Criminal activity against wildlife

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Logo: Operation Galileo - illegal hare coursing

By Chief Inspector Phil Vickers, National Hare Coursing Lead, Lincolnshire Police

Hare Coursing is an activity where two sighthound dogs (typically Lurcher/Saluki type breeds) are released at the same time, in pursuit of a hare across large, flat, open fields.

Brown hare standing in a field
Brown Hare (Laurie Campbell)

For hundreds of years it was a legal sport, and remains so in the Republic of Ireland, but in the UK it was banned by the Hunting Act 2004.

There are variations of how Coursing is run, as the sighthounds are much larger and less agile, they find it difficult to follow the hares' sharp turns made in an effort to evade the dogs. This agility gives the hare an advantage as it seeks to escape, and some Coursing will “score” the number of times a hare can be turned, as well as whether a dog catches the hare.

Since being banned, those who continue to be involved in the activity commit a criminal offence in doing so, and it has generally been under the Game Act 1831 (Trespass in daytime in the search of game) or the Night Poaching Act 1828 (Taking or destroying rabbits by night or entering land for that purpose) that offences have been prosecuted.

These pieces of legislation most accurately describe the offences committed, but have limited the ability of Courts to impose penalties which properly reflect the crime; fines of £400-£600 are common, £700-£900 on occasion.

Hare Coursing in 2022 is a world away from the legislation of the 1800s, with offenders travelling hundreds of miles to attend suitable locations and gambling on the outcome; in many cases that will take place away from the field, with the activity live-steamed to an audience anywhere in the world.

I spoke to a Hare Courser by the side of a field in Lincolnshire last year and he talked of having achieved an income from a single dog of over £32k in the previous season.

Farmers and land owners who suffer Hare Coursing on their land often feel huge trepidation as the harvest concludes and Coursers start to appear – the large open fields without crops offering the perfect environment for them.

Hare Coursing starts after the Harvest across arable farming areas where hares are found. For the past few years the harvest has been relatively early and Police forces in those parts of the country have seen reports build up from late August through to March, often with a peak in December and January.

Through the Hare Coursing “season” the cost of damage to newly sown fields can be considerable. Offenders often driving across them to engage with their dogs, maliciously causing damage and breaking down fences, hedges and gateways to get to where they want to be or to escape Police.

Most concerning is the level of intimidation, threats and occasionally violence associated with Hare Coursers who are challenged; offenders taking advantage of the remote locations, farmers have suffered assaults, malicious damage to their property and often report other offences such as burglary occurring shortly after challenging Coursers on their land.

2 greyhounds chasing a hare in a field
2 dogs chasing a hare (J. Wright – IFAW)

I know a farmer who owns a small-holding, and lives there with his wife, both in their 70s, she was subject to Coursers circling their house and farm yard in 4x4 vehicles ripping-up the land when she was home alone after her husband challenged Coursers who had caused thousands of pounds damage to their land. This was several years ago, but they both fear a repeat visit when she is on her own and it impacts on their lives every day.

Farmers report having been assaulted, driven at, damage caused to their vehicles and property if they intervene during Coursing – with frustration at delays in the Police ability to respond whilst Offenders are still present and then being unable to identify offenders post-incident.

In some parts of the country farmers have been able to install physical barriers, bunds and dig ditches that prevent access to the fields, though this is not possible in many places and only serves to displace the offending rather than stopping it.

Police understanding of Hare Coursing is often good at a local level, with Officers on rural beats getting to know the preferred locations and returning offenders.

At a national level the Police understanding has not been so clear; the Offence is not one that forces are required to report statistics to the Home Office, and the links into other criminality have not always been well understood.

It is likely that 20k+ incidents are reported to the Police between August and March every year, Forces do not always readily recognise & record the incident as Hare Coursing; sometimes witnesses will not be clear what is going on, Police Control Rooms may not be familiar with the offences.

The Police National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) has coordinated Police efforts to prevent and tackle Hare Coursing more effectively.

