Bumper hare breeding season could lead to a rise in illegal hare coursing activity, police warn
- Credit: Frances Crickmore
Despite having been outlawed, illegal hare coursing activity still goes on. Now Suffolk’s Rural and Wildlife Crime team have invested in a drone to crack down on this cruel pastime.
Sergeant Brian Calver of Suffolk's Rural and Wildlife Crime team says he has seen high numbers of hares this year, and says he and his colleagues are preparing for an upturn in reports of the illegal blood sport.
"It's good to see that there are more hares about but sadly it attracts hare coursers," said Sgt Calver, who says his team will be using a drone for the first time to track down hare coursing gangs, who as well as being responsible for cruelty to animals, often cause damage to property and intimidate locals.
"The drone will enable us to scan a vast area around key known hare coursing hotspots and then call in a unit if we see anything," he added.
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Hare coursing with lurchers or greyhounds - generally referred to as sight hounds - involves dogs pursuing a live hare. Bets are placed on whether a dog will turn or catch the hare.
According to the League Against Cruel Sports, coursing, which was banned along with hare hunting by the Hunting Act 2004, still takes place.
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Its website says: "Coursing enthusiasts have claimed that caught hares die instantaneously from the bite of one dog. However, hares are often unsuccessfully grabbed several times by the dogs causing terrible injuries and stress."
Sgt Calver said in recent years coursing gangs have been known to operate in numerous areas across Suffolk, such as around Ixworth, along the A140 corridor through Mid-Suffolk and around Great Barton, The far north west of Suffolk bordering the Fens and the area between Newmarket and Haverhill are other hotspots.
"Sometimes they use quiet, remote areas but we've also seen them park up on the busy A143 next to neigbouring fields," he said.
"They sometimes use vehicles to flush hares out and then they chuck a dog out the door. Other times they will park up and walk and then release a dog.
"They almost always video it on mobile phones and sometimes live stream to people in other counties who might be watching in a pub somewhere. Most of the hare coursing that goes on in Suffolk is recreational and for training the dogs - the large gambling events take place in Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire and it is all illegal."
Sgt Calver said large amounts are invested in the activity, with some of the dogs worth up to £20,000.
Police advice to landowners and members of the public is to not approach hare coursing gangs,
"They are completely lawless," he said.
"Last year one farmer had a handgun pointed at him. In another incident, ball bearings fired from a catapult penetrated the side panels of a farmer's vehicle. Farm vehicles have been rammed. In one case a gate was rammed and the vehicles driven at speed into a children's play area."
Sgt Calver said the vast majority of people involved in hare coursing in East Anglia travel from other areas of the country to get here although he said "this year there has been an increase in local gangs both in Suffolk and Norfolk".
Gangs have been known to travel from as far as Wales to Suffolk while many groups arriving here hail from Kent, Sussex and Surrey.
Sgt Calver said he didn't know for sure why hare coursing gangs made their way to Suffolk but suspected they are attracted by the county's quiet remote areas and relatively high numbers of hares.
According to Suffolk Wildlife Trust, East Anglia has some of the highest densities of hares in the country, with around 20% of the UK's hare population residing in the region.
However, the long-term trend for hare numbers is downwards with the UK-wide population having declined 80% in the past 100 years, mainly caused, it is thought, by agricultural intensification.
More recently, confirmation that the fatal rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus type 2 (RHDV2) has jumped across to the local hare population sparked fears of further declines, but fortunately, the Trust says, this has not come to pass.
The was Trust said it had not received any information as yet to confirm whether this year has been a successful breeding season for hares across the region.
According to Sgt Calver, one of the major obstacles to securing convictions for hare coursing is fear among landowners.
He said: "We had a case last year where we had some good evidence but the farmer was reluctant to stand as a witness."
"People are worried about having their barns burnt down [in retribution]."
Suffolk's Rural and Wildlife Crime team are hopeful the new drone will help the unit secure more convictions and add to the six convictions in the past year,
But bringing hare coursers to justice is notoriously tricky - to put things into perspective, during one season in Lincolnshire the police had more than 2,000 reports of hare coursing but only secured eight convictions.
Sgt Calver said Suffolk police are working regionally to stop hare coursing, liaising with counterparts in neighbouring counties to apprehend criminals or prevent them travelling to certain areas.
He continued: "Often, people who are involved in hare coursing are also involved in other criminal activity, so we have stopped people who don't have any insurance for their vehicles. We dipped one person's petrol tank and found it was full of heating oil, which was probably stolen.
"Increasingly, we are using anti-social behaviour legislation to obtain court orders banning people from entering the county with sight hounds."
Hare coursing activity is expected to start increasing from this month, as the crops are harvested and the hares become easier to flush out into the open. But, it is in the winter when hare coursing activity is at its peak with vehicles often driving into fields and causing thousands of pounds worth of damage to winter crops.
Sgt Calver added: "It's the combination of the dangerous driving, the damage to crops and hedges, and the cruelty to animals, and the sheer arrogance of it - we are determined to tackle this problem."
n Members of the public should call 999 if they witness hare coursing activity