— Wildlife Sightings (@wildlife_uk) September 24, 2014
As demonstrated in this beautiful photo by @countrymousie, the hare is a widely recognised mammal found throughout the UK. However, recent rises in cases of illegal hare coursing poses a threat to UK hare numbers, and thus brings the matter to attention.
What is hare coursing?
Hare coursing involves the pursuit of a hare using greyhounds or other hounds, which follow the hare’s scent in order to locate it. This activity is often regarded as a competitive sport, testing and comparing the ability of dogs to track and travel, as opposed to focusing on the act of capturing game. The sport is carried out in many different variations across the world, sometimes even as a means of gambling.
The sport first became popular during the 19th century, but suffered declines following the introduction of greyhound racing and betting. However, the greatest cause of decline is the controversy that has arisen following observations that the sport is cruel and violent.
In 2005, hare coursing was made illegal in the UK. However, it continues to be legal in Ireland, Russia, the Western United States and Spain, as long as it coincides with assigned regulations. The strictest of regulations may involve such rules as only being allowed to carry out the sport using two hounds for a short period of time, thus allowing a higher chance of escape for the hare, but still allowing a comparison to be made between the dogs.
As previously mentioned, the act of hare coursing is a very controversial issue. Where some regard the sport as cruel and bloodthirsty, others regard it as a traditional sport that is essential in managing hare numbers and testing the ability of hunting dogs.
Controversy surrounding hare coursing has existed nearly as long as the sport itself; in 1516 Thomas More wrote that
‘Thou shouldst rather be moved with pity to see a silly innocent hare murdered of a dog, the weak of the stronger, the fearful of the fierce, the innocent of the cruel and unmerciful. Therefore, all this exercise of hunting is a thing unworthy to be used of free men.’
This view has been reflected throughout history, and continues to be upheld today, particularly from animal welfare activists. In 1892, Lady Florence Dixie described the sport as an ‘aggravated form of torture’ and campaigns began in 1924 through the League Against Cruel Sports, seeking to prevent coursing on Morden Common. Today, many people also believe that it is wrong to subject animals to pain or death for the purpose of human entertainment.In contrast, others argue that hare coursing is one of the ‘noblest field sports’ in that the death of the hare is not actually the principal objective of the activity.
The first scientific study aiming to consider the welfare impact of coursing was conducted in 1977 by the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare. However, their results suggested that drawing any firm conclusions was difficult. A review of the study indicated that dogs were unable to cause any clean neck breaks, the majority of hares in the study dying as a result of neck injury. The study also suggested that hindleg or back injuries to the hares could be very painful, until a chest or neck injury could be administered, which would result in their eventual death.
The UK Government Burns inquiry, which reconsidered the results of the study, concluded that the pursuit, capture and killing of hares by dogs seriously compromised the welfare of the hare. This conclusion was furthermore exacerbated by the observation that having caught the hare, the dog or dogs did not always kill quickly, resulting in the prolonged suffering of the hare until the dog trainer could dispose of it.
In the UK, hares are not always perceived as pest species, and several species action plans are underway across the nation, seeking to bolster hare population numbers. This is particularly the case for the Brown Hare which is included on the list of the UK’s vulnerable and declining species, and thus is regarded as a species that requires aid, in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Some coursers claim that coursing may actually contribute to hare conservation initiatives, because it kills off the slower hares, suggesting that faster hares can then go on to breed, and also that it encourages landowners to create habitats that are suitable for hares. However, opposition to hare coursing suggest that in actuality, hare coursers are evidenced to usually travel to sites where they know hares are already living, rather than encouraging them onto their own land.
A prominent issue for hare conservation is the conduct of illegal coursing events, usually carried out with gambling in mind. Associated issues with illegal coursing also include damage to landowner property and crops following trespass, and even violence towards opposition.
Illegal coursing networks appear to be efficient and sophisticated, with the vulnerabilities and escape routes of, and around, target course areas established before coursing events take place. Coursing usually takes place in the late summer after harvesting, as hare numbers are abundant at this time and dogs can run with little obstruction. Illegal hare coursing may even involve trapping and moving hares to other parts of the country.
Organisations such as the Birders Against Wildlife Crime or BAWC (http://birdersagainst.org/harecoursing/) suggest that you should be aware of hare coursers usually at dawn or dusk, but that coursing can also take place during the day. They suggest that coursers often travel in convoy with transit vans at the front and rear, with ‘employers’ in cars in the middle. They also indicate that a sign of coursing can be a group of these vehicles parked in a rural area, with evidence of dogs inside such as paw prints or dog hair. A line of participants attempting to ‘flush’ out a hare is also a clear sign that coursing is about to be carried out. This is usually conducted until all the hares in the field appear to have been killed.
BAWC encourage witnesses to illegal hare coursing activates to report what they have seen, in order to help prevent hare coursing. However, as illegal coursers are also often involved in other types of crime they could be violent, so BAWC recommend that witnesses stay away from the hare courser individuals and instead either make note of car registrations or take photo or video evidence from a safe distance. If a witness wishes to report an incident immediately, it is recommended that they call 999 or if reporting any information later, they should call 101 or Crimestoppers on 0800555111.
Illegal hare coursing has increased dramatically of late, as demonstrated in September 2014 reports. For example, Kent Police suggest that the number of recorded incidents has tripled since 2010. Currently, criminals can be charged with a fine of up to £5000, but the charity World Animal Protection is calling for tougher sentences.
Hare coursing is an issue of great controversy; where some countries still allow the practice to occur for reasons such as celebration of its traditional value, others regard the sport as bloodthirsty and compromising to animal welfare. Whatever opinion you have on the subject, it is worth noting that the practice remains illegal in the UK, although not in Ireland, and that illegal coursers should never be directly approaced.
Cover Photo by: League Against Cruel Sports
Report on illegal coursing in Kent: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-kent-29123001
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