On course for trouble
November brings unwanted illegal hare coursers reports farmer’s wife Suzy Stennett
IT’S a quiet, autumnal Sunday afternoon, the sun hanging low in a pale sky, taking the chill out of the air. I’m upstairs making up the beds with fresh sheets for the new week ahead, while the girls are outside in the garden having a kick about with Daddy and the dogs, when I hear my husband shout: “Take the girls, we’ve got hare coursers.” It’s an all too frequent occurrence at this time of year, when fields have low ground cover.
Running downstairs I gather up the girls and call the dogs in, locking the doors behind me, uneasy knowing unscrupulous characters are in the vicinity. We have front row seats, as we watch the action in the field in front of our house from the bedroom window. My blood begins to boil as I see people in a rusty old jeep joyriding around the newly drilled field, carving great tracks out of the neat rows of oilseed rape just emerging, while their ‘colleagues’ walk the field with a couple of dogs, waiting for an unsuspecting hare, startled by the joyriders.
We see my husband’s Land Rover enter the field, and the girls cheer as he gives chase. I am thankful to see my husband turn back and head home, having seen off the intruders. There was no confrontation today, but we have friends and family who have had difficulty removing hare coursers from the land. One was driven at and bowled over when he asked them to leave. His wife had to leap into a hedge to save herself.
As he enters the house my husband is on the phone to our local gamekeeper. Apparently our visitors have been driving all over fields in the area all day, and there are currently six police cars and a police helicopter after them.
Hare coursing has been illegal since the Hunting Act 2004, which makes it an offence to hunt wild mammals with dogs, in particular under section 5, which specifically makes it an offence to attend, participate in, facilitate or permit land to be used for a hare coursing event. However, The National Coursing Club (NCC), which has controlled greyhound coursing since it was founded in 1858, argues that hare coursing was the most regulated
field sport in the UK. It states that incidents of illegal hare coursing, such as described above, occurred long before the ban, and should be referred to as poaching and trespass.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to interview any of the illegal poachers who visit our farm for this article, but, as I understand it, their main aim is to race their dogs – normally lurchers – for the purpose of a betting syndicate somewhere. The hare coursing is captured on video for viewing back home, often many miles away. There are reports of arrests being made as far away as Wales following incidents of illegal hare coursing here in Suffolk, where they find the large, flat, open fields they seek, and which East Anglia and Lincolnshire have in abundance. They do not seek permission to carry out their activities and they show no respect for land owners’ property, often driving over fields of newly drilled crops, presumably selected for their good going underfoot, which is suited to, what I understand to be, very valuable dogs. When asked to leave they often become threatening and aggressive.
Since September this year, Suffolk has in place a dedicated team for dealing with rural crime and wildlife offences. Their advice is to dial 999 immediately if you see what you believe to be hare coursing taking place. It is a crime in progress. But they stress you should do so from a safe distance and as discreetly as possible, to avoid risking harm to yourself. Details of the vehicles used, including registration numbers, and the people involved, and capturing coursing in action on video are all good evidence, necessary to assist
‘Apparently our visitors have been driving all over fields in the area all day, and there are currently six police cars and a police helicopter after them’
in prosecuting individuals. The rural crime team focuses on gaining intelligence to target offenders, working closely with other forces to ascertain when and where an event is likely to take place, but when they receive a call from a member of the public the police will respond with whatever resources are available to safely and successfully detain suspects, if necessary deploying air and traffic support, as well as their colleagues in firearms.
In turn, farmers are advised to block field entrances and tracks with large objects, such as tree trunks, or by digging small ditches to prevent vehicular access, and allow only one point of entry into a field. This is not very practical for regular entry by farm workers, but gates are likely to be forced and damaged. Another suggestion is to leave fields deeply ploughed for as long as possible, as coursers are unlikely to risk injury to their dogs by letting them run on uneven land. This option isn’t always practical for a productive farm wanting to push on with drilling next year’s crops. My advice to my husband was to apply frequent and liberal doses of muck to each field, although this is equally impractical.
The rural crime team is aware of the impracticalities, so it encourages farmers to sign up to Farm Watch, a police initiative. It provides, among other things, a communication network, enabling fast and effective sharing of information between scheme members and the police, and immediate notification to farmers of any information which may affect the security of their land, buildings, equipment or animals.
So, next on the list of Sunday chores is to take photos of the tracks in the field to give to police as evidence of criminal damage, ever optimistic that they will catch the culprits. Thought farmers lived in the slow lane, enjoying a quiet life? Think again!
‘In turn, farmers are advised to block field entrances and tracks with large objects, such as tree trunks, or by digging small ditches’
Damaged caused by hare coursers in Hitcham.