An obsessive hare courser

Hare coursers in a stubble field

The hare caught by Double D and picked by crows after failing to be recovered at the time

Double D’s dog’s paw mark showing it at full speed and alongside a hare back foot mark

Now that we are in the second half of July and the harvesting of grain has started, the dreaded scourge of hare coursing will become more common. Already I have seen a report from England of a farmer being beaten by a metal bar when he tried to protect his land from coursing. It is unfortunate that some of our worst wildlife criminals are obsessed with the need to course and kill animals with their large dogs. Provided they are caught at the time, coursers are normally dealt with efficiently by police. It is when they are gone by the time the police arrive that the chance to bring them to book is sometimes lost.

The following chapter from my book A Lone Furrow shows not just the extent of the obsession of a single hare courser but also the value of all incidents being monitored and collated either by either an individual or a team within the police:

 

The coursing of hares with dogs is one of the more common wildlife crimes in the east of Scotland. I have dealt with many hare coursing incidents under the older legislation, the Game (Scotland) Act 1832, where there was no power of arrest for the police, though bizarrely this was available to landowners and their ‘servants’. In the more recent Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 the procedure is much more straightforward for police officers. Though by 2002 I was in a support staff role with none of my former police powers, I nevertheless had an active advisory part in just about every hare coursing incident that took place in Tayside. In addition, I linked in with my colleagues in just about every other police force as most of the criminals involved in coursing regularly crossed force boundaries and were invariably involved in other spheres of criminality.

In Tayside in 2005 we devised an operation, Operation Lepus, to deal more effectively with the handful of people who consider coursing their right. One of the first tactics was to convince landowners, farmers and gamekeepers that we would take reports of coursing seriously and investigate the incidents as we would with any other crime or offence.

As an immediate consequence, many more incidents were reported: incidents where in the past the farmer or gamekeeper might not have bothered to phone the police as they expected that little of worth would happen, and it would be a waste of their time. In policing terms wildlife crime might have a lower priority but every offence that is reported to the police deserves to be considered for investigation. For some wildlife crimes the investigation might be minimal because of the extremely unlikely chance of the person being detected, but hare coursing is not one of these crimes.

For a start, when the offence is reported, the people involved are normally still at the scene and they can be caught provided police are able to get there quickly enough (clearly, this is not always possible). It is those cases where the police officers don’t catch the hare coursers in the act, or do catch them but don’t take the right action, where I can help out. Here are classic examples, all relating to the same person from Dundee, a compulsive hare courser who we’ll call Double D.

On a Thursday in early February 2006, Double D and a pal were arrested by two police officers after a report that they had been coursing. I discovered this on the following Saturday morning when I went in to the office to catch up on some paperwork. On learning from the Control Room that they had been released before their court appearance, I accessed and read the police report. I was not surprised that the fiscal had let Double D and his pal out before court as the evidence was paper-thin. Neither of the men had been interviewed under caution to establish why they were raking about fields with their lurchers, and no search of any sort seemed to have been carried out in the field for evidence – normally something that I would be asked to help out with. Though the fiscal had released the men, I decided to visit the scene and ask the arresting police officers if there was any further evidence before a decision was made whether or not to proceed with the case. I was determined to ensure that there would be further evidence to present.

I telephoned the farmer who had made the complaint and arranged for him to show me the fields in which he had seen Double D & Co, and the route they had taken. The ground being soft I was reasonably sure that we would be able to track them and I hoped the farmer would have time to come with me to corroborate anything that was found. As I neared his farm at Kirriemuir it started to snow quite heavily, the surrounding fields rapidly losing their everyday green, orange and brown colours under a dusting of snow. Buggeration! There was now no possibility of any tracking. Even though the spiteful snowfall lasted only fifteen minutes or so, and was no deeper than quarter of an inch, any tracks would be hidden. They were likely to have been faint in any case; now they would be invisible.

The farmer took me on the route that Double D and his pal had taken. He had seen them in four contiguous fields, with the dogs having chased a hare in two of them. The third field was newly ploughed and it would have been a dawdle tracking them had it not been for the snow. I was angry that the opportunity of gathering this evidence had been lost.

In the last field we visited, the farmer told me that the men walked through it diagonally and were met by the police at the top of the field. Right in the centre of the field, on the diagonal line, I could see two carrion crows picking at something. I would have put money on it that it was the remains of a hare carcass.

