Rural communities have suffered a steep rise in hare coursing, with the RSPCA saying the growing involvement of gangs in wildlife crimes is a major factor in its decision to hand over its 200-year-old prosecuting powers to the CPS.
Dozens of rural landowners are being repeatedly targeted by gangs who gather to bet on the outcome of dogs chasing down and killing as many hares as possible.
Latest figures obtained by The Telegraph show that in some counties, such as North Yorkshire, there was a 51 per cent increase in incidents of hare coursing and poaching last year. A similar increase is expected this year.
The RSPCA’s chief executive, Chris Sherwood, said on Saturday: “We’re involved in cases that involve cock fighting, badger baiting and hare coursing, which can involve millions of pounds of fraud, tax evasion and even weapons and these cases are complex.
“We think there’s a better way for us which is to mirror the situation in Scotland, where our sister charity, the SSPCA, transfers its cases and files over to the procurator fiscal, the Scottish equivalent of the CPS, so there’s that division between investigation and prosecution.”
Rural crime experts have told The Telegraph that the recent sharp increase in hare coursing could in part be the result of Covid restrictions driving criminals into activities that take place in isolated areas and are notoriously hard to police.
They add that weak enforcement of the law has done little to deter criminals from running illegal hare course betting syndicates.
'We are living under siege'
It is people like Polly and her husband who are suffering as a result.
“We are living under siege,” she said. “But it's as if we have been completely forgotten about by the authorities. It feels as if the police can do nothing and even if caught these men just get a slap on the wrist.”
Hers is a cry of frustration uttered more and more frequently by the owners of the flat, open farmland where hare coursing has become a regular occurence.
In the past few months alone Polly says she has been confronted dozens of times by gangs of men in four by four vehicles - frequently stolen according to police - using her fields to set their dogs running after hares.
Significant sums are known to change hands as the bloody outcome of the chase is filmed and live streamed to people placing online bets on which dogs accumulate the greatest tally of hares and even deer..
“It’s an awful sight,” Polly told The Telegraph. “I’ve seen two dogs with either end of the hare in their mouths rip the poor animal to bits. The cruelty is unbelievable.”
Polly is not her real name, but the arable farmer and her husband are too terrified to reveal their true identities, fearful the gangs will inflict further misery on them.
“The threats I’ve received from these gangs, I’ve been told they will burn my house down and do all sorts of things to me. “It happens sometimes as much as five times a week,” she said. “It’s got to the point where I’m too scared to take my grandchildren out into our fields.”
Surge in hare coursing incidents
Polly's is not an isolated case. Far from it.
The Hare Coursing Coalition, which includes the National Farmers Union, Countryside Alliance, Rural Crime Network, Tenant Farmers’ Association and RSPCA, says it is “becoming an increasing problem in rural areas, particularly in flatter, arable areas where land is open and easier to access”, such as Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire.
Since the 2004 Hunting Act in England and Wales hare coursing has been driven underground and mutated from a legal sport in which the hounds were awarded points for ‘turning’ the hare, to the bloody activity it is today.
There has been a surge in incidents over the past few weeks, including five men arrested by Cambridgeshire police for reported hare coursing in Toseland, near St Neots, on December 29, and a vehicle seized and five people arrested on Sunday 3 January for near, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire.
In North Yorkshire incidents of hare coursing and poaching leapt from 599 in 2019 to 904 in 2020. Lincolnshire saw around 400 incidents each month between October and December last year, double the amount for the same period in 2019 - in part because a successful crackdown by Norfolk Police drove gangs across the county border.
Police say there is strong evidence that those behind hare coursing are closely linked to organised criminals, with enormous sums of money changing hands through illegal high-stakes betting.
Gangs reportedly use the dark web to buy and sell coursing dogs for as much as £20,000, with some events rumoured to have prize money running into the thousands.
The coalition, backed by a number of senior police officers, is calling for changes in the law, including amendment of the 1831 Game Act used to prosecute hare coursing and poaching, to give police and courts more powers to seize dogs and vehicles and to increase the penalties imposed on those caught and convicted.
Its latest report states: “The damage illegal coursers cause to land and property, and the verbal abuse, threats, intimidation and violence faced by those on whose land they operate, should not be underestimated.”
The coalition’s concerns have been echoed by Julia Mulligan, chair of the National Rural Crime Network and crime commissioner for North Yorkshire, who said too many police forces are failing to take the problem seriously enough.
Ms Mulligan told The Telegraph: “There is a lack of understanding on the part of some senior officers with more urban responsibilities as to the seriousness of this issue and the terrific damage it causes to individuals who face repeated threats and violence.”
She said emergency call handlers often fail to respond to reports of hare coursing as an urgent priority, meaning officers often arrive too late on the scene to catch those responsible - though offices point out that high speed chases can put innocent passers-by at risk.
Ms Mulligan says Covid restrictions in towns and cities may have driven organised criminals to look for alternative outlets for their lucrative ventures in rural areas.
“Criminals adapt quickly to different circumstances,” she said. “This is all related to illegal gambling. Stronger sentencing powers are needed, along with a more comprehensive look at the problem.”
Farmers call for tougher action
Beleaguered farmers like Polly have now launched a petition calling for stiffer sentences to deter hare coursers and poachers.
One farmer from the east of England, said: “Police resources are often very thinly stretched in rural areas and the chances of a hare courser being arrested are slight. The lack of a proportionate deterrent encourages the perpetrators to practice their activities without fear or respect for the law, the land and those living upon it.”
Mr W, a farmer in the south west of England, added: “I have been threatened with iron bars, bats, and the destruction by fire of my farm buildings. I have reported every incident accompanied by photographs to the police. The only time the police have ever arrived they loaded the coursers into a van and dropped them off at a local service station. The police said there was very little they could do as the coursers had no ID and had all given the same name.”
But police say they are deploying all available methods they can to catch those responsible.
Only last week three hare coursers who caused hundreds of pounds of damage to a farmer’s crops were fined more than £1000 by Cambridge magistrates after they were caught driving a silver Land Rover across a field near Fowlmere, last September.
Officers from Cambridgeshire police’s Rural Crime Action Team (RCAT) managed to box the car in near the junction with the A505.
Chief Inspector Phil Vickers, the lead on rural crime for Lincolnshire Police, said the law as it stood did not provide enough of a deterrent against the coursing gangs.
He called for the law to be changed so that dogs are automatically seized following a conviction, rather than being returned to the criminals, and forcing those convicted to bear the cost of kennelling the seized animals.
“The law is not fit for purpose,” he told The Telegraph. “The powers the courts have at the moment don’t match the seriousness of the crime. These are determined offenders, often involved in other criminality, who travel hundreds of miles around the country to stage hare coursing events where £1000s are gambled.”
Ministers say they recognise the distress that hare coursing causes for rural communities.
A Government spokesperson said: “It is an offence to hunt a wild mammal with dogs and anyone who believes illegal hunting is taking place, or has evidence of this, should report it to the police. We are clear that those found guilty should be subject to the full force of the law.”