New powers to tackle illegal encampments and hare coursing

Police and the authorities have been given new powers to crack down on illegal encampments and hare coursing on private land in England.

Following years of lobbying from the NFU, the Country Land and Business Association, the Countryside Alliance and others, hare coursing will be punishable by unlimited fines and prison sentences of up to six months, and police forces will be able to seize dogs involved in this illegal activity.

Meanwhile, illegal encampments will become a criminal offence for those who do not leave when asked by the landowner or tenant, and offenders will be hit with tougher penalties.

See also: What to do if you’re a victim of… hare coursing

The new measures have been given royal assent and are being introduced through amendments of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to help protect farms.

Earlier this week, Conservative MP Rob Butler raised concerns in parliament over people encroaching on land owned by farmers in his Aylesbury constituency and using it to catch and kill hares with dogs.

The MP told the House of Commons: “I’ve been very alarmed to hear of large-scale and dangerous hare coursing in my constituency, where heavily armed people are coming on to farmers’ land and they are live-streaming these chases to China, where there is heavy betting being put on chases.”

Home secretary Priti Patel said in response that Mr Butler was “absolutely right” to highlight the problems and she urged all police forces to use the new powers under the Bill to crack down on this illegal activity.

NFU delighted

NFU vice-president David Exwood said the new measures were “fantastic news” for rural communities that suffer from “destructive and intimidating criminal activity”.

“Hare coursing and illegal encampment can both cause significant damage to farmland and wildlife, something farmers across the country experience all too often, with little repercussions for offenders,” said Mr Exwood.

“Their behaviour can also be a source of great distress for farming families, who feel vulnerable and threatened in their own homes.

“We know that both these crimes continue to take a toll on farming businesses and families, and we will continue to work with government and rural police forces to ensure these strengthened laws are used to deliver meaningful results – a decline in cases of rural crime.”

Changes to hare coursing and illegal encampment laws

The NFU has worked closely with the UK government to include significant amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the Game Acts to bear down on hare coursing and illegal encampments on private farmland.

Changes to hare coursing laws include:

  • Increasing the maximum penalty for trespassing in pursuit of game under the Game Acts (the Game Act 1831 and the Night Poaching Act 1828) to an unlimited fine and introducing the possibility of up to six months’ imprisonment 
  • Two new criminal offences: Trespass with the intention of using a dog to search for or pursue a hare, and being equipped to trespass with the intention of using a dog to search for or pursue a hare. Both are punishable on conviction by an unlimited fine and/or up to six months’ imprisonment 
  • New powers for the courts to order convicted offenders to reimburse costs incurred by the police in kennelling dogs seized in connection with a hare coursing-related offence 
  • New powers for the courts to make an order disqualifying a convicted offender from owning or keeping a dog. 

Changes to illegal encampment laws include:  

  • A new offence and an accompanying power for the police to seize property (including vehicles) where individuals reside or intend to reside on land with a vehicle
  • A person will commit the offence if they fail to leave the land or remove their property without reasonable excuse when asked to do so by the landowner, their representative or a constable and they have caused, or are likely to cause, significant damage, disruption or distress (including anti-social behaviour). This offence is punishable to up to three months’ imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of £2,500 
  • The Bill also amends the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to increase the period in which persons directed away from land must not return from three months to 12 months, and it allow police to direct trespassers away from roads.
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