It is the time of year many arable farmers dread. Crops are safely stored in the barn, provided you escaped the rain, but hare coursers are out in force.
Large tracts of stubble after harvest are an attractive venue for unwanted coursers.
Although hare coursing was banned under the Hunting Act in 2004, criminal gangs remain intent on trespassing on private farmland to set hounds on hares.
The thrill of dogs chasing, catching and killing hares and large amounts of cash exchanging hands – as much as £10,000 is bet on each dog – means coursers don’t care about breaking laws.
Reported cases of hare coursing vary from one county to another (see “FoI statistics”, below) with the arable heartlands of southern England and East Anglia the worst hit.
But figures show a joined-up approach from police and farming organisations, including the NFU and Country Land & Business Association (CLA) is having an impact.
Hare coursing Q&A
What is hare coursing?
Hare coursing is an illegal blood sport that involves the pursuit of hares using hounds. Usually, coursers bet on which dog will catch the hare first with large sums of money gambled on the results.
When does it start?
Hare coursing tends to start after harvest, often around the end of August or start of September, when large tracts of land are left without standing crops. It is more likely to take place at dawn or dusk, but can also take place in broad daylight.
What should I do about coursers on my land?
Hare coursers are criminals and have no consideration for landowners’ property. If you see coursing taking place, do not approach the participants. Instead, call 101 and ask to speak to a wildlife crime officer. Alternatively, call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.
What are the penalties for hare coursers?
The Hunting Act 2004 made hare coursing illegal and anyone convicted of the offence can be fined up to £5,000 by a magistrates’ court.
Source: Norfolk Police
Farmer Simon Beddows
Farmer Focus writer Simon Beddows says coursers have plagued Coppid Farming Enterprises, a 1,000ha arable farming enterprise in Dunsden Green on the Berkshire/Oxfordshire border, in recent years.
The estate’s wide-open arable fields, 40 miles of boundary hedges and easy access to the M4, coupled with a low police presence, makes the farm an attractive venue to coursers, who travel from all over the country.
“They usually start coming once harvest starts in July and they are a nuisance through until November,” says Mr Beddows.
“It’s all done on betting. They follow the dogs at night and make a real mess.
“They drive through holes in hedges. They drive all over the crops. They don’t give a stuff where they go.”
Mr Beddows, who is farm manager of the estate, introduced spring cropping into his rotation in 2011, which boosted hare numbers.
The range of spring crops, including peas and beans, created an ideal breeding ground for brown hares and numbers shot up to about 30-40 pairs.
But that all ended when the coursers started coming.
“They decimated the whole lot,” he says. “We were conserving [hares], we weren’t shooting them. But [coursers] cleared out the population.
“It was sickening to find the dead carcasses and damage to the crops and hedges.”
The farm has spent thousands of pounds on field fencing, chains and padlocks. Mr Beddows says this has deterred coursers to some extent, but many still find holes in hedges and bulldoze through.
“There is very little you can do,” he admits. “Our gamekeeper tried tackling them a couple of times, but these characters are not very nice.
“We have heard reports of other farmers being intimidated and threatened with physical violence. If you did anything, they would just come back and set fire to your barn.
“We just try to take down vehicle registration plate numbers and report it to police on the 101 number.”
Mr Beddows says the latest craze seems to be chasing deer and mowing them down. “It’s absolutely horrible,” he adds.
Police rural crime initiative
The farm is signed up to the Thames Valley Country Watch system, a police rural crime initiative which involves farmers exchanging text alerts/information about suspicious activity and vehicles on farms.
“It has helped,” says Mr Beddows. “The police have also made a concerted effort. They have confiscated vehicles and dogs and prosecuted individuals.”
But he believes only a greater police presence will help clamp down on coursing.
“There isn’t enough manpower. That’s the problem,” he says. “There is only one officer covering a huge area and he can’t be everywhere.
“The solution is to have more resource put in to rural policing. But I don’t think it’s going to happen. If anything, it’s going to get worse.”
One Hertfordshire grower, who did not want to be named, says coursing starts as soon as oilseed rape crops are harvested and fields are cleared.
A Freedom of Information request by Farmers Weekly has revealed widespread reports of hare coursing on farms in the UK.
We asked police forces to tell us how many reports and recorded incidents of hare coursing there have been in each county. The ban came into force in this country in February 2015.
Thames Valley Police, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Hertfordshire police forces recorded the highest number of incidents over this period.
From 2006 to April 2015, Cambridgeshire Constabulary recorded 1,722 incidents or reports of coursing.
From 25 March 2008 to 24 March 2015, there were 1,981 reports and recorded incidents of coursing in the Thames Valley, which covers the counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.
Over the same period, Norfolk Police recorded 140 incidents of “wildlife hunting/coursing/ lamping”.
But the coursing problem is far less serious in Northern Ireland, where just 17 reports or incidents have been recorded by its police force, PSNI, from 2006 to April 2015.
Similarly, North Wales Police recorded 14 such incidents over this period.
Police Scotland said it was unable to supply figures due to the cost involved in obtaining the data.
Coursers are prepared to take the risk because there is a lot of money involved, he adds. “There are lots of big bets placed and it’s all in cash.”
There is a “zero-tolerance” approach by police in the county, says the grower. “Any trouble around here. It’s 999. The chopper goes up. But catching them in the act is hard,” he adds.
“The police tend to check them in their vehicles. Are they roadworthy? Are they insured? Are they running on red diesel?”
But he says the crackdown in Hertfordshire has shifted the problem to other counties.
In Lincolnshire, Kit Read, manager for the Brocklesby Estate in Grimsby, says police tend to focus on morning hare coursing, when the real problem occurs much later. “Daytime hare coursing gets the attention, but it doesn’t go on in our part of the world,” he says.
“It is night-time [midnight to 3am] lamping with dogs being pushed out of vehicles, chasing anything with a pulse – deer, foxes, badgers and occasionally hares. I’m convinced that’s why we have fewer fallow deer.
“The vehicles make a hell of a mess on cropped fields. Fencing, wire rope/log deterrents/barriers get cut or moved.
“I also think they see an awful lot of other things in their travels [such as diesel/oil tanks, metal, vulnerable shed doors] and the spate of thefts follows in their wake.”
Last summer, the CLA joined forces with Norfolk Constabulary and the NFU to distribute new signs warning hare coursers they face prosecution and heavy fines.
Ben Underwood, CLA East regional director, says Operation Galileo, a proactive cross-border campaign against hare coursing between Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire police forces and landowners, has had a significant effect, but incidents are still being reported.
“There was a shocking instance of a CLA farming member confronting hare coursers a couple of years ago, after they had been seen running their dogs on a stubble field in Suffolk,” he says.
“As they looked to make good their escape, they drove their car directly at him and he was catapulted over the bonnet.
“He needed hospital treatment, while his wife only escaped harm by jumping into a nearby ditch.”
Mr Underwood urges farmers to be vigilant and report suspicious vehicles, giving the registration number if possible, or activity to the police by dialing 101.
Inspector Jonathan Papworth, wildlife officer for Norfolk Constabulary, warns hare coursers are criminals who give no consideration to landowners’ property and crops.
“They often have a sophisticated information network and knowledge of rural areas and they invariably know about vulnerable properties, shortcuts, and escape routes,” says Insp Papworth.
“Confrontations regularly occur when participants are approached by landowners or their employees and rural communities can feel very intimidated.
“We are committed to prosecuting those involved in hare coursing, and work in partnership with farmers, landowners and gamekeepers.
“If you see an event taking place we would advise you not to approach the participants, but contact police immediately.”