Crime Investigators often suggests that there is a high level of coordination involving a hunt (and even more involving an illegal hunt). Sometimes hundreds of people are involved in a hunt day that lasts for hours, and which requires a great deal of coordination. (…)

Regarding how continuous illegal hunting may be, hunters that have been convicted of illegal hunting have been often accused of alleged illegal hunting previously.  This suggests that we are not talking about isolated cases, but a continuous activity.

Some huntsmen have been successfully prosecuted twice, such as Richard Down, the Huntsman of the Quantock Staghounds (BBC, 2010), but this is rare due to the difficulty in getting cases properly investigated.  

Certainly the experience of IFAW’s Wildlife Crime Investigators is that those hunts which have been seen behaving suspiciously, have been doing so day after day, season after season (…) In most cases (76%) the investigators believed that they may have witnessed illegal hunting. The results would have been even more significant if all types of crime perpetrated by people connected with the hunts had been recorded – not just illegal hunting.

(…) We certainly can see elements of ‘gang‘ culture in the behaviour of trail hunters. The hostile way hunt supports react when ’strangers‘ are seen close to the areas where hunting is taking place is not too dissimilar to the territorial behaviours of urban street gangs. It is not only hunt monitors and hunt saboteurs who are the targets of such hostility and intimidation, but sometimes unsuspecting members of the public that have nothing to do with the hunting debate.  They just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the way of the hunters. (…)

But what about corporate crime behaviour? (…) Indeed, corporate crime where the victim is the environment often uses the concept of ‘accident’ to get away with it, as trail hunters do with the way they have been handling the authorities and the media.(…)

Is there enough information to suggest that illegal hunting undertaken by registered hunts could be classed as some sort of atypical ‘organised crime’ with elements of gang culture and corporate crime?  In any event, we do not have any evidence that the enforcement agencies have ever approached it as anything more than a low level petty crime perpetrated by rogue individuals. Perhaps this is the root of why the Hunting Act 2004 has so many enforcement problems.

So, what do you think?

Do the facts fit the bill?

Should the ‘Old Bill’ consider these facts?


England and Wales residents ask your PCC to ensure the Hunting Ban is properly enforced.

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