Updated: Friday, 17th May 2019 @ 1:55pm

Countryside battlefields, dash cams and citronella spray: A day in the life of Manchester’s hunt saboteurs

Countryside battlefields, dash cams and citronella spray: A day in the life of Manchester’s hunt saboteurs

| By Lucy Milburn

On Saturday March 16, a black Toyota Land Cruiser drove directly into Alec Holland’s parked car.

With its license plates removed and obscured, many believe that the vehicle belonged to supporters of an organised hunt.

Holland, 32, is a member of Manchester Hunt Sabs, a local group taking direct action to try and protect hunted animals. He was monitoring the Grove and Rufford Hunt in Nottinghamshire with fellow saboteur groups when their vehicle was written off in a violent altercation.

The incident, caught on camera, is believed to be the latest installment in escalating violence towards hunt saboteurs.

However, the Grove and Rufford Hunt insist that the assailants were acting of their own volition and not affiliated with the hunt.


'INTENSE' WAR: Hunt saboteurs have come under increased threat since the 2004 act to ban hunting 

The British countryside has become the battlefield for a war between two sides with opposing views. In 2004, the Hunting Act was passed which outlawed the hunting of wild animals with hounds.

Fifteen years later, opponents believe that the illegal practice continues unchallenged and disguised as ‘trail hunts,’ a legal hunt that follows a pre-laid artificial scent.

On the other hand, proponents of the hunt insist they are complying with the law and believe that their opponents are merely determined to ruin the traditional pastime.

Prior to the incident outside Goldhill Farm where the hunt were congregating, the Manchester vehicle was followed around country lanes by the same four-by-four and its balaclava-clad occupants.

“We figured that if they’re following us, they’re not bothering the other groups,” Holland told MM.

“Our car was only superficially damaged at this point with scrapes down the side where they had been trying to push us into the hedge.”

Returning to the farm, the group were parked alongside Sheffield Hunt Sabs on a nearby grass verge when the vehicle aggressively ‘rammed’ into the two cars before speeding off.

“We didn’t have time to get away as we were sat there with the engines off,” Holland recalled.

“Watching it back, it was quite dangerous but at the time, I was so focused on making sure I was checking mirrors, that no one was behind me and making sure I didn’t crash the car.

“I was reacting more than thinking about it - it was only the next day when I was going through the dash cam footage that I was like ‘Oh god, that was intense.”

ESCALATING VIOLENCE

Tommy, a volunteer with Sheffield Hunt Sabs, was in the first vehicle that was hit.

“At the time it was happening, I wasn't that concerned about my own safety as the adrenaline took over,” Tommy, 53, said.

“I was more concerned with getting the vehicle started because I thought that he was going to ram me again and driving up to where my friends were on foot.

“Watching the footage later, it actually is more shocking than it felt at the time - people have said they thought my car was going to overturn,” he said.

According to Holland, the police were more interested in issuing dispersal orders to the saboteurs in the area.

“They didn’t want to see the footage on the day – they were more interested in getting us to leave the area which we couldn’t do as our car was completely written off,” he said.

A spokesperson on behalf of the Grove and Rufford Hunt denies any connection to the masked drivers.

"The Grove and Rufford Hunt fiercely condemns any form of violence and the type of behaviour shown by these individuals who are not representatives of the hunt,” they said.

“The hunt acts lawfully within the confines of the Hunting Act 2004 and takes every measure to ensure good relationships with members of the public.”

When he’s not volunteering with Manchester Hunt Sabs, Holland works for a telecoms company.

He started sabotaging hunts eight years ago after becoming vegan and associating with animal rights activists. Despite being a hunt saboteur for almost a decade, Holland has never experienced violence on this level.

“There is a bit of a feeling of the violence levels escalating unfortunately,” he said.

Only a week earlier, the Lincoln and West Yorkshire Hunt Saboteur groups also suffered damage to their vehicles.

“There’s been assaults and rubbish policing where they are very biased towards one side or the other but we have never had assaults with a vehicle to this extent,” Holland said.

“It’s normally one-on-one violence where someone loses their temper and attacks you.

“We’ve never had someone coming out with the intention to smash you off the road.”

'PROPER' BAN

It is difficult to prove if a hunt is operating illegally so saboteurs find it more effective to actively intervene. To be convicted under the Hunting Act 2004, there needs to be evidence that the hunt were chasing an animal with intent.

Last month, Nottinghamshire County Council banned all forms of hunting with dogs in a controversial landmark decision. The ruling was welcomed by supporters of a stricter Hunting Act while proponents of the hunt believe it will set an unfair precedent.

“It is very difficult to prove intent [under the 2004 Act] which is where the law is ineffective - it needs tightening up and strengthening,” Holland said.

Sabotage tactics have generally stayed the same since the first group was founded in 1963.

“It’s because the tactics the hunt use have stayed the same - they are very traditional,” Holland said.

Aided by go-pros, camcorders and smartphones, the main difference for today’s saboteurs is new technology.

“We use dash cams and cameras for our own protection and to make sure we have evidence of what actually happened afterwards,” Holland said.

“There’s always a risk of violence at these hunts as people do not like us being there.”


'TIGHTER, STRONGER LAW': Manchester Hunt Saboteurs argue the 2004 act doesn't do enough to deter organised hunts

Staying alongside the hounds as much as possible, the saboteurs use a range of non-violent techniques to distract them from the trail.

“Our aim is not to go out there and have a scrap in the countryside because generally we come out worse,” Holland said.

“We split up into groups, some in the vehicle and some in the field with the hunt.

“Our role at the Grove and Rufford Hunt was to sit just down the road from the farm so we could see them leave and radio to the other groups what direction they were heading.

“All we want to do is pull the hounds off the scent of something.”

If the hounds pick up a scent, the saboteurs use citronella spray to mask it and mimic a hunting horn to distract the animals from the trail.

“We keep an eye on them – if they don’t chase an animal in that time, we won’t do anything.”

Tommy believes that the increase in violent responses towards saboteurs highlights their effectiveness.

“If anything, violence only makes me more determined because it proves how desperate they are, and the reason they are desperate is that we are winning,” he said.

“We got the ban, for what it's worth and we will get a proper ban.”