The Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus) is a dynamic ‘British’ species and a picture of grace, speed and resilience. Unlike their European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) cousins, they are born in the open with fur, their eyes open and the ability to hide, run and dodge predation. Hares do not have a nest as such but use a ‘form’ (a depression in bare ground). The mother will deliver her leverets together, commonly in a litter of two to four, and then disperse them; the ‘eggs not all in one basket’ method. She will then suckle them until they are weaned at approximately four weeks.
Despite their non-native status in the UK, Brown Hares are protected under the Wild Mammals Protection Act, 1996, where it is illegal to mutilate, beat, drown, impale or burn a hare. Brown Hares had also been designated a species action plan under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan which aimed to double their population by 2010. This was not achieved and there are no up to date records of their current population numbers. Following this failure, the hare has been made a Priority Species under the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework. Finally, and perhaps most topically, hares are protected under the 2004 Hunting Act, Part 1 Section 5, which bans hunting hares with dogs (coursing). Although dogs may be used to retrieve a shot hare (which is still legal and widely participated in by landowners for ‘pest’ control; estimated 300,000 shot yearly), a dog must not kill or injure a hare.
This leads us to the topic of this article. As the Hunting Act exists, why are we still discussing illegal hare coursing fifteen years later? The Hunting Act was, and is, considered a major step forward in defeating the war on wildlife in this country. Not only does it bring protection to a plethora of wild species and dogs (the ‘tools’ of the trade) but it also allows police forces and the courts to bring justice for those who have fallen and use the power of the law to deter these cruel acts from happening. Unfortunately, as with most things, the reality of the Hunting Act is that it’s not as solid and powerful as it looks on paper, particularly with regards to hare coursing. In order to demonstrate this fact, the case study of hare coursing in Cambridgeshire will be used.
Cambridgeshire is primarily made up of a patchwork of large, flat, arable farmland. Fenland is particularly fertile, covering four counties and 1500 square miles, with 88% of it being cultivated. Sugar beet, wheat, potato and legume farmed fields provide the perfect habitat for the hare; enough cover to hide from airborne and land predators and an abundance of high energy foodstuff. East Anglia is densely populated by hares and it is not uncommon on my daily commute to see multiple large lagomorph shapes darting across the fields.
Despite their high numbers, do not be fooled into thinking that hares are safe here. Hare coursing incidents in Cambridgeshire have increased dramatically since 2009 (Figure 1). Despite the formation of the police’s Operation Galileo (#OpGalileo), which involves 12 police forces, hare coursing related incidents still happen weekly. Reasons why coursing is so prevalent in this fenland county are that coursers trespass on private land and this can easily go unnoticed, particularly at dusk. Coursers are not renowned for their politeness and gentle nature and their complete lack of compassion is not restricted to those of the furred or feathered variety. Farmers and those who confront them are regularly threatened, have their property damaged and are even physically assaulted. Many landowners perhaps feel that they would rather leave well alone, especially when they have a family to protect. The welfare of a wild hare is often not prioritised over one’s own safety or that of their livelihood and property.
Secondly, education is a footfall in the battle against this crime. Although now in 2020 it is much more common to hear people discussing hare coursing, or posting information on local social media pages, many would still not bat an eyelid at a Land Rover parked up in a field, or a group of men walking the field with a couple of lurchers. Many would presume these are either dog walkers or the farmers themselves. The Cambridgeshire police’s Rural Crime Action Team (RCAT) is working hard on social media and community outreach to educate the general public on the signs of hare coursing and encouraging those to report any suspicions. However, this is not going to make a dramatic difference overnight, and due to the nation’s already overstretched police force, reports are very often not followed up.
The impact both mentally and physically on the hares involved in this hideous crime is immense. Lurcher type dogs are bred for their speed and agility. Although slower than a hare at full pelt, the dogs have much higher stamina so a hare’s chances of escape are slim. Lurchers kill by ragging, the practice of shaking, which results in catastrophic and usually fatal injuries. Putting the legality aside, the pure brutality and cruelty that these people inflict on these innocent animals is rivalled by little else.
Their view of an animal as a tool for their own enjoyment is highlighted by the way in which they treat their ‘weapons’. The often forgotten victims of this crime are the dogs themselves. They did not ask to be bred for this purpose, nor to fall into the hands of men (generally) who can so easily discard them when they are no longer needed. The police have the ability to seize dogs from suspected coursers, but often dogs are picked up by farmers or members of the public as they have simply been left behind with no ability to feed or look after themselves.
