Earlier in November, two members of the disgraced Meynell and South Staffordshire Hunt pleaded guilty to hunting fox cubs. Derbyshire Police built its case on footage the League’s investigators gave them and, in the blog below, our investigator Debbie Ballard describes how it came about.

It was a still and chilly morning in the country. There was little wind. Close by, cows were lowing in the fields and in the branches above my head I could hear a little owl squawking on its perch before dawn. But, as much I enjoyed that moment before the sun rose, it wasn’t what we were there to do.

In my role as an investigator for the League Against Cruel Sports I often find myself in idyllic places, witnessing the most barbaric of scenes. On this particular morning in October 2018, I think I saw one of the most chilling acts against wildlife I have witnessed in my career.

My investigating partner, Roger Swaine, and I had received intelligence that an illegal fox cub hunt would be taking place near Suffield Farm in Sutton Hill, Derbyshire, at sunrise.

‘Autumn hunting’, as it is traditionally known, takes place in the early morning when fox scent is strong. It evaporates quickly after dawn. The hunters use the cover of first light to assemble at coverts where they know vixens with cubs live.

In October the cubs would be about six-months-old – old enough not to still be feeding from their mother, but still in their family group. This makes them an easy target for the hunt, which uses them in a cruel sport to train young foxhounds how to identify and kill foxes. It’s estimated that 10,000 cubs are killed during illegal fox cub hunts like this each year.

We arrived at the edge of the farmland at about 6am. We set up our filming equipment facing the woodland where the vixen and cubs were living 200m away. Then we waited, hidden by woodland and our camouflage clothing.

At 7.19am the hunt arrived dressed in muted ‘rat catcher’ tweed uniforms to help them blend into the landscape. There were field staff, hunt supporters, quad bikes, riders on horseback, men on foot and 50 foxhound dogs.

A still from footage gathered by the League of illegal fox cub hunting

The woodland where the cubs are living is surrounded by huntsmen to prevent fox cubs escaping

We were very close but hidden; avoiding the terrier men they sent scouting for us along the hedge line looking for cameras. They had no idea we were there filming as they began to surround the wood – known as ‘holding up’ – so the foxes had little chance of escape.

It began. The hounds were sent in. One terrier man had a bull whip and was pounding the handle against his quad bike. The riders were banging their saddles and boots with their crops; shouting and screaming, and the huntsman were ‘burring’ their tongues to rouse the foxes from hiding. It was primeval.

The hounds went into cry, screaming as they found their quarry. The noise was intense and repetitive when they found each fox.

People always ask me if I’m scared during covert operations. The answer is: at times. But all I’m thinking about is keeping my equipment steady and recording what’s actually happening.

The hunt lasted about 35 minutes in this one piece of woodland. At one point, a fox broke out of the wood but the riders and supporters chased it back in.

A fox breaks cover but is chased back into woodland

A fox breaks cover but is chased back into woodland and into the path of the waiting hounds

Then a second terrified fox broke cover, and despite the best efforts of the mounted riders, it managed to flee.

Still from footage of fox hunting gathered by the League

A still from footage gathered by the League of illegal fox cub hunting

It was a particularly callous hunt that went on for a protracted period of time. The fox cubs in the woods didn’t stand a chance. We were horrified by what we’d seen and knew we had filmed evidence for prosecution.

Convictions for fox cub hunting are extremely rare. In fact, the only other successful prosecution for autumn hunting was against the Meynell and South Staffordshire Hunt in 2012 – the same hunt we had witnessed on that morning in October 2018.

The conviction of two members of the Meynell and South Staffordshire Hunt, former huntsman Sam Staniland and William Tatler, joint master of the hunt, is a warning to others. The disgraced Meynell thought they were acting in secret despite so much public feeling against illegal fox hunting. Their clandestine activity has now been exposed.

Intelligence-led operations like this are helping us provide the police with evidence that hunts continue to break the law 14 years after the Hunting Act came into force. With the general election just around the corner, there’s never been a more important time to strengthen the ban.

While this was a particularly harrowing operation, it is one I am proud to have been involved in from start to finish. I am pleased that two fox hunters have been brought to justice.

If you have any information about illegal fox cub hunting then the League Against Cruel Sports’ investigations team would welcome your call. Report any animal crime online, call 01483 361 108 or email crimewatch@league.co.uk.

Watch the some of the footage captured here: