A lovely day in the country (unless you're a hare)

Eye witness

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What could be nicer than a day in the country, watching an ancient sport? The sun is out, thawing early morning fenland frost, and the air is clean. A quick nip from the hip flask and lean on your stick to watch the dogs run. Bloody lovely eh?

What could be nicer than a day in the country, watching an ancient sport? The sun is out, thawing early morning fenland frost, and the air is clean. A quick nip from the hip flask and lean on your stick to watch the dogs run. Bloody lovely eh?

But hang on, that's real blood. Hares are dying here, caught by greyhounds and ripped apart in their jaws. This is not supposed to happen. For three hours now I have been standing around in various fields listening to people tell me how rare it is for a hare to be killed at a coursing event.

"Oh, you won't see more than one caught," they all said, one after another, enthusiasts dressed almost identically in tweeds, flat caps, waxed jackets and green wellies or plus-fours. They were all looking forward to the Waterloo Cup, the big event of the hare-coursing calendar that will draw thousands of people to Lancashire this week. It will probably be the last of its kind, but nobody present understood what the Government thought it was doing, banning a sport that came to Britain with the Romans.

Then the coursing started. "Oh dear," said the elderly man next to me when the first brown hare came bolting across the wheat stubble and was hunted down by the faster of two greyhounds. "Bloody hell," he said when the next course also resulted in a kill. "What the hell is going on?" he barked in wounded tones as the fourth race of the day resulted in the third death.

"Is the camera still here?" asked his friend. "They'll be complaining about this while they're eating their Sunday sausages."

This is the Barbican Cup, a knock-out competition for 16 dogs held on private land near Little Massingham in Norfolk. Catherine Bettinson, chair of the East of England Coursing Club, knows what is going wrong.

"They've been bucking," she says, looking across the lane to where the beaters are strung out in a semi-circle, waving white flags and shouting so that a single hare will run past two dogs in a hide, waiting to give chase. What does she mean? The bluff countrywoman comes over all coy. "They were, shall I say, having relations. Being young men, they have been burning the candles at both ends."

So the hares are too worn out to run fast because they have been mating? They're knackered? "Exactly."

Presumably the fifth, sixth and seventh hares to die in the name of the Barbican Cup do so with some happy memories, at least. For them to be hit by two greyhounds running at 40 miles an hour is like a human being mown down by a juggernaut, the coursers say. Death is usually instant.

"Yes!" cries a boy of five or six, punching the air. But his father looks down and frowns. So do several of the 30 or so spectators. It is bad form to give in to your primal urges. That's the sort of thing you expect from the illegal coursers who turn up at night with torches to hunt down hares from close range for the pleasure of the kill. Here, at a proper licensed meeting run under the strict rules of the National Coursing Club, it is usual to express disappointment when the quarry dies.

The flankers, whose job it is to shout things like "Eh! Eh!" and scare the hare into running in the right direction, seem genuinely sorry when it is caught. "Go on li'l girl, get to the woods," mutters a spectator as a more agile animal escapes. The hare twists and doubles back on itself, giving the slip to the greyhounds, which can't turn as quickly and become exhausted after a minute or so. They give up the chase, and the hare escapes into a hedge where they can't see it. Opponents of the sport say it is still likely to die from heart failure. A judge on horseback, dressed in traditional hunting pinks and jodhpurs, keeps score. The hare is given a 100-yard lead and the dog closest when it turns gets three points. The winner is indicated by the waving of a red or white handkerchief to match the colour of its collar.

The joint favourite, Arbroath Smudge, loses to Orange Nancy but his owner, Alex Smith, is not too disappointed. "To be honest he's not the best dog in the world," says Alex, who is saving a better runner for the Waterloo. There is a £5,000 prize for the winner there, and a good price when it is put out to stud.

"Pheasant sandwich?" bellows Mary Birkbeck, who owns the land we're on. "Don't make a bloody mess of it man, just pick one up." Shouting instructions to her gamekeeper she seems just like one of the fearsome countrywomen invented by French and Saunders, who could blow one of their own legs off with a shotgun and dismiss it as a scratch.

We drink whisky and claret with her well-bred friends, but hare coursers are not all toffs. There are farmers, foundry workers and butchers here today, although most are retired. The Ramzans own a restaurant in Birmingham but they seem to keep their distance from the rest – which is not surprising when they are described, out of their hearing, as "our colonial cousins".

Bubble-wrap plastic is laid out on the bonnet of a mud-splattered Land Rover and the silver Barbican Cup displayed. Mary's dog Means Business has come second. She turns to the photographer from the local paper, shouts "woo-hoo!" and gives him a double v-sign.

The winner is Moonlake Moire, trained by Kim Gooding from Lincolnshire, who has 30 dogs in her kennels. They must be walked three or four miles a day as the season approaches, then galloped 400 yards at a time.

"We work seven days a week and we never take a holiday," she says. "We do it for the love of the dogs and country sports in general."

Stop licensed coursing, say its followers, and landowners such as Mary will no longer encourage hares on their fields. They will shoot them instead, to prevent illegal hunting. "If it is banned my livelihood will disappear," says Kim. "And so will the brown hare."

As the light fades and our cars queue up on the muddy track, the survivors of the Barbican Cup are out in the fields somewhere, doing their best to ensure the species goes on.

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