As we approached, the frustrated corbies abandoned their midmorning snack and, sure enough, it was the remains of a hare. Exactly on the route the farmer said the men had taken. More significantly from an evidential point of view, it was at the very point in the field where, once Double D popped his head over the skyline, he would have seen the police car at the top awaiting their arrival. My interpretation of the situation was that, unusual as it is with hare coursers, Double D was taking the hare home and had dropped it on seeing the police. The police would not have seen the hare, only the heads of the two men appearing over the horizon. I was frustrated that this valuable piece of evidence had been lost for want of a phone call to me at the time for some advice.

I took possession of the hare, though after the corbie’s feast its evidential value was almost zero and hardly worth examination by a veterinary pathologist. A fox had also fed on the carcass at some stage since the hare’s rib bones were eaten through, something a carrion crow can’t do. We could not categorically link the hare to the two men without having followed their tracks but I felt that the finding of the hare on the route the farmer said the men took – a route that would also be corroborated by the two police officers in due course – constituted a link, albeit a small link, in the chain of evidence.

I photographed all of the fields and drew a map so that the court would have a better idea of the layout of the farm and the relevant fields. This would also allow witnesses in court to point to various places where some particular activity of evidential interest in the case had taken place. I also noted a statement from the farmer to the effect that he had seen hare coursing on previous occasions and that, from his previous experience, Double D and pal had definitely been engaged in this activity rather than just walking their dogs. Even without having been grilled by the officers, I felt that the two men had some explaining to do if they expected the court to believe that they were simply out exercising their dogs. No-one would seriously expect a pleasant walk in the countryside with dogs to include a perambulation through the middle of a newly ploughed field. Both men were from Dundee where are many grass fields or parks within or adjacent to the city. To have rejected them for a walk in a ploughed field, with the associated build-up of sticky clay to footwear struck me as stretching the benefit of a sheriff’s doubt a tad too far. I concluded the farmer’s statement by asking him about the presence or absence of rabbits on the farm. Rabbits were scarce, and I was pleased that the farmer was aware that, at least during daytime, rabbits would not be found in the middle of any of the fields in question.

On the following Monday morning I made contact with the arresting officer, who gave me the bad news that the fiscal had dropped the case, deserted simpliciter being the legal term. I was damned if I was going to all this extra work for nothing and telephoned the fiscal to ask if the case could be resurrected. The reply was that the case was completely closed. Dead! I told him of the additional evidence and managed to get him to agree to allow us to submit a completely new case. This was great news – and in my experience a very unusual step for a fiscal to take. I was determined that every possible scrap of evidence would be included.

In the knowledge that their case (which should have been rock solid) had been tossed out, Double D and his pal would meantime be laughing all the way to their next coursing outing. I would like to have seen their faces when a new copy complaint – or summons as it is sometimes called – was delivered to their respective doors.

Once he had recovered from the shock, and after an initial plea of not guilty, Double D changed his plea to guilty. A plea of not guilty by his co-accused was accepted by the court. The outing cost Double D a fine of £150, not the highest fine by any means but £150 more than he thought he was going to have to fork out.

In late March, most likely before Double D realised he had not in fact wriggled free of his Kirriemuir episode, he featured again. Because I monitored hare coursing activity throughout Tayside, I was aware of the favourite farms certain individuals liked to visit for their coursing activities. Double D liked farms in the Kirriemuir and Glamis areas of Angus, and in the Abernyte area of Perthshire, all within a 15-minute drive of Dundee. I was also aware that he was one of the rare hare coursers who sometimes operated on his own.

On this particular occasion a man was seen walking through a field of winter wheat adjacent to the Perth to Dundee dual carriageway near Abernyte. He had two lurcher dogs with him which were off the lead and which eventually found and chased a hare. The two witnesses did not see whether or not the hare was caught as the dogs disappeared out of sight. They then saw the man and dogs reappear, this time with the dogs on leads, and walk towards a car parked near the dual carriageway. The witnesses managed to note the registration number of the car and while one called the police to pass in details, the other watched the man and dogs get into his car and drive half a mile to another farm, where within a short time he saw the man and dogs emerging from the car and the two dogs chasing yet another hare. The police attended the scene but the birds had flown.

This time the system worked and I was notified of the ongoing incident and of the registration number of the car involved. As is mostly the case in coursing, the car had been sold and was not registered to its current owner. This was another trait of Double D, to have a new car every week or so, none of which was ever registered to him. I felt we were a step ahead of him this time and I asked officers in Dundee to go to the area of Double D’s house and await him returning.

