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Many people get upset at Christmas when the fox hunts put themselves on display to celebrate one of the outdated traditions of the British countryside, but there is another evil traditional “sport” that is gathering pace in the English countryside despite being illegal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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Hunting with dogs and the “unenforceable” ban.

The UK Hunting Act 2004 was never going to work.

Hare, hare coursing, illegal hare coursing, cruelty to animals, animal welfare
Watch out, there’s a hare courser about.

Whenever there is talk about the Hunting Act it tends to revolve around fox-hunting but other forms of hunting with dogs were also banned particularly hare-coursing. Fox hunts were not disbanded, but given an olive branch and allowed to flourish through drag or trail hunting and remain popular events with the public particularly the festive Boxing Day hunts.  Traditional fox-hunting with dogs is still legal in Northern Ireland and hare coursing events continue in southern Ireland. This has allowed hunts to continue to breed and keep their hound packs for the day traditional hunting is made legal again.

In the case of hare coursing, although there is an outright ban, there has been little protection for the hares as illicit coursing continues unabated  in some parts of the country, particularly eastern England and just like fox hunting the police and enforcement authorities have no way of stopping it even though they have more powers than for fox hunting. They have been forced to use hundred year old laws like the Night Poaching Act 1828 and Game Act 1831 to help combat it as the Hunting Act is so useless. Some Police authorities have stated that it is more prevalent now than before the Act with hundreds of dogs abandoned, injured and killed as a result. [More on hare coursing in a future post]

The Act was badly conceived mainly because the Government tried to appease all sides of the debate and did not consider the practical aspects which has made the law a bit of a farce and has resulted in some forms of hunting of foxes and hare coursing to continue.

Hare, hare coursing, illegal hare coursing
There is not let up for the poor hare with gangs of hare coursers roaming the countryside.

The UK Hunting Act 2004  is so complicated and full of loopholes that law enforcers try not to involve themselves in investigating alleged offences  because obtaining sufficient evidence to put before a court is costly, time-consuming and a nightmare. This becomes obvious when you read the various websites and reams of advice issued to try to clarify the subject .

So what is hunting with dogs?

The legal definition under the Hunting Act 2004 of hunting is:

  • to pursue or kill for sport or food;
  • to try and find by diligent searching and to pursue and capture;
  • to pursue or approach stealthily or to move silently through;
  • to drive (a bird or animal, especially game bird) from cover.

The Hunting Act 2004 describes 5 punishable offences:

  • Hunting a wild mammal with a dog;
  • permitting land to be used for hunting a wild mammal with a dog;
  • permitting a dog to be used for hunting a wild mammal;
  • participating in, attending, facilitating or permitting land to be used for the purposes of hare coursing;
  • entering, permitting or handling a dog in a hare coursing event.
A wild mammal is defined or considered to be a mammal which is living wild, bred or tamed; in captivity or confinement; escaped or released from captivity.

Basically on the face of it any live mammal is protected from being hunted or pursued by dog(s), but of course this would be too easy and so to appease the hunting lobby,  hobbyists and pest controllers there are exemptions which can be exploited to continue fox-hunting.

The “Unenforceable ban”

So it is legal to use dogs to hunt rats, rabbits and wounded shot hares, but there are several farcical loopholes that hunts can use to continue hunting almost normally under what is known as the “unenforceable ban” which include:

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.

flushing a fox to a bird of prey which allows a hunt to take a bird of prey 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” as long as the bird is capable of catching  the animal such as a large eagle owl.

But the major loophole was allowing drag or trail hunting to continue, a situation that 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 and you can almost imagine the Master lining the hounds up for their pre-hunt pep talk :

“Right lads normal tactics today, you know the drill. Try and keep on track, but if you get a whiff of a real fox scent and happen to veer off in its direction do not make it too obvious lads as we will all be in trouble-know what I mean, [Wink Wink]”.

Hounds of course are not going to go against their natural instincts and sense of smell obtained over countless generations and many huntsmen are not going to pass up a golden chance to hunt a real fox when the opportunity presents itself.  Although it would be heartening to believe that not all Hunts participate in any wrong doing realistically many probably do. Everyone knows that the excuses that the chase was purely accidental or unintentional and the hounds were out of control are always going to be difficult to legally dispute. The act of hunting must be proven as predetermined or intentional which is difficult to show in most cases.

Anti-hunt saboteurs continue to monitor hunts

Many potential court cases are dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) due to what they view as a lack of tangible evidence and those that do reach court are rarely successful in regard to fox-hunting, but there have been many successful prosecutions for hare coursing. The Police and RSPCA do not have the time, and in the case of the Police, the inclination to keep an eye on the hunts which results in anti-hunting charities and hunt saboteurs having to continue monitoring hunts. This in turn causes friction leading to often violent disturbances. In practical terms it is impossible to keep track of the freely roaming hunts which are often held on private land.

There was a golden opportunity missed to completely halt hunting with dogs if the law makers had only banned drag hunting and the keeping, breeding and use of packs of hounds, but this was too easy. If the day ever arrives when hunting with hounds is made legal again, they will be ready and waiting to step in with all horns blaring complete with all the equipment and facilities to begin again.

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