Hare Coursing – barricading the English countryside

Farmers given free soil to barricade the countryside against hare coursers.

Despite the ban on hunting of hares under the Hunting Act 2004, the “sport” of coursing is on the increase and in practical terms virtually impossible to stop. It takes huge resources to police and even when offenders are caught there is little in the way of punishment or deterrent. Although banned throughout the United Kingdom it is a regulated competitive national sport in the Republic of Ireland and also popular in western USA.

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, House of Commons, December 2020

The number of reports of illegal coursing is on the increase. In the English county of Lincolnshire, one of the hotspots for coursing, there were 1,048 reports between September 2019 and March 2020 up from 873 the year before.

September to March are the peak periods for hare coursing when the crops in the fields are harvested, the hares are easily visible and groups of mainly young men with lurcher type dogs are commonly spotted driving into the open fields. Police rural crime units then brace themselves to be inundated with reports of illegal hare coursing.

Farmers under attack.

Farmers are being threatened with physical assault if they try and intervene and suffering damaged to their land. It has reached the point where they are being asked to barricade their fields as a detterent and the police are using drones to catch offenders. Farmers are worried that someone will soon be seriously hurt and that the Hunting Act 2004 needs to be tightened and punishments increased.

“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 Crown Prosecution Service

Farmers view hare coursers as hardened criminals and are asking for tailored sentencing guidelines with such things as mandatory seizure of vehicles and dogs and payment for kennelling by offenders, compensation paid to landowners for any damage caused, more powers to the police and courts including much higher fines that can be imposed for poaching offences. Antiquated laws dating back to 1828 and 1831 are still being used to prosecute and the Government have been asked to review and update these laws by removing the cap on the low fines allowed.

Police do not have the resources, powers or the legislation to stop this barbaric destructive and illegal “sport”.

The police report that offenders will do “all they can to get away” firing catapults at officers and farmers alike. They use threats, violence and intimidation to prevent members of the public from reporting them. Police advise any walkers or passersby who spot hare coursing to take great care and keep themselves discreetly hidden while making the call for their own safety.

Incentive to build barricades

In the English county of Suffolk, where hares are plentiful, free soil is available for farmers under a Country Land and Business Association incentive scheme to build large earth barriers or bunds along their field lines and entrances into their fields. Farmers are also asked to block entrances with tree trunks and other obstacles and make ditches deep.

It is basically an impossible situation for the police who find it difficult to control urban areas let alone great swathes of dark open countryside. But updating and strengthening laws which are not fit for purpose at the moment would be a help to them. It is a sad state of affairs when we cannot protect and prevent suffering to one of the iconic animals of the English countryside which is already under pressure from their unnecessary status as pests.

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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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