WhatsApp being used for betting on illegal hare coursing

Spare a thought for the hares this winter.

Many people get upset at Christmas when the fox hunts put themselves on display to celebrate one of the outdated traditions of the British countryside, but there is another evil traditional “sport” that is gathering pace in the English countryside despite being illegal and that is hare coursing. It has been gaining in popularity over the last few years partly because it now involves black market gambling thanks to modern technology like WhatsApp and organised trophy events.

Somewhere in a field not far from you, (particularly if you live in the eastern counties where the flat landscape makes easy viewing for spectators), there will be a group of people planning or staging an event at this very moment. And it may be streamed nationally on mobile phones via WhatsApp for gambling purposes generating thousands of pounds. Some events even involve trophies such as one called the “Fir Cup” with £6,000 prize money. Owners of prized dogs can earn even more in breeding fees.

Policing illegal hare coursing
Police are unwilling to seize the dogs as they cannot reclaim kennel costs from owners.

Clamping down on illegal hare coursing.

At the beginning of December 2020 there was a debate in the House of Commons on hare coursing which was thankfully well attended, particularly by MP’s from the most affected counties. There was general agreement that the issue needed immediate attention but as always it was a question of what to do. One MP commented that:

“Hare coursing is as far removed from sport as you can possibly get. It is nothing more or less than the cruel use of live hares to train dogs to hunt them down and kill them just to make money”.  Gordon Henderson, Conservative MP, Sittingbourne.

Johnathon Djanogly, MP for Huntingdon, pointed out that farmers have the extreme legal recourse to shoot all the hares on their land to prevent the violence, intimidation and damage caused by being invaded by coursers, but eradicating hares should not be the last resort just because the law cannot be enforced.

This can happen because although hares are included in the UK biodiversity plan they have no protection from being hunted only from being coursed. It is obviously a crazy situation which is not helped by the refusal of the Republic of Ireland to ban hare coursing. Official events akin to horse and greyhound racing still take place involving thousands of live hares.

Clamping down on illegal hare coursing
Thousands of hare involved in hare coursing in Republic of Ireland.

Police powerless and farmers under siege

Hare coursing is one of five priorities of the national wildlife police crime unit, but they are unable to do a great deal because of inadequate and ancient laws. Farmers do their best to barricade their land but the coursers arrive armed with battery powered disc cutters to remove gate padlocks or cut through metal barriers.

The Crown prosecution service admits that:

Hare coursing can cause significant disturbance in the countryside, as well as causing a lot of concern to people living in the wider rural community where the activity takes place.”

The average fine handed out under the Game Act 1831 was £227 between 2014-2018 when the maximum allowable is £1,000 or £2,500 if more than five people are present. MP’s are asking for police powers to make owners pay for kennelling while awaiting trial if their dogs are seized. At the moment the Police cannot reclaim the costs as they can for offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and are disinclined to seize the dogs.

It seems that MP’s might at last be sincere in their wish to clamp down on coursing but probably more for the sake of the farmers safety and livelihood than that of the hares, but for whatever reason it will still benefit the hares.

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Landowners scramble to suspend fox trail hunts

Good news for some foxes this winter.

Following the news that the police have launched an investigation into the activity of the Hunting Office after it was alleged that hunt masters had held webinars on creating hunting “smokescreens” to cover illegal fox hunting, there has been a mad scramble by landowners to distance themselves from the “sport” and either ban or suspend permission to use their land.

The Hunting Office, was established in 2005 after the Hunting Act 2004 was introduced, and is the administrative, advisory and supervisory arm of the six governing Hunting Associations. Their purpose is to “set and maintain high standards of conduct in the activity of hunting with hounds”.

Police are apparently studying two webinars allegedly showing leading hunting figures and retired police officers discussing ways to create a “smokescreen” around unlawful hunts and ways of avoiding prosecution.

Landowners & Local Authorities rush to suspend permission.

This has resulted in a scramble by large landowners and local authorities to either suspend or ban trail hunting. These have included owners of the Lake District National Park, Forestry England which manages 1500 publicly owned woods and is England’s largest land manager, National Trust and United Utilities and Natural Resources Wales. There are calls for others such as the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Duchy of Cornwall and Church of England to follow suit.

Local authorities are also getting in on the act with Peterborough City Council, Nottinghamshire County Council, Cheshire West and Chester Council and Cherwell District Council banning or considering bans.

Taking an eagle owl along can be a smokescreen for illegal hunting.

Trail Hunting.

The Hunting Act 2004 banned hunting of live foxes but did not disband hunting hound packs so the Hunts were able to continue their pastime by developing trail and drag hunting. Trail hunting is where fox scent is laid for the hounds to follow. Landowners license or give permission for trail hunts to take place on their land, but since 2005 there has been constant allegations that the Hunts use trail and drag hunts to cover illegal fox hunting. Allowing drag or trail hunting to take place under the law was always a recipe for future trouble, a fact well anticipated by the hunters. Allowing packs of hounds to continue careering around the countryside was always going to lead to confrontations with foxes.

To make matters worse other loopholes in the law make it relatively easy to circumvent what has always been a farcical ban. Among these are:

using 2 dogs to “flush a fox out of cover to be shot by a qualified marksman if it is being done to prevent damage to property, food crops, timber, fisheries or biological diversity, but of course the marksman could miss and the fox escape with the trained hounds in pursuit;

and “flushing a fox to a bird of prey” which allows a hunt to take a large bird of prey like an eagle owl along and as many hounds as they wish to flush out a fox “for the purpose of enabling a bird of prey to hunt the wild mammal”.

Temporary good news for foxes.

Although all these bans are good news for many foxes this winter there is no guarantee that the suspensions will lead to permanent bans as it will all depend on police findings and the Criminal Prosecution Service as to whether there has been any criminal activity. If not normal service will probably begin as landowners will insist there is no evidence of wrong doing to justify bans.

Meanwhile sixteen years on from the Hunting Act ban we will still be in the situation of the anti hunt lobby accusing the Hunts of illegal activity and the Hunting lobby protesting injustice.

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