BY DAVID ARCHER
If you go onto the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) website and read the history of this organisation, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a highly efficient body with a team of united, dedicated and knowledgeable staff all working together like a well-oiled machine. You’d be very wrong.
Almost from its inception, disagreements arose splitting those who stayed with the originally named League for the Prohibition of Cruel Sports from others who formed the National Society for the Abolition of Cruel Sports. A cynic might say this was the inspiration for Monty Python’s Popular Front of Judea/ Judean People’s Front sketch.
The League held its Annual General Meeting a few weeks ago and once again it appears that the direction of attack was not so much towards hunting or shooting, but fellow members and with the advent of social media this is all laid out for anyone to see. But more of this later.
Let’s go back and review the history of the LACS so as to remind the world of the rocky path that led to the passing of the Hunting Act, the people behind it and the troubles that have persisted ever since.
Up to late 1960s, the League was a fairly benign organisation, home to many people who did not care for hunting with hounds but were generally well-meaning. That decade, however, saw the arrival of hunt saboteurs, whose actions were clearly more attractive to younger people, while grabbing the attention of the media, who saw this as a new twist to an old story. The LACS was in danger of being overshadowed by this vibrant new movement that had more to do with animal rights than boring old animal welfare. Steps were taken to wrestle the LACS committee from the old guard and at the forefront was Richard Course.
Course saw politics as the only way of banning hunting and that Labour was the only party in a position to achieve it. He was seen as a champion of the saboteurs too, writing letters that admitted he liked “punching hare coursers” when disrupting coursing events. It was no surprise that when the British Field Sports Society offices were burgled by antis in the 1970s that the stolen documents ended up on Course’s doorstep.
In what would now probably be termed ‘cash for policies’, a large donation was given to the Labour Party to include in its 1979 manifesto “the banning of hare coursing, stag and deer hunting”. When a subsequent court hearing brought by an enraged Conservative League member forced the return of this sum, money was channelled back but this time into local Labour Party constituencies. The annual accounts were falsified by Course (by now the Executive Director) to avoid making this obvious to the membership and crucially to circumvent the court ruling. Many of the prominent anti-hunting MPs during the Hunting Act debates received these payments and this might explain why, despite evidence to the contrary, they remained committed to banning hunting at all costs.
There was always tension between those committee and staff members who took a more pragmatic approach to banning hunting as compared to those who were animal rightists – a difficulty that remains to the present day. A book entitled “Fettered Kingdoms” written by one-time press officer John Bryant espousing his clear animal rights views (the publication of which was strongly advised against by Course) was frequently referred to as “Bryant’s Bloody Silly Book”.
That cosy relationship with animal rights had more damaging consequences when another LACS press officer, Mike Huskisson, became involved with a militant group. In 1984, he brought into the office over a weekend some people who had undertaken a particularly nasty animal liberation raid on an animal testing establishment. This was a time before digital photography and secure darkroom facilities, which the League had, were needed.
Due to the violence that had occurred during this attack, the police quickly traced the perpetrators and in the following days the League HQ was itself raided by the police and an illegal firearm was found on the premises. Huskisson was duly arrested, though luckily for the LACS its name was kept out of the media at the time. He was later sentenced to 18 months in prison for participation in another raid. This was the second time he had been jailed, the first being for desecration of the grave of famous Victorian Huntsman John Peel in 1977.
This isn’t the only occasion a LACS employee has received a criminal conviction, far from it. In 1999, Andrew Wasley, then the LACS’ press officer was convicted of violent disorder at an animal rights demonstration. In 1986, Peter Anderson was sentenced to two years youth custody for an animal rights break-in that caused £14,000 worth of damage. Mr Anderson is still on the League’s committee. Course himself had served time in prison, though for an offence unrelated to animal issues. In 2013, Director of Campaigns, Steve Taylor, was sentenced to 16 months in prison for stealing £14,925 from the League.
Following a brawl in a pub in 2014, the erstwhile chief executive of the League, Joe Duckworth, was arrested and pleaded guilty to the charge of using threatening or abusive words or behaviour and was bound over with a conditional penalty of £500. However, Duckworth, who was on a salary of £105,000 per annum, had his legal fees paid out of the LACS funds. This was brought to the attention of the Charity Commission, who later stated that they had not been informed of the charity using its funds to pay the legal fees. But this was not the first time the LACS, which became a charity in 2007, had been in difficulties with Charity Commission.