Thanks to information provided by Woodgreen the Animals Charity, it is clear that there are a large number of canine victims of this barbaric blood sport (Figure 2). When the dogs are brought in to Woodgreen, usually by local councils, they show the classic signs of a coursing dog; heavy scarring on the legs and face, front dewclaw removal and are commonly underweight. As hare coursing is a fast pursuit over uneven terrain the dogs can often present with much more serious injuries such as broken limbs and open wounds. As many of these dogs have been abandoned, presumably when the injury occurred, it is difficult to comprehend the pain and suffering that they have experienced.
Legally, stray animals have a seven day holding period where the owner can claim their animal back before ownership is transferred over to the rescue centre. Occasionally owners do come and claim their coursing hounds, which puts an emotional strain on rescue workers as there is little doubt that this animal will be put straight back to work and the cycle will begin again.
Staff at rescue centres have experienced verbal abuse and confrontations over the refusal to pay fines, once again highlighting that these vile people’s thuggish and abusive nature is not just felt by those with four legs.
So what happens to a hare courser once they have been caught and arrested? They can receive a CBO (Criminal Behaviour Order), under which they will be banned from entering farmland for a duration of time; most commonly the injunction lasts for three years. The offender may also be banned from owning a ‘sighthound’ and/or a four wheel drive vehicle, seizure of vehicles, a driving ban, a fine (which was capped at £5000 but is unlimited as of March 2015) and the seizure of their tools (i.e. dogs). No prison time is handed to a hare courser simply for hare coursing offences.
Despite this being a long list of negative consequences, particularly in relation to a fine and a driving ban, the figures show that it is not enough to deter people from taking part in coursing. The police can do no more than enforce the law, so perhaps it is the law that needs changing? Tougher punishments including prison time is a good first step, but also ensuring that the punishments are given to those who offend. Many get away with ‘a slap on the wrist’ so to speak, which only fuels participation in this wildlife crime further as the chances of getting caught and suffering for it are minimal.
Data released by the Ministry of Justice show that in England and Wales in 2016, six people were prosecuted of participating in a hare coursing event and none were convicted. In that same year there were 1028 incidents of coursing reported in Cambridgeshire alone. Information from the Cambridgeshire Constabulary, thanks to that Freedom of Information Act 2000, shows that no dogs have been seized by police investigating hare coursing over the last three years. If the punishments are not enforced then it is no surprise that incident rates are at such high levels.
It is not all ‘doom and gloom’ for the hares of Cambridgeshire however. A particularly famous local case resulted in a conviction in 2017. Police footage shows a car being chased across a field and later shows the accused throwing a dead hare from his car and abandoning three lurcher type dogs. In a second incident two months later, when he was finally caught, he reversed at full speed from the police, putting countless innocent people and animals at risk. He was given a CBO (Criminal Behaviour Order) where he was banned from farmland in Cambridgeshire and banned from owning a lurcher type dog or being in the presence of someone with one. He was ordered to pay £6,530 in costs and was banned from driving for one year.
This is the biggest conviction of a hare courser in Cambridgeshire, and a hugely positive step for those who battle wildlife crime in the UK. However, one case is not enough. The presence of the Cambridgeshire rural crime team on Twitter (@CambsRuralCops) is strong and on average there is a post about hare coursing every other day. This is a great way to inform the public and establishes a degree of trust between us and them as you can see that they are responding to calls and ‘taking this issue seriously’. However, it does also bring despair at the sheer volume of incidents reported (and that’s a fraction of the total incidents that occur!). It is frightening.
To summarise; hare coursing is a barbaric blood sport which is carried out regularly throughout the UK but with particular prevalence in Eastern counties. The suffering of the hares involved is unimaginable and offers no gain to the partakers other than their own sick enjoyment. The hares die a horrible death, the dogs are abandoned and mistreated, land is damaged, landowners are threatened and abused, and the law is such that the prosecution and conviction rate is negligible.
Looking at this, it is easy to despair, I know I often do. However, with perseverance and dedication, there is hope. The police rural crime units are taking this wildlife crime much more seriously than ever before and social media is so useful in raising awareness of the crimes, as well as bringing those opposed together.
I hope that different charities, NGOs, farmers, police, government and the public can work together to fight this, as it is not a fight that one can win alone. Just because the Hunting Act is in place does not mean that we can be complacent. As is so clearly seen with fox hunting, a piece of legislation is not enough to deter and stop the cruelty which happens so regularly in our rural areas. Will we ever see hounds and horses seized from illegal hunts? Their Range Rovers crushed or have them individually escorted out and banned from the county? I expect not.
However, that is a topic for a later article. I for one do not want to lose the Brown Hare from my patch of South East Cambridgeshire. We need to stand up, report, work together and fight this war on wildlife before it is too late.
Header image, rescued Brown Hare by Ellie Walliker