THE former master of Middleton Hunt who left his .22 rifle on the backseat of his car in York city centre has escaped conviction.

Police prosecuted Frank Houghton-Brown after breaking into his parked Subaru Forester in Piccadilly after a passer-by expressed concern about his Labrador dog being left inside on a warm day.

Mr Houghton-Brown, a former master of Middleton Hunt which met at Malton, who is now Joint Master of Northumberland’s Tynedale Hunt, had left his car to attend a hearing at the nearby county court in April last year.

His dog was in the caged rear of the vehicle, and the rifle was on the back seat – camouflaged by layers of clothes.

The gun’s safety catch was on, but there was a round of ammunition in the breech.

A police officer, aided by an animal health officer, noticed that one of the windows was open to provide ventilation when breaking in to get to the dog – and then spotted the firearm.

Mr Houghton-Brown, 45, was charged with breaching his firearms certificate, but cleared by York Magistrates last November, who found he had taken “reasonable precautions” to safeguard the weapon.

The Crown Prosecution Service challenged that decision. The case came before Mr Justice Silber in London’s High Court.

CPS barrister Jerome Silva said the magistrates’ decision sent out the wrong message on firearms safety. But the judge said their decision to clear the huntsman was “reasonable”.

Mr Silva said Mr Houghton-Brown could have neutralised the weapon by removing its bolt before leaving his car, and that the rifle was at potential risk of opportunistic theft.

Describing it as a “fact-sensitive” case, the judge said the prosecution had failed to prove that Mr Houghton-Brown “did not take reasonable precautions to ensure safe custody of the firearm and ammunition”.

But the judge said: “I must stress there are many others who might have reached a different conclusion and convicted Mr Houghton-Brown. Many people would regard him as having been fortunate.”

After the hearing, Mr Houghton-Brown, now of Nesbitt Hill Head, Stamfordham, near Hexham, said he had taken his rifle with him while out “rabbit-shooting” at the country homes of friends and family.

Mr Houghton-Brown also farms land in Banbury, Oxfordshire, where he has family, and was travelling across country on April 29 to shoot “pests” at friends’ houses.

He had been asked to “do some pest control” for friends near York – shooting carrion crows and grey squirrels on their land, the court heard.

In his evidence before the magistrates, Mr Houghton-Brown said he had “travelled to Kirkham Abbey from his home in Northumberland with the weapon and ammunition to do that pest control job” and intended to go on to his parents’ home in Banbury where pest control was also needed.

He had held his firearms certificate for many years, and was well versed in gun safety.