Growing up with dubious parental supervision and guidance in the last decade of twentieth century Tayside, young d’Artagnan dreams of becoming a hare courser. With hopes for excitement and adventure in his heart, he sets out to join the elite company of Tayside’s untrustworthy hare coursing fanatics. A misadventure brings him to a meeting with three of his heroes—the untrustworthy hare coursers Porthos, Athos, and Aramis. Impressed by the young man’s naivety and with not a moment to lose in their determination to kill a hare, the three men enlist d’Artagnan to join them. What follows this fateful encounter brings d’Artagnan all of the danger, intrigue, and risk that any hare courser could ever hope for: a night in the cells, a criminal record, possible imprisonment. The fact that there are no beautiful and deadly women, priceless treasures or scandalous secrets all combines for a riveting tale of adventure and challenge that will put d’Artagnan to the test. Will he succeed in helping the untrustworthy hare coursers escape and earn his place among their ranks?
Maybe not quite an Alexandre Dumas tale but it gives me names for our players in this drama of the open fields.
As some readers will be aware, there are a number of men across the UK who are incorrigible in relation to their illegal pastime of hare coursing. We have several of these in my home area of Tayside whose names keep coming to the fore. They are out coursing regularly, and though they’re not always caught I am pretty certain when it is this gang that has been involved. One episode that turned nasty involved the three that I’ll give the names of the Three Musketeers; Porthos, a man in his 40s who gives his occupation as a part-time car dealer; Athos, a slim, fair-haired man coming close to 40 who seems pretty much to be unemployed; lastly Aramis, a smally chubby man in his 40s who professes to be a gardener. Some might link the name Aramis with aftershave. The Aramis in this story had a very close shave.
During an April evening in 2007 the three, along with an impressionable 16 year-old who might loosely fit the bill of d’Artagnan, were seen coursing in a field near Kirriemuir in the county of Angus. A woman, passing in a car, saw them in the middle of a field with two rangy lurcher dogs, one brown, one white, which she saw were zigging and zagging across the field in pursuit of a hare. She made contact with the farmer, who, along with his three sons, made to intercept the men. When the posse arrived the hare coursers were still in action coursing but quickly returned to and jumped into their car, an old Skoda. Once aboard they drove off for a short distance but must have realised that something was missing: their dogs. They stopped and tried to encourage their dogs to come to the car so that they could make their escape, but the dogs were not playing the game. Farmer & Co parked in front of the Skoda and managed to get hold of the two panting lurchers, both of which seemed exhausted by their earlier exertions.
Taking hold of the dogs was like a red rag to a bull, and the Three Musketeers, plus apprentice d’Artagnan, jumped out of the Skoda and demanded their dogs back. Meantime one of the sons was photographing the musketeers with his mobile phone. Coursers are a particularly nasty lot and began to make threats, as frequently happens when they are confronted, that they would be back to burn the farm down. Athos picked up a large stone and threatened to brain the photographer, obviously realising that valuable evidence was being captured but apparently oblivious to the fact that he was making the case against himself worse. He then tried to hit the farmer with the stone, only being prevented by one of the sons grabbing his hand. Meanwhile the valiant d’Artagnan retreated to the car and bravely shouted through the open window at Farmer and Co, loudly branding them as ‘sheep shaggers.’
Unfortunately, despite the advice given to farmers and gamekeepers who encounter hare coursers to phone the police right away, no contact was made to the police till the following day. Porthos was arrested shortly after the call, but the remaining brace of musketeers and d’Artagnan had gone to ground. Athos and Aramis came to the fore again five days later when they were again identified as being involved in a hare coursing incident near the village of Eassie, again in Angus. They were not traced by the police at the time but warrants had been granted by the court for their arrest. They were arrested a few days later in the Lothian and Borders Police area, having been investigated by officers there for … hare coursing.
Within a few weeks the Three Musketeers and d’Artagnan appeared at Forfar Sheriff Court. Athos pleaded guilty to hare coursing and a breach of the peace and was fined £200. His plea of not guilty to the later hare coursing incident was accepted. Porthos pleaded guilty to hare coursing and was also fined £200. Aramis pleaded not guilty to all charges and that was accepted by the Crown. A close shave indeed. And d’Artagnan? He pleaded not guilty, which was accepted by the Crown. He skipped off from the court into the sunset, never to have been seen (so far) hare coursing again.
Porthos was involved in another similar incident in February 2009. After a report of hare coursing was made by a witness he was traced by police officers in a field with three lurchers. There were several inches of snow on the ground and Porthos was trying to hide beside a wire fence. This is difficult enough in snow, but with three dogs standing wagging their tails it was impossible. He may as well have waved a flag above his head. The police officers saw him easily and he and his dogs were taken away.
