Gangsters, guns and unlicensed gambling: welcome to the world of illegal coursing

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The Independent Online

Through the dawn mist of a cold English morning, a procession of expensive, high-performance cars wends its way along a country lane en route to a day of "sport". Jaguars and Mercedes are common elements of the convoy, flanked by Transit vans echoing to the sound of barking dogs.

Through the dawn mist of a cold English morning, a procession of expensive, high-performance cars wends its way along a country lane en route to a day of "sport". Jaguars and Mercedes are common elements of the convoy, flanked by Transit vans echoing to the sound of barking dogs.

This is the start of a hunt, but not one in the traditional sense. The quarry isn't pheasant or partridge, and the well-off passengers won't be putting on red coats in search of a fox. Instead, they will invade farmland, threatening anyone who tries to stop them. Then their dogs will spend the day chasing and killing hares for gambling prizes of up to £20,000.

This is modern-day hare coursing, a pastime that used to attract poachers but which is now the sport of criminal gangs lured by the prospect of huge earnings from betting on chases. And while the sport itself is legal, the trespass on farmers' land is not, nor is the unlicensed betting.

Police across the country have reported more illegal events during which landowners have been threatened with violence – in at least two cases with guns – if they try to prevent meetings from going ahead.

It is a growing trend which many police forces, armed only with Victorian legislation, feel almost powerless to prevent. And, all the while, it is a trend which is driving Britain's population of brown hares to dangerously low levels.

Over the past year, farmers in the worst-affected areas – Suffolk, Sussex, Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent and the Thames Valley region – have been subjected to some of the worst cases of lawlessness they have known. Groups of up to 50 men with their dogs – usually lurchers – invade farmland without seeking permission on an almost daily basis, then, after exchanging bets, they drive out a hare and let their dogs chase it. The hare stands little chance of escape.

According to police and farmers, the coursers are made up mainly of "travellers", whose indifference to land boundaries has been a traditional feature of rural life. More disturbing, however, is their apparent alliance with sections of the London underworld. Police sources say some of the few people arrested under archaic poaching legislation were found to have had convictions for gangland violence.

PC Peter Hale, who has been tackling the problem in the Oxfordshire area, said: "There is real intimidation of landowners. There are threats and some damage, like fence-cutting, if farmers try to stop them. And whether or not the coursers are prepared to carry out such threats, the fear is real.

"There can be up to 50 people betting a minimum of £100 per chase each. That's a lot of money; enough to attract some very unpleasant people. I have heard of a £10,000 bet on one race. Once the dogs catch the hare, the gamblers don't care if it lives, dies quickly or dies a long, painful death. They just move on to the next bet. It is a very unsavoury pastime conducted by some very unsavoury characters."

In Suffolk, where some of the worst problems have occurred, Sergeant Paul Cooper has been co-operating with farmers to try to catch the culprits. But even with helicopters and video footage to prove the criminals' involvement, the penalties are no deterrent. "The offence is trespass in pursuit of game under the 1831 Game Act, but the maximum penalty is just £200 if less than five people are present, and £1,000 if there are more than five," Sgt Cooper said. "Given the amount of money changing hands, that isn't much of a deterrent. It would be better if there was a more meaningful fine."

As in the Kent area, Sgt Cooper's patch has experienced one gun threat against a farmer, but so far none has been carried out. However, the fear that violence might become endemic has gained currency given that the number of illegal coursing events in his area has grown from 40 between October 2000 and February last year to 120 already since October 2001. "There have been threats, including one with a shotgun, assaults, damage and thefts," said Sgt Cooper. "Once, during a car chase, they even threw dead hares at us."

Groups such as the RSPCA and the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) are enjoying an unusual alliance with rural communities over the issue; in recent years their views on hunting have been polarised.

The LACS has had campaigners working under cover to try to thwart the coursers, providing secretly shot video footage to the police at great personal risk. Its investigators recently found evidence that coursers continued to meet during the foot-and-mouth outbreak, ignoring guidelines put in place to prevent the disease being spread.

Douglas Batchelor, the league's chief executive, has called hare coursing "the new dog-fighting. It is barbaric and unnecessary."

The RSPCA is reluctant to distinguish between "legal" hare coursing at events like the Waterloo Cup, staged near Liverpool with the permission of landowners, and "illegal" events staged without permission. "We would like all hunting with dogs banned," said its spokeswoman, Lisa Dewhurst.

However, it acknowledges that the "illegal" events are causing numbers of brown hares to fall because they are killed not only by the coursers, but also by farmers, who cull them to stop the coursers invading their land.

Professor Stephen Harris, chairman of the Mammal Society, said the numbers of active hare-coursing dogs, mostly lurchers, are known to be 242,000, while the number of brown hares is put at 700,000. "All it would take is for the dogs to catch three hares each, and the hares would be in trouble," he said.

"After the Rio Convention on biodiversity in 1992, the brown hare was among the animals protected under a biodiversity plan. But we're doing nothing to save it. I have written to Michael Meacher [a minister of state at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] three times asking for action, but I haven't even had the courtesy of a reply."

A spokesman for Mr Meacher promised to look into the matter when contacted by The Independent.

In the meantime, farmers are co-operating with police, but there is still real fear of the coursers. One farmer, near Wantage in Oxfordshire, said: "I've had trouble, and so have a lot of other farmers I know. Some have had to put up with it every day for weeks, until the coursers have killed all the hares. Then they just move on and kill all the hares in the next place.

"At the moment, it's hard to see how we can stop them, or even who will try."