Not often in the headlines, but under the headlamps of the cars which pursue them, hounds chasing hares seems an unimportant problem. However, hare coursing, the illegal sport where dogs race to catch hares, continues to affect farmers around Oundle, while public attention is turned on the more high profile blood sport of fox hunting.
Out of sight and under cover of darkness, hare coursing is proving to be a big problem for local rural communities.
“When the fields are combined we probably get hare coursing every 2-4 weeks. They drive across the fields looking for hares. Apparently, the coursers are often betting money on the successful dogs,” said local farmer David Green.
Hare coursing is a blood sport where dogs, often greyhounds, are used to chase down a hare or, less frequently, deer. The aim of this varies; some coursers film the dogs and bet on who will catch the hare first, others do it as a form of poaching.
“They seek out areas where they can travel a big distance without barriers such as hedges and ditches,” said another local farmer, Jane Thomas.
Once the hare has been spotted, the dogs, mostly bred and traded among coursers, are set off to catch it. The coursers sometimes follow the chase from in their cars and film the unfolding chase.
The sport is banned under the 2005 Hunting Bill, along with fox and deer hunting, because of its cruelty towards the animal. Many also object to the trespass and damage to farmland and farm property.
“The main damage is crop damage if crops are drilled, ruts in the soil. Often gates are broken and padlocks cut,” said Mr Green.
Ms Thomas had a visit from coursers only the week before this paper contacted her: “Luckily the ground was quite firm so they didn’t leave large ruts with their vehicles, but they still damaged the wheat seedlings peeping through and the established oilseed rape crop by driving around them chasing the dogs.”
The activity is taking a toll on the farming community. Ms Thomas said, “This is very upsetting when you have taken a lot of time and care to prepare the seedbed for drilling.”
Mr Green also took a dim view of it: “I cannot sympathise with their activities. If they approached farmers legally to ask permission, it would be a different matter.”
They are facing an uphill battle with one of the problems being a lack of reporting on the crime. “Most farmers do not report it,” explained Mr Green. “For the police to take more action, more incidence numbers need to be created.”
A freedom of information request to Northamptonshire Police reflected this, revealing that there were two reported incidents of hare coursing in the period from January 2018 to October 2020, with one of those linked to criminal damage, although no arrests or crimes have been reported within this time frame.
Alongside this problem, the cost of rural crime rose nine percent in just the past year, reaching its highest level in eight years. Farm theft costs the sector £58 million per year, with expensive tractors, farm vehicles and livestock all targeted.
Many farmers see a link between more trespassers on their land and increased crime. “The people who hare course are often linked to criminal activities,” said Mr Green. “I have seen evidence of stolen car radios near the tracks across my land. We have had our tractor windows smashed and tools stolen the same evening that the coursers have been chasing deer at night.”
Farmers have got to the point of taking extensive precautions against this problem. Ms Thomas said: “We tend to park old machinery or lay telegraph poles in gateways to prevent access and make sure that all fields adjacent to roads and tracks have good hedges or ditches between the field and the road. This tends to keep coursers at bay in their vehicles, but it won’t stop them coursing on foot!”
There are also WhatsApp groups to alert other local farmers. “The coursers are renowned for being aggressive if confronted,” said Mr Green. “They see themselves as being above the law and have no respect for the landowners or their property.”
Ms Thomas agreed: “We never approach such people, just inform the Cambs Police who are quite keen to catch, charge and disperse them from the county.”
It seems authorities are facing a resilient enemy, as coursers see their sport as a way of life.
A local Facebook buy and sell group promoting activities that support hare coursing, such as dog breeding, was contacted to ask about their participation. “It’s a gentleman’s sport. It’s a sport of royalty that goes back hundreds of years,” they replied. Any further questions were then blocked by the group’s admin.
Prosecutions are made against poachers through nineteenth century anti-poaching legislation, which does not consistently give police and courts full seizure and forfeiture powers for dogs and vehicles, which are the most effective ways to curtail the activity.
Fines also tend to peak at £900, which is small fry for the amount of money already being gambled on coursing.
Given the inadequacy of these deterrents, there is growing appetite for greater action against the crime.
In March, a letter from a coalition of farm groups to Secretary of Rural Affairs and Agriculture, George Eustice, and the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, urged reform: “Simple changes to the Game Act would give police the powers they need to properly tackle this crime and deter criminals with a sentence that fits the crime.”
There is some doubt as to how effective policing can be. “I have not seen the coursers on my land this summer,” said Mr Green. “I have only seen the car tracks, so it is difficult for the police, if I have not seen them. Stricter penalties would help to deter the hare coursing.”
A campaign was launched in September by Crimestoppers in partnership with Northamptonshire Police and the Fire and Crime Commissioner which encourages people to report rather than confront suspected hare coursing to the Crimestoppers tip line.
The chase will continue, but Ms Thomas is determined about her reasons to fight it: “I am afraid I am a fan of hares, not hare coursing or of people trespassing.”
Names of farmers have been changed to protect their property.
1 December 2020