A short time later, during a search by other officers of the fields in the vicinity of where Porthos was found, they recovered two dead hares, still warm. It seemed to be a reasonably clear cut case, especially when I later had a post mortem examination carried out on the two hares and they were found to have injuries entirely consistent with having been killed by a dog.
At his trial Porthos gave evidence in his defence, during which he admitted being in the field without the permission of the landowner but for the purpose of coursing rabbits, not hares. Rabbits, as we all know, are not mammals for the purposes of the legislation under which he was charged. He knew well enough that he wouldn’t get rabbits in the fields, especially with snow on the ground. His evidence was that he was making for the woods to course rabbits there, but hadn’t quite reached the woods before being caught by the police.
Evidence had already been led by the veterinary pathologist and me regarding the post mortem examination. Porthos had three lurchers but apparently had no leads for them. Nor did he have transport. His account to the investigating officers was that he had been dropped off by some friends who were going to Aberdeen. It was probably more than coincidence that a 4WD vehicle was seen to speed away just as the police came on the scene. They concluded that this was a friend – or friends – of Porthos abandoning him to his fate.
Porthos gave evidence in court that the rabbits he intended to catch in the woodland were to feed his three dogs. He seemed to have overlooked the fact that hares are twice the size and he’d only need to catch half as many to make a good supper for his canine trio. Of course his dogs might have been extraordinarily fussy mutts and may have had a predilection for the slightly less gamey meat of boiled bunny. By this point, even if the sheriff was not aware of how difficult it would be for lurchers to catch rabbits in woodland with plenty of cover and boltholes into which the fleeing rabbits could disappear, I’m sure he was not conned by the rabbiting story. However a sheriff can only rely on evidence that comes before the court on which to base a judgement.
It got worse. Porthos claimed that once he and hounds had caught sufficient rabbits he intended to telephone his partner, 20 miles away in Dundee, to pick him up. Lastly, he carefully explained to the court that although his dogs were quite biddable there was no way that he could hold two of them without leads or some other form of restraint while the third chased a rabbit or hare. The two dead hares being found near where he was hiding was an unfortunate coincidence and they must have been caught by someone else; perhaps the mystery occupants of the 4WD vehicle the police saw driving away as they arrived. This was all important evidence for him, knowing what the defence witness would say.
The defence witness was a gamekeeper, which I found really strange considering many of the complaints about hare coursing are made by gamekeepers. This man apparently had kept lurchers for many years and had used them against hares prior to the change in the law in 2002 which banned the hunting of wild mammals with dogs. His evidence was that the hares couldn’t possibly have been killed by the dogs that the accused had with him. His logic was that Porthos had no means of holding back two dogs, and if three dogs had been after and had caught a hare they would have torn it to bits.
At the end of the trial, and before the sheriff retired for a short time to consider a verdict, he asked the procurator fiscal that if he returned a not guilty verdict on Porthos for hare coursing, was there any other related legislation that she wished him to consider. I was sitting with the fiscal and advised her to ask the sheriff to consider the Game (Scotland) Act 1832 – trespassing on land in daytime without leave of the proprietor of the land in unlawful search or pursuit of game or rabbits. I learned later that this can be done provided the circumstances on which the conviction would be based were the same. The sheriff had clearly been listening intently and in fact carried out a fair bit of questioning of witnesses to clear up any queries that he had.
When he returned to the bench, the sheriff found Porthos not guilty of coursing hares under the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002, but guilty of the Game (Scotland) Act 1832 offence. It is at this stage that the sheriff is made aware of any previous convictions that an accused person has. In this case eight analogous convictions were admitted and Porthos was fined £300.
I was frustrated that Porthos had managed to avoid conviction on the more serious charge and I reviewed many of my earlier photos of hares killed by a dog or dogs. In the case of at least four of the hares photographed at the post-mortem stage I knew two dogs were involved in the chase. No injuries whatsoever were visible externally and the hares were most certainly in one piece. When I looked at photos of the carcasses after they had been skinned, in two cases there were significantly more injuries than in the recent case with Porthos, but the bodies were still intact. Still not satisfied, I discussed the debate with two eminent veterinary pathologists who had carried out numerous post-mortem examinations of hares over the years, and also with many other wildlife crime officers who had dealt with similar hare coursing cases. Their experience was no different to mine. Though I was not in a position to refute the defence evidence that day since I had given my evidence before this unusual story emerged, I look forward to a re-match with the defence expert. His evidence that day, that I found extremely doubtful, may well have saved Porthos a jail sentence.
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