Within a short time I received a call from the Dundee officers to the effect that they had stopped the car in Dundee and it was indeed Double D & dogs. In a way we were a bit unlucky in that the two witnesses had gone out before the police who had attended the incident called at their house to note statements. We had only a resume of what had happened so had not really enough evidence to arrest Double D at that point. We could have detained him, a facility which allows the police six hours to decide whether or not a person can be charged, but if there is insufficient evidence he must be released before the end of the six hours. We didn’t know when the witnesses might return home so the instruction was for the Dundee officers to photograph and video the two dogs in case the court, in due course, might want to forfeit them. Double D had admitted being at the Abernyte farm, but stated he had simply been walking his dogs. His trousers were soaked up past the knees in a green slime, evidence that his ‘walk’ had not really been a good day out. We were losing nothing evidentially by allowing him to go.

I met the investigating officers later in the day at the farm. They and I managed to effectively track Double D’s route through the field. He had first of all been walking, then had started running, presumably to try to keep up with his dogs once they were on to a hare. The tracks of one dog, running flat out and with all toes spaced widely, were followed along an access track into the field, which ran between some buildings and a deep ditch. The tracks of a hare could also be seen at one point where the earth on the access track was damp. It was in line with the dog’s tracks but this did not necessarily prove that these were the tracks of the hare that was being chased. I suspected from the heel of the hare’s back legs making a deep indentation into the earth that it was travelling fast. What I could say to the court now was that a large dog had been running flat out along that access track, and that a hare had been running fast along the same track. I could not say that the dog was chasing the hare, only that it was a possibility. The tracks of the second dog could not be seen and it may well by that time have tired and returned to Double D.

The access track led to the public road, a narrow country lane. I could not see any relevant marks entering any of the fields off the road and it may be that the chase continued along the road. The road was bounded by a deep and wide ditch and unless the hare took to the ditch it would have been easily caught as it would not be able to jink about and avoid the dog. The greater speed of the dog would have prevailed and it would have caught the hare. However there was no evidence at the roadside of the hare having been caught and I suspect it had launched itself into the green foetid water of the ditch and saved its skin.

At the second location pointed out to us by the witnesses we tracked Double D and his two dogs from where he parked the car. It was not long before the marks of the dogs disappeared from their initial obedient walking to heel, but the field into which the dogs ran was stubble and the tracks were lost. We had a good search but did not find any evidence of a hare being caught and killed. The searches at both locations had further value in that we established that the fields were full of hares, probably the magnet drawing Double D repeatedly to this area. The farm is in the Carse of Gowrie, flat and fertile land with clay soil. Because the land is flat it is literally segmented with drainage ditches: wide ditches full of green water of an uncertain depth. Our tracking of Double D took us to one of these ditches. By our reading of the signs his dogs had managed easily to jump the width of the ditch. Double D had almost managed. Almost is not good enough and we could see that he had been just a few inches short and had slithered into the water, hence the green slime on his trousers. Without seeing the bottom of the ditch this let us know that it was probably at least knee-deep. Overall he’d not had a good day, and it was getting worse!

Countering a likely defence argument that rabbits were the intended target, there were no signs of rabbits anywhere apart from some evidence of their coming from the wood at the other side of the public road into one of the fields at the second site. Rabbit droppings, closely nibbled winter cereal and some scrapes in the ground were evidence of their nocturnal visits before they returned over the road to their burrows in the wood for safety during the day.

So what did we have against Double D so far? 1. Two witnesses seeing a man coursing a hare with two dogs. 2. The same man getting into a car, with the registration number noted, which moved to a different farm where one of the witnesses saw the two dogs coursing a hare within a short time of the man and dogs coming out of the car. 3. The man being stopped in the same car in Dundee with two dogs and being identified as Double D. 4. A degree of corroboration of events from the tracking, though less-so at the second farm.

Had these been the only cases we would probably only have gone for the first, corroborated, incident.

But more was to follow. The following week near the village of Glamis in Angus, a woman returning home one evening saw a man in a car on a narrow country road near her house. He was driving slowly and his machinations included reversing. When she reached home, acting on her suspicions she ran into the house for binoculars and watched the man who was by this time in a field of winter wheat accompanied by a large black lurcher dog. She watched the man walk down the side of the field nearest to her then turn and head into the centre of the field. A hare rose and the dog took off pursuing it determinedly back and forth across the field. The man was running to try to keep up with the dog, which eventually caught and killed the hare near the top of the field. The woman saw the man pat the dog on the head in return for its efforts, collect the hare, and put the hare and the dog into the car.

