Dealing with hare coursing

Hare discarded by coursers in field where caught. No external injuries visible apart from mouth, which was picked by carrion crow.

Hare discarded by coursers in field where caught. No external injuries visible apart from mouth, which was picked by carrion crow.

Hare discarded in same field. Note minimal external injuries. Hares seldom 'torn to bits' as often claimed.

Hare discarded in same field. Note minimal external injuries. Hares seldom ‘torn to bits’ as often claimed.

Pair of dogs typical of use for coursing hares

Pair of dogs typical of use for coursing hares

I recently read a blog on the Onekind website  titled Scotland has a hare coursing problem. Here’s how to stop it. Since I put a lot of effort into dealing with hare coursing when I was wildlife crime officer with Tayside Police I read on, interested in Onekind’s solution. I have a lot of respect for the work carried out by Onekind but in my opinion they are away off the mark with part of their ‘solution’. It is two-fold, and I’ll comment on the second part first.

‘We’re calling for urgent reform in sentencing for hare coursing and other wildlife crimes’.

This is already underway in Scotland under the report of the Wildlife Penalties Review Group, which recommends an increase in the maximum level of fines and imprisonment. This will make little difference to those convicted of hare coursing since I know of no instance where anyone convicted of that crime has received anywhere near the current maximum level. The report, however, gives some short-term solutions:

That the use of conservation/ecological impact statements and animal welfare impact statements is put on a more systematic basis than at present. This might initially be done on an administrative basis with the prosecution seeking these as a matter of course and where appropriate, from either SNH in the former case, or a vet in the latter case. 

It may assist the court in its sentencing options if in each case it was made aware through an impact statement that the brown hare is classified as a Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan because of its relatively low numbers. The court should also be made aware that poaching, which includes hare coursing, is one of the UK wildlife crime policing priorities because of the volume of criminality.

That forfeiture provisions are extended and these and other alternative penalties are made consistent across the range of wildlife legislation as appropriate. 

Forfeiture and alternative penalties are the key terms here. The most obvious item for forfeiture is the vehicle used by the convicted person, though these are seldom worth more than a few hundred pounds. Much more important is the forfeiture of the dogs used. There are clear difficulties here (and I have explored the options in the past, once at the request of sheriffs keen to forfeit dogs) in kennelling the dogs in the period between the incident and the conviction. If there was a will to do so this could be overcome and I would suggest it needs looked at again and that a committee of the key players be formed to revisit this option, which would be guaranteed to make a difference.

So far as penalties are concerned, in the initial stages leading up to a trial realistic bail conditions may be able to be applied, which could curtail the accused person being with any dog more than, say, a mile from his house. Disqualification from driving for using his vehicle in the commission of a crime has occasionally been tried, to great effect. More recently in wildlife crime cases antisocial behaviour orders have been used with success.

The first of the solutions offered by Onekind was:

‘The simplest way of significantly improving the situation would be to give the Scottish SPCA powers to investigate wildlife crimes’.

The investigation of hare coursing, in my view, is not something that can be undertaken by SSPCA.  Firstly those involved in coursing are invariably violent. If they are caught in the act or soon after, the following powers are required without warrant:

  • Power to arrest or detain
  • Power to stop a vehicle
  • Power to search a vehicle
  • Power to search a suspect
  • Power to seize a vehicle
  • Power to seize any items used in the commission of the crime or that may help to prove the crime
  • Power to seize dogs (outwith any welfare issues)
  • Access land to do any of these things

Most hare coursers that are charged are caught in the act. If they are not, their vehicle registration number is seldom of use since many of them buy and sell cars and are only in possession of a vehicle for a short time. The vehicle is almost never registered to them, may be registered under a false name and address and the insurance, since it covers their trading in vehicles, does not have registration numbers listed. If the vehicle is not traced and stopped within a few days the chances are it will have been sold on. Investigation can continue by utilising other methods, usually undertaken by a wildlife crime officer. This generally means a lot of effort sometimes with little outcome.

So unless SSPCA staff are going to be given the same powers as police officers I doubt they can take on hare coursing. Having said that, in unmarked vehicles and along with farmers and gamekeepers, their use would be invaluable as ‘spotters’ during any operation to catch coursers, and to call in a marked police vehicle if coursing is witnessed or suspected.

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