A JUDGE has found two men accused of hunting on the Quantock Hills not guilty following a trial.

Richard Down, 57, of Kittisford Farm, Bathealton, and Martin John Watts, 56, of Kennel Lane, West Bagborough, were cleared of committing any offence during an incident at Trendle Ring, Bicknoller, on 18 March last year.

They were found not guilty of illegally hunting a red deer with a dog after being charged under the Hunting Act 2004.

Their legal costs will be paid out of central funds.

Animal welfare campaigners said the outcome of the case at Taunton Magistrates' Court was a "hollow victory" for the Quantock Staghounds, where Mr Down is the former huntsman and Mr Watts the current huntsman.

Somerset Wildlife Crime and Hounds Off had claimed there was footage of two hounds chasing a stag with horse riders following on the side of a nearby hill and making no efforts to call the hounds off.

Bobbie Armstrong said: "It’s always disappointing to lose a case. However, we are encouraged by the acknowledgment of Judge Taylor agreeing that illegal hunting had taken place.

“We now look forward to the National Trust responding by taking steps to protect their boundaries from future illegal hunting by the Quantock Staghounds.

“We look forward to seeing a more proactive role from Avon and Somerset Police on the Quantock Hills.”

Martin Sims, director of investigations at the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “Despite our disappointment at the failure to gain a conviction, this is a hollow victory for the hunt after the judge agreed the illegal hunting of a stag was taking place.

“We need to strengthen the Hunting Act with a recklessness clause to ensure British wildlife gets the protection it so badly needs.”

The case comes nearly 15 years after hunting with dogs was banned in England and Wales.