How you can help stop illegal hare coursing
PUBLISHED: 14:30 18 December 2017 | UPDATED: 14:30 18 December 2017
If you suspect people are using our countryside for illegal hare coursing, make sure they are reported to police
The first time I saw real ‘Mad March hares’ was on a sunny spring day walking through the hillsides and meadows above Hedgerley in South Buckinghamshire. There he was, appearing to be putting on a show for us humans passing by, a frenetic mix of crazed break-dancing and gymnastics with some aerobatic showstoppers. Definitely as mad as they come, but more than entertaining enough to entrance us all as he zigzagged across the daisies before coming to an abrupt halt.
And then up popped another one at his side, apparently just as mad, but this time the angry version, rather than simply crazy. For the second hare seemed to take umbrage at the original show off’s efforts and promptly ‘biffed’ him on the nose. Ding! Ding! Round Two, waving paws engaged, a high-speed stand up fist fight which I took to be two young male yobbo hares battling over territory… until one of our party pointed out that the newcomer was actually a female dealing with the unwelcome attentions of an amorous suitor. Well, we’ve all done it, but not usually with kicks and head-butting thrown in with kung fu-style high speed punch combinations.
Even when you know what’s going on, hares still have that magical appeal, the stuff of myths and ancient superstition, although they only arrived on these islands with the Romans. Indeed, there’s a legend that Boudica ‘consulted’ the entrails of a hare to look for omens before taking on the might of the invaders.
Then there’s that ‘Mad March’ tag. The truth is that the male-female boxing matches can go on for months from February right through to August, by which time everyone seems to have called it a draw, paired off and got down to producing some leverets, the baby hares.
The other thing most of us know about Britain’s speediest land mammals – they have been recorded reaching 45mph plus over short distances – is that hare coursing, the practice, if we can call it that, of using dogs like greyhounds and lurchers to chase and sometimes kill hares is now banned, and rightly so.
That’s been the law since 2005 in England, Scotland and Wales, and in Northern Ireland since 2011. It’s still legal in the Republic, but all the dogs have to be muzzled. Wild hares are netted, kept for a few weeks and then released after the meetings, which can draw in thousands of people. There are campaigns to stop all coursing in Ireland but those opposed to it are up against not just cultural issues but that it’s a big money business with betting, prizes running into tens of thousands of Euros and all the spin-offs like dog breeding, catering and entertainment.
The reason I’ve mentioned this is because another of my ‘hare myths’ is that illegal hare coursing is something that happens ‘Up North’ or in places like the emptier bits of East Anglia. How very wrong. Hare coursers still operate in both Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, some ‘fans’ having travelled many miles to find an out of view field down our lanes, particularly at this time of year.
David Briggs, Chairman of the CLA (Country Land and Business Association) Branch in Bucks says: “Once harvest has finished and fields have been cleared of crops, many farmers and landowners across the region are faced with a new threat from a surge in hare coursing, one of the major wildlife crimes.
“Coursers take advantage of the wide open spaces following harvest, trespassing on private land, predominantly in vehicles, in order to set their dogs on to hares or deer, and often betting thousands of pounds on the resulting chase. The CLA has even heard reports of hare coursing being streamed live on mobile phones with people watching online.
“The impact of illegal hare coursing goes further than animal cruelty. Coursers often use threatening and intimidating behaviour, and in some cases violence, if they are approached. Their presence can also sometimes be linked to other rural crime such as theft of plant and equipment or damage to gates and crops. If you live in an isolated rural area, the risk of threats and intimidation can also be very unpleasant and worrying for those targeted.”
Spot some coursers?
The CLA recommends that any suspicious activity in the countryside should be reported to the police on 101 or via the ‘Self Evident’ app, but people should not be reticent about calling 999 if they suspect a crime is actually taking place. Farmers and landowners can also help reduce the risk of hare and deer coursing or poaching by making sure gates are as secure as possible and boundaries difficult to access.
David says: “It is easy for criminals to think they are undetected in the Berkshire and Buckinghamshire countryside as rural areas are not monitored by CCTV. However, local people have a good understanding of their community and can easily recognise unfamiliar vehicles in their area. If the occupants of these vehicles are behaving suspiciously then it is wise to take a note of what you have seen and report it to the police as this could provide vital evidence in the fight against rural crime.”
Jan Penny, Inspector for Local Policing at Thames Valley Police, adds: “TVP takes incidents of rural crime very seriously. Hare coursing, and other forms of poaching, along with criminal damage offences fall within the classification of rural crime. We endorse the crime prevention advice provided by the CLA.”
TVP has a Rural Crime Partnership linking up with local communities and also works closely with the National Wildlife Crime Unit to make sure that oofficers are equipped with the most up to date advice and guidance on preventing and investigating incidents of hare coursing. To keep updated on rural crime in your area, Thames Valley Police also encourage members of the community to subscribe to Country Watch, a free Alert messaging service, at www.thamesvalleycountrywatch.co.uk.
At the end of August suspected hare coursers close to the Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire border ended up without their vehicles – a Mitsubishi 4x4 and a Subaru Legacy – after being spotted in fields at Lewknor. They abandoned the vehicles as Thames Valley Police officers moved in during an overnight operation and are believed to have fled on foot. Anyone with information about the drivers is asked to contact police on 101 quoting occurrence number 43170258211.
Where it happens
In some years Thames Valley Police record more than 300 reports of suspected hare coursing. Over half of the reports come from the rural areas of Oxfordshire, while those in Berkshire – mostly in the west of the county – outnumber those in Buckinghamshire by two or three to one. In recent years hare coursers have been arrested in the Hungerford area, at Ufton Nervet near Reading and at West Ilsley.
Just over a century ago it was thought there were around four million brown hares in Britain, some estimates put it now at around 700,000. Hares are classified as a Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.
Loss of habitat, particularly traditional hay meadows, has been a major factor and there is no shooting close season, although a law dating back to 1892 prohibits their sale from March to July each year. Restaurants cannot have British hares on their menus during those months, although imported hare is exempt.
Wildlife campaign groups include The Hare Preservation Trust, a voluntary organisation which supports a close season on hare shooting alongside recording sightings and providing information for those interested in preserving their numbers.
Locally, BBOWT (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxon Wildlife Trust) has reserves where hares are sometimes spotted. These include Chimney Meadows at Bampton, west of Abingdon; College Lake near Tring; Warburg Nature Reserve (four miles from Henley); Bernwood Meadows, in Bucks and close to the Oxon village of Horton-cum-Studley; Finemere Wood to the north-west of Aylesbury; Whitecross Green Wood and Woodside Meadows, south of Bicester; and Pilch Field near Buckingham.
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