It is questionable that the LACS should be a charity at all. The numerous times the organisation has transgressed Charity Commission guidelines would seem to strengthen the view that the trustees responsible for the body either do not fully understand what a charity is permitted to do or that they are simply willing to disregard those rules, in particular in the political field.
Regarding political work, Charity Commission guidance states, “…such activity must never be party political.” In 2007, LACS produced a document for specific use at the Labour Party conference designed to attack the Conservative Party.
In 2009, the Charity Commission was sufficiently concerned to contact the League regarding its claim to be working in constituencies prior to the 2010 general election.
In January 2010, the LACS produced an advertisement with the letters “Cruel Tory” highlighted within the phrase, “Keep Cruelty History”. It was banned by the Charity Commission.
In April 2010, the Charity Commission again had to step in when LACS commissioned a poll that contained a loaded question about the Conservative Party. The Charity Commission’s highly critical report stated, “The question appeared to be designed to elicit a particular response for the purpose of criticising the party.”
In 2011, the LACS targeted corporate sponsors of the West Somerset Vale Hunt – an action clearly outside the remit of a charity. The Charity Commission once again found it necessary to contact the trustees over the matter.
The LACS’ anti- Conservative stance is hardly surprising, given the make-up of its committee and most of its staff over the decades. It currently includes Chris Williamson, a Member of Parliament, a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and someone who was subject to an injunction for his involvement in inciting disruption to a grouse shoot. It was Williamson who told an invited group of students in the House of Commons that the only reason badgers were being culled was not due to curbing bovine TB, but because hunting foxes was now illegal and the Tories had to find something else to kill.
Also in 2011, the League used an Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) logo on its website, no doubt to imply that their ‘Hunt Crimewatch’ campaign had some sort of police sanction. All use of police logos must be authorised and in this instance no such permission had been sought or granted. The logo was removed following action taken by ACPO.
Numerous other comments run very close to crossing a line of acceptability in terms of what a charity is permitted to do.
Sometimes LACS’ practices were as dodgy as the public opinion polls they rely upon. Certainly, reliance on polls seems to be the mainstay of every League argument. Thankfully, the country is not run on the basis of public opinion poll results and when a poll contains loaded questions designed to elicit ‘the right’ answers it is even more discredited. In 2009, LACS commissioned a poll on the public’s view on hunting with dogs, which also included questions on dog fighting and badger baiting. It was clear that the inclusion of such fighting and baiting ‘sports’ was to imply that these activities could become legal again if the Hunting Act was repealed. It is little wonder these selectively worded polls give the desired results and equally there is no surprise why the LACS uses them.
Given that the League Against Cruel Sports is supposed to be an animal protection group, animals haven’t featured much in this article up to now, so let’s look at how LACS’ policies have affected the creatures it was set up to protect.
Despite ploughing significant sums into campaigning for the Hunting Act in the first place, and the considerable amounts that continue to be spent to try to enforce it, not a penny has been used on research to ascertain what effect this law has had on wildlife. If such research proved, as the League claims, that hunting with dogs was cruel and that wildlife benefited from a hunting ban, that would surely be an end to the debate; all the money, time and effort would undoubtedly be seen by the public to be worth it. However, there is no scientific evidence to show that the use of dogs in wildlife management is inherently cruel – quite the opposite. The Hunting Act became law because of two simple reasons – the make-up of the House of Commons at that particular time and the bigoted, class-war views of some backbenchers.
The fact is, the Hunting Act directly caused tens of thousands of brown hares to be shot out on some estates and since 2004 the fox population has dropped by one third. The deer herds of the West country are now threatened because of changes in practices caused by this legislation. This is entirely due to the policies, ignorance and mismanagement of the League Against Cruel Sports and other groups like them who fought for this law.
There are not many instances of where animal rights thinking has been put into practice, but the League ‘sanctuaries’ are good examples. Bought originally to block hunts, they slowly became larger areas that required management. The LACS’ Baronsdown ‘sanctuary’ has been mismanaged for years and from time to time the media has covered stories of diseased, starving and injured deer, left to suffer because of the LACS’ confused management policy.
