Red squirrels and hare coursing (Part 1)

Red squirrel eating a black sunflower seed on 6 January 2013

Red squirrel eating a black sunflower seed on 6 January 2013


Harecoursers searching a stubble field for hares

Harecoursers searching a stubble field for hares

I haven’t mentioned ‘my’ red squirrels for a while. They are extremely busy burying nuts; there must be hardly a square yard in the acre and a half that we have that doesn’t have a nut buried. They just can’t seem to resist burying; storing food for hard times while unknown to them their artificial supply will not run dry. Cleaning earth scattered from the flower pots on the front and back steps is now a regular job for me; there are no limits to where the wee red fellows cache their nuts. They look in absolutely great condition, with one of the two now clearly much more red than its sibling. This is the more dominant one, making its sibling wait till it vacates the nut feeder before it can have its turn.

The mention of acreage reminded me of a hare coursing trial in which I was a witness. I told the tale in A Lone Furrow and will relate it here in two parts:

There seems to be a strong link between men from Tayside who course hares, and their counterparts in Aberdeen. The Aberdonians make frequent forays to north Angus in particular, and coursing incidents there are often attributable to these men from the North-East. Some farms are regularly targeted, and one of those featured in a case that was reported in early March 2009.  The farmer had seen two men in one of his fields, probably picked because it is 120 acres and conducive to a chase by its vastness.  The field was next to the farmhouse, and the farmer watched the two men walking through the oil seed rape crop and two of their three dogs out chasing a hare.  He telephoned his farm worker to come out to observe (and importantly, corroborate) the coursing and his wife then telephoned the police.  The men and dogs disappeared down the field and the farmer was unable to say whether or not the dogs caught the hare they were after.

The farm worker watched the men coursing from a vantage point and was able to say that they had stopped for about 10 or 15 minutes, and at this time all three of their dogs were still running loose in the field. By this time the first police car had arrived and the officer and the farmer drove round the roads to try to cut off the escape of the men in the field.  The farmer was aware that in the past the coursers had gone out a gate at the top of the field and their cohort, acting as driver and lookout, drove to the other side of the farm to await their arrival.

The first officer saw the three dogs chasing a hare, which they also failed to catch, but soon after this the men spotted the police car. One man, the smaller of the two, managed to get hold of two of the dogs and put them on leads.  He was beckoned by the police officer to come up to the road, and rather surprisingly, complied.  His taller friend, in the assumption that he was invisible, slunk into a deep ditch and tried to hide.  A white lurcher, hardly invisible either, went into the ditch beside him, but almost immediately put up two roe deer and left the cover of the ditch, instinctively determined to chase and catch one.  Meantime the Invisible Man was creeping along the bottom of the ditch in the direction of the next two police officers to arrive on the scene. By the time he was caught he covered from head to toe in mud, and had clambered through brambles, resulting in his face and hands being torn and bleeding. He was not having a pleasant day out in the countryside

When the case came to trial in Arbroath Sheriff Court in February 2010 I was cited as an ‘expert’ witness, and sat through the first day of the trial listening to the evidence of the farmer, his worker and the police officers. In the dock the invisible man kept up his aura of invisibleness, being dressed in a ghostly white shell suit top and with a shiny shaven skull. His shorter pal, quite content to be noticed, was dressed all in black, though had a shiny hairless bonce like his juxtaposed mate. Peering out of the dock they seemed a black and white optical reproduction of two boiled eggs in egg cups on a breakfast plate. Each was represented by a solicitor, with one of those, Tom Cruickshank, being an extremely experienced and well-respected defence agent who specialises in cases that have a relevance to wildlife or firearms. The procurator fiscal depute, Arlene Shaw, was not one of the specialist wildlife prosecutors, but was enthusiastically, and very competently, cutting her teeth on her first hare coursing trial. The sheriff, an advocate depute, was on her first visit to Arbroath Sheriff Court and I rather suspect also having her first experience of hare coursing.

By the time I was due to give evidence it was half past three and it was not worth starting with a new witness.  The trial was therefore continued for another 5 weeks.  I met the two boiled eggs, now out of their dock eggcups, outside the court and they asked me how I thought the trial was going. As it happened I had not been impressed by the evidence and there were many lessons to be learned for the reporting of future cases.  Truthfully, I told them I thought the verdict could go either way, which seemed to please them more than it did me. We would all have to wait till the next court diet.

In due course the trial of the Invisible Man and friend continued. I gave evidence first, and explained how coursing takes place. I also told the court that I had dealt with perhaps 20 hare coursing cases (under older legislation) in the 1960s and 1970s. I had also followed the course of another 200 or so investigations in the previous five years, usually speaking with the witnesses and sometimes helping the investigating officers to obtain evidence on the ground. I was asked about the ages of the three dogs that had been with the men. Two were white lurcher-type dogs, with one clearly being older than the other, though it’s difficult to put an age on a dog from coloured photo.  I later heard when the two men gave evidence that they said the young dog was four months. A four months-old dog is really a puppy, and to me this dog was a bit more than a pup. Nevertheless it was probably under a year old and I would have conceded, had I been asked, that it was too young to use against hares. In summary, I said that what had taken place in the field the previous March was entirely consistent with hare coursing.

The Invisible Man and his pal, Shorty, gave evidence.  I was surprised at this, but when I heard what their evidence was I could see why they had to do so. In some cases defence solicitors are reluctant for their client to give evidence in case they say something better left unsaid, and allow the fiscal an opening. The defence was, so far as I was concerned, an unrecorded story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales….

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