Regular readers will know that I love hares. A lot of people do. They have a long, often mystical, association with our countryside, being said to conjure spirits, turn into witches, and dance at the moon. The UK has three species – the brown hare, the mountain hare, and in Northern Ireland, (and one tiny part of Scotland) the Irish hare. I’ll be writing about Britain’s hare species in a future blog. To me, hares are the archetypal wild animals, living out in the open fields year-round and taking everything that life throws at them: sleet, snow, torrential rain – and of course, morons with dogs.
Hare coursing is a ‘sport’ (the kind where the human participant exerts no effort) where dogs are set off to chase and kill hares. It’s a betting thing, with wagers placed on the dogs, a “my dog’s faster than your dog” substitute for ego. I’ve reported several groups to the police – if you ever see them, dial 999 – and they are usually not very nice people.
That’s putting it mildly. Some farmers have grown so tired of having their field gates regularly smashed down by coursers that they have started to leave them standing open all the time. I spoke to a gamekeeper once who’d seen them up on a hill he manages. He parked his large truck across the lane leading up and went to speak to them. They spotted him, and drove straight at him, smashing his car off the road into a ditch and making him leap for his life as well.
As you might expect, hares, like so much else of our wildlife, are in trouble. There are perhaps half a million or so in the UK, sprinkled in small numbers across our arable fields, and they are being impacted not just by hare coursing, but by habitat loss and by a new variant of myxomatosis, that horrendous disease that wiped out vast numbers of Britain’s rabbits, which has finally made the jump into hares. The number of myxomatosis-affected hares is still low, but the disease is spreading. Unbelievably, there is no closed season for hunting hares, meaning that it is perfectly legal (if you’re the landowner) to shoot a pregnant doe. Clearly, hares need all the help that they can get, so the announcement on 3rd August of stiffer penalties for hare coursers is very welcome news for me. Hare coursing has been illegal since 2004, but now attracts a penalty of an unlimited fine and up to six months in prison. A new criminal offence of trespassing, or being equipped to trespass, with the intention of using a dog to search for a hare has been created as well.
I would love to think that this new legislation was created as a result of a sudden upsurge in concern over Britain’s wildlife by the Government. The reality is that hare coursing is done by criminals, and criminals don’t stop at hare coursing, with theft, criminal damage, violence and intimidation all associated with the sport. It is this, as much as protecting the wildlife, that has driven the change. Will it stop hare coursing? No, but it’s very much a step in the right direction. Perhaps now Britain’s hares can lie just a little more snugly.