POLICE chiefs are hoping to improve public safety and build up trust by improving the way they monitor hunts in Cheshire.

Huntsmen and saboteurs sat row-by-row at Cheshire Police’s Clemonds Hey headquarters in Winsford on Monday to hear David Keane, the county’s police and crime commissioner, grill newly-appointed Chief Constable Darren Martland on how the force deals with hunt-related incidents.

It comes after Cheshire Police received 200 reports of incidents in the 2018-19 hunt season – including 51 alleged criminal offences, compared to 19 in 2017-18.

Anti-hunt campaigners in the public gallery applauded Mr Keane and cried ‘hear hear’ after the PCC asked Chf Con Martland if the force would consider introducing an ‘event plan’ for hunts – which could include details on the route, the scent laid out and landowners’ permissions.

Knutsford Guardian:

“That could ensure compliance with the law and it would show that the police are engaging in crime prevention,” he said.

“To keep everyone safe should be the primary concern of this constabulary and I would applaud the constabulary if it was to take on this measure to ensure everybody is working within the law.

“It is much better to focus on prevention than prosecution. It would just call for better cooperation from everybody involved.”

Chf Con Martland agreed that such a plan would be helpful for both the police and the wider community.

He said: “Certainly in the interests of openness, transparency and working together it would be something that we could at least explore.

“The overriding concern – and one of the reasons we have officers on the ground – is public safety. It can be extremely dangerous.

“I would fully support us taking any action we possibly can to be seen to be impartial, independent and to keep people safe.”

Chf Con Martland told the meeting that police are investigating five alleged incidents of foxes being killed, with a file to be passed on to the Crown Prosecution Service in a single case.

He added that other offences – not linked to the Hunting Act 2004 – have also been reported.

They include an incident of assault and an incident of criminal damage, with both being resolved through restorative justice.

Rural officers take part in specialist training on hunts and try to liaise with both huntsmen and protestors – but Mr Keane told Chf Con Martland that some residents still question Cheshire Police’s impartiality on hunts.

Chf Con Martland said: “It is regrettable. It’s certainly not what I want to hear as Chf Con.

Knutsford Guardian:

“We have been on a learning journey over the past few years. It is something that we have listened to, changed and evolved our approach to hunting.

“But the key thing here is about communication. There is an expectation to be clear and transparent in everything that we do.”

One of the biggest challenges for Cheshire Police when investigating alleged illegal hunting is gathering evidence – with the law requiring proof that there was intent to harm a fox, not just if there was ‘recklessness’.

But Chf Con Martland hopes technology could help officers gather evidence in future, with officers having access to body-worn cameras and a drone.

He added: “One thing I’m keen to explore is how can use drones better. It gives us the chance to follow a hunt and have eyes on a particular hunt when we are limited on foot.”

An independent review based on Cheshire’s policing of hunts between 2015 and 2017 was published last December, with 11 recommendations for the force set to be followed up in an action plan, which Mr Keane said he will monitor in scrutiny meetings.