The woman had meantime phoned the farmer whose field this was and he and his son arrived on the scene just as the man was driving off. They attempted to block him by keeping to the middle of the road with their Land Rover but he came straight for them and they wisely made way for him to get past. They managed to get the registration number of the vehicle which turned out to be the same one Double D had been driving at his previous incident. The police attended but the man was long gone. They checked on the vehicle registration number but since it was still in the name of the previous owner their enquiry came to a dead end.

I learned of the incident the following day, and recognised Double D’s car registration number. I went to the scene and, accompanied by the woman who had watched him, searched the field. We found little in the way of tracks as the field was so dry but did find the spot where the dog had caught and killed the hare. I photographed the small area of flattened crop and collected some of the hare’s fur. This helped corroborate what the witness had seen. I then had Double D identified from a set of 12 photographs.

Double D was out again three evenings later. On this occasion a man and woman saw two dogs chasing a hare in the field at the other side of the road from their house near Kirriemuir. The dogs chased the hare for some time but disappeared after it into the next field where they couldn’t see the outcome. They saw three men on the road and knew they were connected with the dogs, one having a lurcher on a lead. This man released the dog (or it escaped from him) and ran off down the field that the first two dogs had been in, hotly pursued by the man.

Just before this happened the man was passed by a car with one male occupant who, seeing the men on the road, thought that cattle had escaped and slowed down. It was not just any male occupant who happened to be driving the car but a man who recognised the person who was just about to take off after his dog. He had recognised him from a previous coursing incident the year before, one in relation to which he was charged and appeared in court. How unlucky can you be if you are just out for a quiet bit of coursing?

In the meantime the three wayward dogs were rounded up and they and the three men piled into a car and drove off. They were not about to escape that easily and were followed by one of the first witnesses, who had jumped into his car to pursue the ‘Kirrie Three’ in order to get their car registration number. The registration number was passed to the police but, like the incident from three days before, the police enquiry concluded when the vehicle was found still to be registered to its previous owner.

I picked up the investigation in the morning and telephoned the witnesses. I learned from one of the witnesses about the incident the previous year and asked him in which month that had taken place. When I checked, I found that Double D had been caught and charged with a hare coursing incident that month. This was something positive to work on. I then met up with an enthusiastic young officer from Kirriemuir and we visited the witnesses to obtain statements. We also showed to the witness of the incident of the preceding year a set of 12 photographs that naturally included Double D. There are no prizes for guessing who he picked out.

We then did some tracking in the field. Luckily this field was easy to track in, being yet another ploughed field. We could clearly follow the tracks of the two dogs back and forward the field then across a dyke into a grass field where even the Lone Ranger’s pal Tonto would have had difficulty following the track. I was a bit surprised that we couldn’t see the tracks of the hare in the ploughing but I had no doubt from the zig-zag marks of the dogs that they had been after a hare. We then followed the track of the dog that had run from the roadside and of the man who had chased after it. The dog had run half-way down the ploughed field, turned sharp left, over a broken dyke and into a winter barley field where it seemed to have been caught by the man. Man and dog then walked back up the winter barley directly to where their car had been reported as being parked. Tracking is nearly always time well spent.

We had no idea who the other two men may have been but I considered we had sufficient evidence for yet another charge against Double D. There was no direct evidence that it was his dog that had been chasing a hare but he was art and part involved in the coursing of a hare. I considered that it would be better that the charges were all taken together. The slight difficulty was that two had taken place in Perthshire and would go to Perth Sheriff Court, while the other two had taken place in the part of Angus covered by Forfar Sheriff Court and should go there. I made contact with the specialist wildlife fiscal and asked if she would take all the charges together at Perth. She agreed, and also concurred with my next suggestion that we should arrest Double D as part of a continuing series of offences and bring him before the court.

The continuing investigation and reporting of the case was delegated to the officers who were involved with the first pair of charges and they called regularly at Double D’s door in Dundee to arrest him. He was either never at home or failed to answer the door, and after a week or so it would not be reasonable to arrest him unless he committed another coursing offence. Power of arrest diminishes with the passage of time. If a person is to be arrested some time after a crime or series of crimes then an arrest warrant should normally be applied for. The case was reported to the procurator fiscal and Double D would get a summons with the four new charges in due course.

These latest four incidents took place between 23 March and 4 April 2006. He inevitably entered a plea of not guilty and was due to go to trial in late October of that year. For whatever reason, after all the witnesses turning up at court on the October date, the trial was adjourned till January 2007. I thought we may have cured Double D of his addiction to hare coursing but he was identified by photograph yet again for another incident in December of 2006, this time using a greyhound and a spaniel, an unusual combination.

