The Private Prosecution of Tony Wright, huntsman of the Exmoor Foxhounds, got underway in Barnstaple Magistrates Court on Monday. Wright could face a fine of up to £5,000 if the prosecution is successful.

The League Against Cruel Sports has brought the case against the huntsman, claiming that on the 29 April 2005, just weeks after the Hunting Act came into force, he was “hounding foxes with dogs” at Drybridge, Devon.

Wright, who has hunted the Exmoor Foxhounds for the last 24 years, denies the charges. On the day in question, he says he was flushing a fox to a gun using two hounds, and insists that he did everything possible to ensure that the fox was shot as quickly as possible.

The League Against Cruel Sports, however, claims that Wright was “cynically” exploiting the exemption to get around the law while carrying on hunting.

The case, which was rejected by the police and Crown Prosecution Service as the evidence provided little chance of success, is considered by the hunting community to have been a publicity stunt.

A Countryside Alliance spokesperson said: “It’s hard to ignore the date on which the League issued a summons to Tony Wright [October 2005] – just days before hunting’s most media-friendly day – the first opening meets after the ban came into force.”

However, this is the first time that a huntsman is in court on charges under the Hunting Act, and the CA is adamant that whether the prosecution is successful or not, it will be significant, because it will provide a court’s interpretation of the Act.

“If Wright is found not guilty, then you have to accept that there have been 25,000 days of hunting, carried out by 300 hunts, since the law came into force, and there has not been a single successful prosecution of a hunt,” explains the CA. “If, on the other hand, he is found guilty, it is testament to how bad a law this is. Wright is confident that he was hunting within the law, and a guilty verdict would mean that there was no scope at all for any means of efficient and humane pest control within the new law.”

The trial is expected to last five days, with judgement likely to be reserved until a later date.

Foxes suffer more as a result of the ban

Recent research commissioned by the Middle Way Group has found that the Hunting Act 2004 has increased suffering in foxes. 68% of farmers use shotguns to control foxes, but of these, one quarter are wounded rather than being killed outright.

In addition, 44% of farmers across England and Wales report that stock losses have increased and that figure rises to 62% in Wales where the Hunting Act has made fox control near impossible in many areas. A third of farmers say that the cost of controlling foxes has risen as they have had to pay for a service traditionally supplied free by hunts.

Chair of the Middle Way Group, Lembit Opik said: “These findings confirm what the Middle Way Group said to Parliament in debates leading up to the Hunting Act – that welfare would be worsened by such an unprincipled approach. Now we have the firm proof that this is the case.”