Seeing the field of winter barley behind my house being combined last night I was reminded that we are now entering the busiest season for one of the scourges of the countryside: hare coursing. It might be helpful if I wrote a piece on hare coursing, how to recognise this crime and what evidence is required for the police to gain a conviction in court.
We are lucky in Scotland in having the choice of two different pieces of legislation for use against hare coursers. Firstly the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 makes it an offence to course wild mammals with a dog or dogs, or to search for them for the purpose of coursing. ‘Mammals’ for the purposes of this Act do not include rabbits and rodents. I think it was wrong to exclude rabbits as most folks caught hare coursing maintained they were not after hares, but were after rabbits. This was an offence under different legislation but with a penalty that did not include the option of imprisonment. This is rectified now since, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as amended by the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011, it is an offence punishable by a fine or imprisonment to take or to attempt to take rabbits or hares without authority to do so. Additional offences may be to take brown hares during the close season (1st Feb to 30th Sept), or for the purposes of committing an offence under the Act, have possession of anything capable of being used for committing the offence. In certain circumstances this could include lurcher dogs, slip leads, binoculars or lamps.
One advantage in the use of the Wildlife and Countryside Act is that if a hare (or indeed a rabbit) is taken during the coursing, only a single witness is required for a conviction to be gained. Oddly – maybe a mistake by the legislators – the normal corroboration is required if the dogs have chased but been unable to catch a hare.
Persons involved in hare coursing usually have fairly old cars (in case they are forfeited by the court) which are sometimes 4WD vehicles. They drive quiet country roads until they see a suitable field where they can spot hares from the road, sometimes using binoculars to do so. These fields are generally large, so that the chase is not impeded by fences as would happen in smaller fields. The crop is usually winter or spring-sown cereal crops where hares can often be seen from the road. During the day the hare claps down in a form, a depression in the ground, and rests. Even so it can sometimes be seen from a distance and often can be approached to quite close quarters, especially if the person does not walk straight towards it but walks as if he will pass the hare at some distance.
One or two of the coursers, with usually between one and three dogs, will enter the field while another person or persons remain with the vehicle, watching from the roadside, driving round roads to the other side of the field or even driving some distance away so that attention will not be attracted to the stationary vehicle and to a point where the coursers can be picked up later, communication being by mobile telephone. The coursers approach the hare and once they are too close for comfort for the hare, which can be as close at 20 metres, the hare will bolt from its form and the dogs are released. Occasionally if a hare is seen not far from the road a dog or dogs are released from the vehicle into a field without the persons necessarily entering the field. Other methods are to walk in line across a field until a hare is disturbed, then let the dogs off to chase. This method is often used in stubble fields where hares are more difficult to spot.
I can never understand the mindset of these folk. Their interest in the hare is finished as soon as the dogs kill it and invariably the hare is left where it is killed. Despite this their main excuses in court are: ‘we were only walking our dogs’ or ‘we were just after a hare for the pot’.
People involved in hare coursing are never pleasant individuals and frequently resort to threats or violence. For this reason they are better not to be approached and the police should be contacted as soon as possible. In the meantime it would be helpful to the investigating officers if they could get a good description of those involved, the colours of the dogs, who appears to have which dog, if a hare has been seen to be chased or killed and if so where they hare could be recovered. Any vehicle description is also helpful.