MEMBERS of Oxfordshire’s Heythrop Hunt were yesterday convicted of illegal fox hunting in the first such prosecution ever mounted by the RSPCA.

The Heythrop Hunt, along with members Julian Barnfield, 49, and Richard Sumner, 68, admitted a total of 12 counts of unlawful hunting with dogs.

The case was the first where a whole hunt has faced corporate charges and was also the first taken by the RSPCA involving the prosecution of a hunt itself.

Footage of hounds dragging the body of a fox across a muddy field was played to the courtroom as the offences were outlined to District Judge Tim Pattinson.

The hearing, at Oxford Magistrates’ Court, was told the Heythrop Hunt met on four occasions and hunted foxes with dogs, in contravention of the Hunting Act 2004.

Jeremy Carter-Manning QC, prosecuting on behalf of the RSPCA, said the footage showed evidence of “prolonged and deliberate unlawful hunting”.

Mr Carter-Manning said: “The foxes are clearly seen by a number of relevant people, including Mr Sumner and Mr Barnfield and others. They are seen actively pursuing the hounds in pursuit of a fox.”

Both men and the Heythrop Hunt admitted four counts of unlawfully hunting a fox with dogs.

The offences took place on November 23 and November 30 last year as well as February 29 and March 7 this year.

Philip Mott QC, defending, said during that period there would have been around 100 hunts, each lasting some five hours.

He said: “What you have here is unlawful hunting, shown and admitted, of no more than 15 minutes in total.

“It’s our case that the rest of the time this hunt was operating trail hunting.”

Retired huntsman Barnfield, 49, of Worcester Road, Chipping Norton, and retired huntmaster Sumner, 68, of Salperton, Gloucestershire, each admitted four charges of unlawfully hunting a fox with dogs.

Sentencing, District Judge Pattinson said: “Hunting foxes provokes extremely strong feelings on both sides of the argument.

“Some people see hunting foxes as cruel and immoral.

“Others see hunting as an essential and traditional part of countryside management and they say that criminalising the activity is inappropriate.”

Barnfield was fined a total of £1,000 and ordered to pay £2,000 costs and Sumner was fined a total of £1,800 and ordered to pay £2,500 costs. Both men were also ordered to pay a £15 victims’ surcharge. The Heythrop Hunt was fined a total of £4,000, costs of £15,000 and a £15 victims’ surcharge.

The case was based on footage shot by independent monitors and passed to the RSPCA. It then deployed an undercover unit to investigate before deciding to go ahead with the prosecution.

A statement released on behalf of the independent monitors said: “This prosecution should teach hunts that they can no longer ride roughshod over the law of the land.

“We will not rest until we see this illegal animal abuse stamped out once and for all.”

Outside court, Barnfield said of the hunt monitors: “These people are vigilantes following me around and filming me. I’m not allowed to follow them around Tesco and see if they steal a tin of beans.”

The two men and the company each admitted four charges of unlawfully hunting a wild mammal, namely a fox, with dogs.

The first instance took place in the vicinity of Church Westcote, Gloucestershire, on November 23, 2011.

The second occurred near Evenlode, Gloucestershire, on November 30 last year.

The third charge related to hunting on February 29 this year on land near Chastleton, Oxfordshire.

The fourth incident took place near Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire, on March 7 this year.