John Craven: Why hare coursing has no place in our countryside
The Countryfile presenter on why there is no place in civilised society for the cruel 'sport' of hare coursing
'Mad’ March is the best time to watch of one of nature’s most spectacular displays – brown hares ‘boxing’ each other in the open fields of eastern Britain. It’s their breeding season, during which females turn on their hind legs and give males a good clout if they tire of being pursued. But it is not just wildlife lovers who have hares in their sights – others have a malevolent interest.
In a Lincolnshire field, police recently stopped a man suspected of illegal hare coursing and seized his lurcher dog. They knew he had another one and asked where it was. He said her coursing career was now over but she was so good he was keeping her. Last year, from betting and breeding, she had earned him £32,000!
Staggering profits like that are not unusual in this barbaric and illegal ‘blood sport’, where a brown hare is chased by two highly trained dogs and large amounts of money placed on which will be first to kill. Often the chase is streamed or taped so that punters nationwide can witness the bloody encounter and unlawfully place their bets.
Hare coursing was banned in 2004 but paltry fines of a few hundred pounds based on laws nearly two centuries old have proved no deterrent. Coursers spread intimidation in isolated rural areas, threatening anyone who might report them and creating thousands of pounds of damage to crops, gates and fences with off-road vehicles.
Magnificent brown hares can be seen ‘boxing’ in spring – but many are hunted by dogs for the ‘sport’ of hare coursing
The current coursing ‘season’ is about to end and for those involved in this sickening racket, it could be their last big fling. Animal welfare groups, landowners, farmers and police have welcomed new, much stricter penalties, which, at the time of writing, should be in place when the next one starts this autumn. They include the possibilities of:
- Boosting the maximum penalty to an unlimited fine.
- Up to six months imprisonment.
- Enforcing convicted coursers to reimburse the costs to police of kennelling.
- Disqualifying an offender from owning or keeping a dog.
“The truth is that legislation has not kept pace with the impact on victims,” says Chief Inspector Phil Vickers, who leads for rural crime in Lincolnshire, one of the coursing hotspots. “These new powers will make the difference – they will begin to turn the tide in favour of rural communities, the police and the brown hare. If we can take the best dogs out of hare coursing, we start to kill the ‘sport’.
“Gambling makes it worthwhile [for coursers] but what really bothers them is when we seize their dogs. Not every force does that but I’d like to see it everywhere, together with applying for kennelling costs to be added to convictions. It’s not uncommon for police to pay £2,000-3,000 in costs while a dog owner awaits trial.”
Hitting coursers where it hurts, in their wallets and with the threat of jail, is the key. Other developments are Operation Galileo, in which 30 police forces in areas where the crime is prevalent share information, and the increased use of camera drones to catch them in action. With drone footage the police don’t need evidence from witnesses – but they still need tip-offs about where to send drones and officers.
Brown hares are in decline and though shooting them is legal, tearing them apart with dogs is not. Hopefully the new laws will curtail this savage practice while making the countryside safer.