Bruce Anderson: New law is not only a disgraceful misuse of the legal system, it is bad for the hare

After watching the last Waterloo Cup in Britain, Bruce Anderson is convinced the Government's move to kill off the tradition is an absurdity
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The Independent Online

Nasser Ahmed should be an ideal candidate for a New Labour honours list. Forty two, the son of immigrants, he has built up a private hire business and is a respected figure in his own locality. He has also made an important contribution to the environment and to sport. His sport is not a fashionable one. There is no lavish sponsorship and no question of Lottery money. Nasser Ahmed has got where he is by hard work and dedication; by devoting all his spare time plus all his spare cash, and more.

Nasser Ahmed should be an ideal candidate for a New Labour honours list. Forty two, the son of immigrants, he has built up a private hire business and is a respected figure in his own locality. He has also made an important contribution to the environment and to sport. His sport is not a fashionable one. There is no lavish sponsorship and no question of Lottery money. Nasser Ahmed has got where he is by hard work and dedication; by devoting all his spare time plus all his spare cash, and more.

Yet his efforts and his inclusiveness will avail him nothing. Instead of honouring him, New Labour is about to suppress his sport. Nasser Ahmed is a hare courser. This week, his greyhound Undergraduate reached the semi-final of the Waterloo Cup.

That cup, the blue riband of the coursing calendar, took place at Altcar, in Lancashire. Greyhounds show their paces by chasing hares. The hare is given a 100-yard start and the hounds are marked for speed and agility. There are no extra points for killing a hare and no attempt is made to stop hares escaping. Nine out of ten always do.

The hare has two advantages over the greyhound. First, its bulging eyes enable it to see what is going on behind it. A hare does almost have eyes in the back of its head. Second, a hare can turn well within its own length. So often, it would seem that the hare was almost in the greyhound's jaws. In a flash, the hare had turned and jinked while the greyhound, 20 yards in its wake, was struggling to keep its footing and regain its momentum.

Moreover, greyhounds are not natural-born killers. It often seemed as if they were reluctant to go for the quietus. As Sue Crawford, the painter, whose dog was the beaten finalist, pointed out: "If Jack Russells had greyhound's legs, every course would end in a kill.''

As it is, the hares which do perish are older, less healthy specimens. Hare coursing is Darwinian selection. Last season, it was responsible for the deaths of a mere 126 hares in the UK, while making a significant contribution to increasing the hare population. All over the country, brown hare numbers are falling, except on the estates and farms whose owners are keen to encourage hare coursing. When their sport is banned, they will have no incentive to protect their hares, and a very good reason for culling them.

There are two forms of hare coursing in Britain. There is the one which is about to be prohibited. It has strict procedures and its members respect the countryside. But there is another type of coursing which is already and deservedly illegal. Despite that, it is one of the fastest-growing rural pursuits, and the new law will have no effect on its devotees.

Some of them were watching the Waterloo Cup from the Bank, an area to which the public have free access. They were not like the paying spectators. They seemed to have no interest in a pleasant chat, still less in exchanging names and phone numbers. Indeed, their manner was as unfriendly as their lurcher dogs.

Although it is the most incorrigible thief on four legs, the lurcher can be a delightful dog, charming everyone in sight even while meditating its next outrage. But there was nothing charming about most of the lurchers on the Bank. They looked as if they had been brought up with sticks and kicks. You felt that if you bent down to chuckle them under the chin, they would sink their fangs in your hand while their owners laughed.

The owners were frequently covered in sinister-looking tattoos, though not half as evil as the ones between their ears. These fellows looked as if they would not have needed much make-up to take part in the film of Lord of the Rings, as part of an Orc horde.

They do not go coursing with stewards and rule books. They take 4x4 vehicles, lurchers and baseball bats. Thus equipped, they burst into the countryside to poach or to course their dogs for large stakes. They break down hedges and gates, they injure livestock, and they relish the chance to beat up keepers or farm workers. Far too often, the police show no enthusiasm for a run-in with these thugs and will arrive in a flurry of flashing blue lights several hours after they have departed.

At present, some big estates whose owners enjoy coursing are prepared to make a stand. The coursing clubs help to pay for extra keepers, and provide volunteer patrolmen. But without coursing, what is the point of going to all that trouble? Since the Anglia Cup - the second most important event in the coursing season - was run in Norfolk, more than 1,000 hares have been shot in the area. The estates are hoping to discourage criminal coursers, by leaving them with nothing to poach. Next week the Leverhulme Trust estate, where the Waterloo Cup took place, will shoot 300 hares, for the same reason. It looks as if this year's Waterloo dogs will barely manage to account for 10.

Every death in the coursing field is instantaneous. But hares are tricky targets, even for good shots. Some wounded animals will escape to die slowly. Those who cannot bear the thought of a dog killing a hare should make sure that they continue to derive all their knowledge of animal behaviour from Beatrix Potter. Anyone who hopes to enliven a country walk by watching the antics of a March hare should hope against hope that the ban is overturned, so that legitimate coursers can continue to boost hare numbers.

Sir Mark Prescott, the racehorse trainer, believes that if the RSPCA was doing its job properly, it would prosecute the House of Commons for conspiracy to commit cruelty to animals. The ban on hare coursing is the worst possible news for the hare.

Coursing is not hunting; the police will have no difficulty in enforcing a ban. An event like the Waterloo Cup requires advance publicity and a static location for three days. Assuming that the legal challenges fail, the coursers are already talking about moving to Ireland, and some of them are attracted by the piquancy of holding the Waterloo Cup in France. "The French'd do better than that old burger van," said Len Elman, one of the organisers, "and I wouldn't mind some mayonnaise on my chips".

After spending a couple of days with the coursers, I would defy anyone to produce a more attractive cross-section of British society. These are people who love their dogs and understand nature. They could not be described as absolutely classless; there were not enough members of the urban middle classes. One was reminded of Lord Randolph Churchill's comment that in England, the upper and lower classes were united by a common love of sport and immorality. But townies would have benefited from an excursion to the Cup; they would have acquired new and valuable information about their own country.

Unlike many of the hares which it has protected, the Waterloo Cup will survive, albeit in exile. But banning it is a disgraceful misuse of our legal system.