A LEADING huntsman has been cleared of releasing a live fox from a sack shortly before it was torn to pieces by a pack of hounds.

John Cook - who is in charge of the terriers at the Lauderdale and Buccleuch Hunts - faced the prospect of becoming the first huntsman to be convicted since Scotland’s anti-fox hunting laws were introduced 12 years ago.

But after witnesses, during a trial at Selkirk Sheriff Court on Tuesday, failed to identify the person who allegedly released the fox from the sack, Cook’s defence team successfully argued there was no case to answer.

Sheriff Peter Paterson agreed with the submission and accordingly delivered a not guilty verdict to all three charges that 53-year-old Cook of Main House Lodge, Kelso, had faced.

Members of the Scottish Countryside Alliance were out in force to support Cook at Tuesday’s trial and also included Trevor Adams, 56, the only huntsman to have been prosecuted under the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002.

He had been charged with deliberately hunting a fox with 20 dogs but was found not guilty at Jedburgh Sheriff Court on December 10, 2004.

Cook was accused of deliberately hunting a wild mammal under the same legislation as well as two welfare charges relating to releasing a fox from a sack to be pursued by hounds and also a charge of causing an animal fight to take place and releasing a live fox from a sack in the presence of two foxhounds, which held it at bay before attacking and killing it with the remainder of the hound pack.

The offences were said to have happened at Rink Farm, near Galashiels, on November 19, during a Lauderdale Hunt.

Before the case against Cook collapsed, a couple living close to the farm told how they saw a man take a bag from the back of the quad bike and release a fox down a hillside.

A male witness, who said he watched through binoculars, told how the fox ran zig-zaggedly down the hill but got trapped in a corner between a fence and a wall.

He told the trial: “Two dogs appeared and were baiting it and trying to bite. The fox had panicked and had not jumped the wall.

“Soon a pack of dogs, about eight, arrived and tore the fox to pieces.

“At the time it was a shocking thing. I don’t believe in cruelty and don’t believe in unsporting behaviour.” His partner said she also witnessed the events from an upstairs window of their property.

But they could only describe the man as being small-sized and aged around 40.

And Cook’s defence team said that from a distance of around 100 metres away from their home to the hillside where the incident was supposed to have happened, it would have been impossible to make out it was a fox that was released from the bag.

Jamie Stewart, director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance, said: “We were there because it has been a long time since there have been any cases in Scotland and ensured that our interests were represented.

“I think the case proves the legislation works as the couple’s concerns were brought to court and to test them.

“I think this was an unfortunate case in that the witnesses were genuinely mistaken at what they saw in that it was not a fox and Mr Cook was not in charge of the hunt either.” While the hunting of wild mammals with dogs is outlawed in Scotland, amendments were made to the Bill to allow fox hunting to continue in a different form.

It is legal to use dogs to flush a fox from cover for it then to be shot, as long as this is done as a form of pest control.

The Act further states that no offence is committed if the dog kills the fox during the course of this activity, but only if it was not the huntsman’s intention that it does so and is regarded as an accident.

Hounds are also used to kill foxes that have been wounded by the gunmen or are otherwise seriously injured or diseased.

While no huntsmen have yet fallen foul of the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002, two individuals have been convicted for hunting foxes with dogs and 10 for hare coursing.