A day in the life of a professional Investigator

It’s 05:45 and I’m in Exmoor National Park. My colleague and I are sitting in the car, trailing the Devon and Somerset Staghounds (DSSH) from a safe distance away.

The DSSH is a registered mounted hunt (MSHA) group that has used dogs to hunt  on  Exmoor for almost two hundred years. For ten of those years, I’ve watched them, and other hunts like them, as they tear across the landscape with their hunting dogs. I’ve watched hinds and stags run from the mounted packs, only to collapse in exhaustion when the chase becomes too much. For me, this is the most brutal form of hunting as the suffering is protracted.

Today we are trying to record evidence of illegal hunting; as professional Investigators, a key aspect of our job is identifying wildlife crimes and holding the perpetrators to account.

Some stag chases last for hours and cover great distances across many kilometers of land, which is challenging for us to keep up with. 

06:00 About 60  hunt supporters look on as the hunt riders enter the moorland. The meet starts earlier than usual; perhaps to avoid the public gaze, or possibly because they have younger dogs to train. To follow live quarry requires a strong scent, but as the temperature rises over the course of a day, scents weaken so an earlier start assists the inexperienced dogs.

06:00

06:44 We catch sight of a herd of red deer hinds with calves, grazing peacefully. Quadbikes dart across the moorland, frightening the Exmoor ponies and unnerving the young red deer stags. The latter group paces nervously; I know they are about to react when they hear the bikes and mounted riders.

06:44

07:10 The hunt disappears into the valley below.

07:52 A confused young hound is carried back to a hunt vehicle. Today is not just about killing, but about assessing the stamina and hunting instincts of the hounds; if this hound can’t track or obey the huntsman, it will be destroyed; another innocent victim of this cruel sport.

07:52

07:53 Another hunt vehicle appears, and I easily see nine hounds in the back. The DSSH use relays of two dogs to hunt, as this is the legal maximum. The staff await radio instruction from the huntsman, who will call them when he needs fresh hounds.

07:52

08:00 The riders enter the moorland. The hinds and calves sprint off, fleeing for their lives into the coombe. For a moment, the stags stand their ground; they face the hunters, their heads raised, waiting. 

08:05 The calm breaks. The stags take off, racing along the hill. The hunters are parallel with them along the road, the hunt is deciding which stag to chase.

11:00 There is quiet. The hunters are too far ahead now for the pounding of hooves to be heard. From the safety of our car, we see beautiful birds such as Meadow Pipits, Wheatears, and Sky Larks. Hikers and cyclists join the scene as the morning passes on. All are unaware they share this moorland with killers.

12:00 Another hour of following the hunt has passed. They have travelled far and are out of view. We learn a young spring stag, no more than five years old, has been killed. He was targeted because of his antlers, which we learnt were ‘deformed’.

12:50 After an exhausting six hours of hunt monitoring, I’m back at Baronsdown, the League’s flagship wildlife reserve. The deer on this land don’t have to fear the hunt. If they stay within the boundaries of the reserve, we keep them safe.

We are familiar with the herds that seek refuge here, but sometimes we see stags we haven’t seen before, stags that have been chased to their limits We watch as they collapse to the ground, their heads bowed, their limbs shaking with exhaustion. The hunts have chased them for miles, but they can’t get to them here. 

Watching the deer on Baronsdown, I can’t help but wish there was no boundary; that the whole of Exmoor, and beyond, was a sanctuary for animals. And that’s why I am committed to investigating suspected illegal animal crime, so I can make the changes I want to see for animals; to provide the evidence that will convince lawmakers to make the necessary changes; where we all live in a world that is kinder to animals, free from hunting and persecution.

07:52

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