The Operation Meles newsletter issued today reported that in 1836:
the magistrates of Walshall, laudably desirous of suppressing as far as they can the brutal and demoralising practices of bull baiting and cock fighting have given notice of their determination to inflict upon all persons who may be convicted of these offences the utmost extent of punishment authorised by law … By the Act of the 5th and 6th years of the reign of his present majesty, any person who shall assist in the baiting of any bull, bear or badger, or in fighting any dog or any animal or in cock fighting, shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding £5 and not less than ten shillings.
To me these are reasonably serious offences, but comparing these penalties with the Night Poaching Act 1828, where a poacher may be caught taking a pheasant or rabbit, these folks caught poaching during the night were liable to a much more severe penalty. The 1828 legislation began,
And whereas the Practice of going out by night for the purpose of Destroying Game has very much increased of late years, and has in very many instances led to the commission of Murder, and of other grievous offences: and it is expedient to make more effectual Provisions than now by law exist for repressing such practice.
(Note that since 2011 the current maximum penalty for game poaching is 6 months imprisonment and/or a fine not exceeding £5,000). The 1828 legislation continued:
Persons taking or destroying game by Night to be committed, for the first offence, to the common gaol or house of correction, for any period not exceeding three calendar months, there to be kept to hard labour, and at the expiration of such period shall find sureties by recognizance, or in Scotland by bond of caution, himself in ten pounds, and two sureties in five pounds each or one surety of ten pounds, for his not offending again for the space of one year next following; and in the case of not finding such sureties, shall be further imprisoned and kept to hard labour for the space of six calendar months, unless such sureties are sooner found.
On a second conviction the legislation doubled imprisonment to 6 months hard labour, with sureties doubling and the time over which the poor chap must not take the master’s pheasants or rabbits increased to two years, with a year’s hard labour if he couldn’t find the cash as surety.
Hopefully most transgressors learned by the second time they were caught and had gained sufficient ‘correction’. If the ‘correction’ had fallen on deaf ears, the legislation went on:
and in case such person shall so offend a third time, he shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted thereof, shall be liable, at the discretion of the court, to be transported beyond seas for seven years, or to be imprisoned and kept to hard labour in the common goal or house of correction for any term not exceeding two years.
In the 1828 Act if the night-time poachers were three in number and one was armed with a weapon of some sort, held in one case to be a walking stick, the penalty for this misdemeanour was, at the discretion of the court,
to be transported beyond seas for any term not exceeding fourteen years nor less than seven years, or to be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for any term not exceeding three years.
It was clearly much less risky in the 17th century to be involved in badger baiting rather than poaching a rabbit!