A piece of analysis completed in 2018 indicated that across the UK, 4 forces suffered a High volume of Coursing incidents (for example 1935 incidents recorded by Lincolnshire Police during the 2016-17 season), a further 8 forces reported a Medium volume and 23 forces reported an unconfirmed number, where it was unclear from their data whether the incident was Hare Coursing or another type of poaching.

What was common across Policing was a parochial approach – seeking to reduce the level of offending within their own borders but not looking at the displacement elsewhere. It’s my view that this was a failure of Policing, ethically and in being ineffective at tackling crime to prevent future victims.

Forces that were “successful” in displacing Hare Coursing into neighbouring areas would often then reduce their commitment and consequently see the offenders return in a cycle of behaviour that offered little impediment to Offenders and little respite to victims from one season to another.

In 2019 the 12 forces that reported the highest volumes of Hare Coursing came together with the NWCU and agreed a coordinated approach – Operation Galileo.

Supported by the NWCU Analysts, forces shared their understanding of who was offending in their area, who they were associated with and an understanding of what other criminality Hare Coursers were involved in.

The picture was stark. Many Offenders didn’t offend close to home, preferring to travel to prime locations hundreds of miles away where they might avoid detection.

3 men standing a stubble corn field with dogs
Men with dogs searching for a hare (Alan Stewart – Tayside Police/NWCU)

Whilst not all are career criminals, the links between Hare Coursing and Organised Crime became much clearer – Thomas Jaffrey, well known to Rural Policing Teams for his Hare Coursing, was jailed for 13 years in 2018 for his involvement in a £100 million drugs importation operation. Similarly, John Devine from Derby was jailed for 10 years in 2019 for Drug supply to the value of £32 million.

Operation Galileo has sought to build a better understanding of which Offenders cause greatest harm and use innovative tactics to prevent Hare Coursing.

Working with a coalition of Partners from the National Farmers Union, Country Land and Business Association, Countryside Alliance, RSPCA and others, lobbying secured a commitment from Government to strengthen Powers to tackle Hare Coursing. That has resulted in Sections of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 coming into effect on 1st August 2022, giving Police & Courts Powers which more appropriately reflect the impact on victims as well as the benefits realised by offenders and resources committed by rural Police Forces.

From 1st August 2022, Courts can now impose unlimited fines or up to 6 months imprisonment for a Hare Coursing Offence, the cost of Police kennelling seized dogs can be imposed in addition to any fine or imprisonment, offenders can be banned from keeping or being responsible for dogs and Police have two new Offences to consider – “Trespassing with intent to search for or pursue hares with dogs” and “Being equipped for searching for or pursuing hares with dogs”.

It is my hope that Police will use the new Offences to prevent Hare Coursing, using the shared intelligence from Operation Galileo to target the most harmful offenders, not waiting for reports to come in, but proactively seeking out those offenders who have become a scourge across our countryside.

I hope that Courts will see their new powers as being a proportionate approach to preventing further victims – Being disqualified from keeping dogs should be expected where a dog is being used as a weapon of offence to commit wildlife crime.

Phil Vickers
Phil Vickers (NWCU)
Logo: Lincolnshire Police

Throughout this report I have focused on the impact on human victims of criminals in our countryside, but the cruelty to hares and dogs is heart-breaking.

Whilst dogs are running and earning for offenders, our experience is that they are treated well, as a burglar might covet their house-breaking tools. Once the dog stops winning, they are routinely abandoned or neglected.

Hearing a hare scream as it is being torn apart by a dog is truly a gut-wrenching sound for anyone but the Hare Courser who has just won his bet.

I believe that Operation Galileo has shown that rural Police forces can work together effectively to target offenders who would cause harm to our wildlife and rural communities. With the support and guidance of Countryside partners, new Powers for Courts and Police, we are in a better position to banish Coursing to where it should be.

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Posted On: 12/09/2022

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