A few days before Double D’s January trial, I was contacted by the procurator fiscal who was to be prosecuting it. She told me that a plea to the first charge had been offered and wondered if we should just settle for that. This is really the procurator fiscal’s call but I was always glad when they discussed it with me before making a decision as there may be a particular reason that the police would want the full circumstances to be heard, the only way to do this being to run the trial. In this particular case I was aware that the mother of one of our witnesses had just died and that because of arranging the funeral he would not have been able to give evidence in any event, which would mean that either one charge would have to be dropped or the case would need to be part-heard, with another date set to complete the evidence. I have never liked part-heard trials as the impetus seems to be lost and sentences always appear to be less appropriate to the crime charged than would normally have been expected. Further, if this charge were to be dropped, not only would it weaken the case but this was the only charge in which we could prove that a hare had been caught.

I considered the options and asked the fiscal before she agreed to a guilty plea to the first charge only, to try again for a guilty plea to a second charge. If that failed I would have no gripe with a plea to one out of the four charges. This was not to be and when she phoned me back later it was to tell me that we were unfortunately only getting the offer that had originally been on the table. Though I was disappointed I was pleased for the eight civilian witnesses that they would now not have to appear in court, an experience that is at worst traumatic, at best tedious.

On the Monday morning of the case I went to the court to listen in to what the fiscal, the defence and the sheriff had to say. By good luck Double D’s case was first to be heard so I didn’t have too long to wait. The fiscal presented a summary of the circumstances to the court and handed a list of previous convictions to the sheriff. Double D has a considerable – and varied – record, including two convictions under the Game (Scotland) Act, analogous convictions for the purposes of this case. The fiscal was quizzed by the sheriff on the nature of these convictions but had no knowledge other than that offences under the Act relate to trespassing on land in unlawful search or pursuit of game, pretty much the same as in this case.

The defence solicitor told the court that in the charge to which his client pleaded guilty the hare being chased by the dogs had not been caught. He explained that the hare was never likely to have been caught as the dogs were not fit enough and they just enjoyed the chase. He then said that his client had since sold the dogs. These mitigating excuses probably impressed the accused though it’s unlikely that anyone else in the court – particularly the sheriff, who hears this twaddle day in and day out – believed a word. The excuses got even better. The defence contended that the Protection of Wild Mammals Act 2002 was really about banning fox hunting and that hare coursing was at the lower end of the scale. Furthermore, he was led to believe that the authorities turned a blind eye to hare coursing! Considering the publicity I had given to the media on Operation Lepus, for anyone in Tayside seriously to believe this they must have been on the moon all of the previous year.

The sheriff did not believe the stories and commented to the defence, ‘I hope you are not inferring that I should turn a blind eye to this.’ ‘No, M’Lord,’ the defence solicitor replied, ‘I am merely passing on the information I have been given.’ He may as well have added, ‘to keep my client happy.’ The sheriff addressed Double D and asked him to stand. He told Double D that with the penalties made available by the Scottish Parliament (6 months imprisonment and/or a Level 5 fine – £5,000) it was clear that Parliament considered hare coursing to be a serious matter and that he would deal with it accordingly. He fined Double D £400, the highest fine for hare coursing up to that time during the course of Operation Lepus and a satisfying conviction considering that Double D was unemployed and unable to pay a fine much in excess of that amount. I doubted that it would have been any higher had he pleaded guilty to two or even four charges.

In this particular case no account could be taken of Double D’s earlier conviction, when he was fined £150. The reason for this is that he had not yet been convicted when the four incidents relating to this case had taken place. The earlier conviction was able to be taken into account when his outstanding case for the December incident with the greyhound and spaniel came to court, though the conviction for the case with the £400 fine could not be taken into account, the reason again being that this case was still pending when he was charged with the latest offence. I was glad that I attended the court and heard the defence solicitor’s excuses. I was able to ensure that in double D’s next case the fiscal could tell the court at the outset that the charge was a result of an operation specifically to respond to regular complaints by farmers, gamekeepers and landowners about the scourge of hare coursing.

In due course Double D pleaded guilty to coursing with the unlikely mix of dogs, though this time was only fined £250. Though this seems a light fine, bear in mind that the sheriff was only aware of his £150 fine; and not the case where he was fined £400. Nevertheless within the space of a year Double D accumulated fines of £800 for hare coursing and still had another case pending. Some people just never learn.

 

See A Lone Furrow and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy, plus a free copy of another of my books, The Thin Green Line, contact me on wildlifedetective@gmail.com

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