In 2002, Gordon Pearce, a deer culler who had worked occasionally for the League since the 1960s, took photographs showing the poor state of the animals he has been forced to put down.”In most cases the deer were so malnourished they could not get up,” he said. “On one occasion a league worker called me to say a big stag had a broken back leg but that I could not shoot it until the sanctuary manager, Paul Tilsley, said okay.
“But he was on his way to London. By the time he got back and agreed the stag had to be shot it was nearly two weeks later and for all that time it had been in agony, with a broken leg.”
A study by scientists in 2008 showed that the methods and systems operated by the League, which included feeding the deer to encourage them to gather on this land, had caused one of the biggest known outbreaks of bovine TB in Red deer.
LACS have always favoured research that suits their purposes and are quite happy to dismiss science when it doesn’t. A fox wounding rate study undertaken by the appropriately named Dr Nick Fox was supposedly rubbished by Professor Stephen Harris, someone who openly holds anti-hunting views, following his own research. Yet, despite the Dr Fox’s work being validated by peer review and publication in a scientific journal, the Harris work, while still quoted by antis, has never seen the light of day.
The LACS is now on its ninth chief executive in recent years, a previous one managing to hold the post for just a few days before quitting, saying the organisation was “ungovernable”. Another was Rachel Newman, a former solicitor, who ‘forgot’ to reveal in a court case against the Lamerton Hunt the close working relationship the League has with the expert witness, Professor Harris. Oddly, he also ‘forgot’ to mention it, despite there being a legal duty on expert witnesses to declare any potential conflict of interest. The court case collapsed, costing the LACS £25,000.
A hold on the finances has not always been as tight as perhaps it should have been at the League Against Cruel Sports. A legacy of £3.5 million, left to the LACS in 2014, apparently saved the organisation from financial difficulties, but then led to an “extravagant spending spree” according to an investigative report in The Times. As well as the failed prosecution against the Lamerton Hunt, it revealed the payment of Joe Duckworth’s legal fees, that salaries had risen above inflation and that there were trips abroad on a futile campaign in Malta. Clearly, a major embarrassment for a charity, prompting the League to challenge the newspaper through the Independent Press Standards Organisation, only to lose on every count.
It’s worth noting that recent LACS’ chief executives have all received a salary of over 100k per annum and with the number of staff members having grown in recent years to 47, some of the ‘heads of departments’ are close behind that figure in remuneration costs. It begs the question what precisely do they all do?
The latest problem is a dispute over the dismissal of Jordi Casamitjana, the League’s former Head of Policy and Research, who exposed the LACS’s pension fund investing in companies that involve animal testing. He is currently seeking legal action against the LACS.
The recent AGM contained all the elements of some previous meetings with the proceedings being disrupted by shouting and accusations flying around about ‘investigators’ being dismissed. The tone of the meeting was displayed by the new chair referring to a former government minister as, “a f***ing nutter”, prompting one member to say, “What a sad day in London yesterday. In nearly 20 years of attending the League AGM I never experienced anything like this.”
The problems at the League appear to be never-ending, though they are always quickly forgotten by a new wave of people who hold anti-hunting views and can never see anything wrong in their way of perceiving the world. Yet numerous politicians and people like Chris Packham, Mark Avery and even the RSPB and RSPCA will align themselves with this organisation and one has to ask why?
One thing that the LACS is successful at is conning a public that knows little or nothing about countryside management methods and hunting in particular. A combination of juvenile or anthropomorphic films mixed in with class war activists and keyboard warriors produces a fairly effective machine …or rather it would be if they could get on with each other.
To label someone an extremist is to imply an involvement in criminal or even terrorist activities, but there can also be extremists in thought too– those who believe totally in their own often exaggerated views and refuse to accept any other, despite evidence to the contrary. The LACS has more than its fair share of such people and this is their biggest problem.
Perhaps the question we should be asking is not why do some politicians and well-known individuals listen to the League, but why does anybody take them seriously?
This article first appeared in the Countryman’s Weekly.