Suffolk farmers plagued by hare coursers welcome crackdown

Young Hare enjoying the grass Picture: Frances Crickmore/iWitness

Hare coursing was banned in the UK in 2005 - but is still legal in some other countries. - Credit: Frances Crickmore/iWitness

Suffolk farmers who feel let down by the legal system when gangs of hare coursers invade their fields have welcomed a new government crackdown on the long-outlawed blood sport.

The county's National Farmers' Union (NFU) branch vice-chairman Andrew Blenkiron said it was "about time" sentencing for the countryside crime which involves dogs chasing and killing hares was increased after the government announced it would be toughening up its stance.

Unlimited fines, sentences of up to six months and reimbursement of kennelling costs after seizing dogs used to chase, catch and kill hares are among the new powers proposed. It also plans to enable courts to ban offenders from keeping dogs.

NFU East Anglia regional director Gary Ford said the amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill would "finally give rural police forces and the courts the necessary powers to tackle hare coursing and the wider problem of organised crime".

Gary Ford NFU East regional director Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND

Gary Ford NFU East regional director said a member survey it carried out in April showed two thirds of East Anglian respondents had been affected by hare coursing - Credit: Charlotte Bond

“Our members have had to deal with the impact of illegal hare coursing - and its associated heinous activities - for far too long. They will be relieved that, after prolonged campaigning by the NFU and others, there is now light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

“In our rural crime survey published in April, two thirds of respondents in East Anglia had suffered from hare coursing in the previous year and members spoke about the threats, violence and intimidation that goes with it.

“We hope these amendments will signal the start of a real crackdown on these organised gangs of criminals who break onto fields to let dogs loose to chase hares, causing huge damage to crops, farm property and wildlife, while intimidating people living in rural communities.”

Andrew Blenkiron, Euston Estate director and vice chairman of NFU Suffolk Picture: GEOFF PAGOTTO

Andrew Blenkiron, Euston Estate director and vice chairman of NFU Suffolk, has welcomed government plans to treat hare coursers more harshly in the courts - Credit: Geoff Pagotto

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Mr Blenkiron - director of the Euston Estate near Thetford - said his farm was targeted a couple of times a year by hare coursers - but some neighbouring farmers were much worse hit.

Even when successfully prosecuted, the consequences for offenders were "minimal", he said, compared to the damage and disruption they caused.

"The police put a massive amount of effort into catching these guys, gathering evidence etc, then they have been let down by courts inability to do too much about it," he said. 

"The proposals to introduce an unlimited fines and include the possibility of up to six months in prison seem sensible and should have a deterring effect. I am particularly pleased to see that the proposals include the ability for the police to recover the costs associated with kennelling seized dogs - the present situation is just a farce.

"Proposals to disqualify individuals from owning or keeping a dog can only help. Our MPs must get behind these proposals to ensure that they become law."

Even though those involved in one of the incidents on his farm were successfully prosecuted, the fine was "minimal" and the dogs were not seized, he said.

Debenham farmer and NFU Suffolk branch chairman Glenn Buckingham welcomed the crackdown. 

"We  are very  rarely affected this side of the A140 -  we probably have more hedges and therefore smaller fields," he said.

"But it's a  wildlife crime for an iconic species that does not need the the threat of hare coursing. The punishments have not been updated and it's very important they are."

Cath Crowther, east regional director at the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) said it was a "despicable crime" which blighted rural communities.

“ I hear frequently of the harrowing experiences our members face when they are confronted with people hare coursing illegally on their land," she said.

“The crime often goes hand-in-hand with other acts of wanton violence and vandalism, along with damage to crops and property, and many of our members live in fear of being targeted.

“We have long argued for tougher sentences and more police powers to tackle these criminal gangs and are pleased that government has listened.

"This clampdown is long overdue – and we need to hold the government’s feet to the fire to ensure these reforms are implemented urgently.”