A bitter wind blows over the running fields

Hare-coursing is the next target of animal rights activists, writes Simon Midgley
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The Independent Online
IT IS 8.45 in the morning. Men in Barbours and rain-proof trousers are shepherding greyhounds out into a field at the back of an unsignposted farm off the main Spalding to Crowland road in the vast flatness that is the Fen country south of the Wash.

The sun is bright and low but the wind is bitter and from the west. The East of England Coursing Club is gathering for a hare-coursing meeting on Postland, a patchwork of fields, rough scrubland and kale under a blue and seemingly limitless expanse of sky.

Upwards of 100 coursers - women as well as men - and scores of greyhounds have travelled from Lancashire, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Suffolk and the Lake District to test their dogs against each other in the two-day meeting. They are taking part in an ancient, and now controversial, British sport - hare-coursing - the art of training dogs to chase and turn a hare on open arable land.

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at Altcar in Lancashire, up to 10,000 coursers will descend on Lord Leverhulme's estate near Liverpool from all over Britain and Ireland to watch 64 greyhounds compete for the Waterloo Cup, Plate and Purse worth around £10,000 in prize money.

They will not, however, be the only people converging on Altcar. Protesters who want coursing banned because they consider it to be cruel to hares, will be picketing the meeting.

There has been a vigil at the Cup for the past 12 years but this year the protest is likely to be more vociferous than ever given current levels of public concern about animal rights and the imminence of a Private Member's Bill aimed at banning the hunting of all wild animals with dogs. Labour MP John McFall's Bill is very unlikely to reach the Statute Book under this government, but there is a chance that for the first time ever there could be a Commons vote in favour of banning hunting, which would have considerable symbolic resonance. Significantly, for the first time in years the League Against Cruel Sports will have a presence at Altcar. Passions are likely to run high.

The Waterloo Cup is the most prestigious event in the coursing calendar - the dog that wins the cup is exceptional, the Exocet of the greyhound world. Coursers are determined to protect a sport that dates back to the Pharaohs of Egypt, was probably brought to Britain by the Romans and that at the end of the 19th century - with 236 coursing clubs - was the most popular pastime in Britain.

A hare is chased into "the running fields" by beaters with flags walking the fields where the hares crouch in their forms. An official called a slipper" then lets loose two dogs simultaneously after the hare has been given an 80-yard start. A judge in a red coat follows the pursuit, normally on horseback (although not today), and awards points to each dog for its speed and its ability to make the hare turn to avoid its pursuers. An average course lasts up to 40 seconds, in which time a greyhound can cover one third of a mile.

In the first 10 courses in Lincolnshire on Friday, two hares were caught and killed by the dogs, while the other eight escaped into the spinney or the rough. There was no baying for the hare's blood; the spectators, owners and trainers were there to see the dogs race. Farmers, publicans, retired executives, feed merchants and housewives - the coursers came from all walks of life and social classes.

Kevin Flack, of the League Against Cruel Sports, claims that one in every five hares chased is killed by the dogs. (The coursers say one in every eight). "It's the use of live animals for entertainment that we object to," he says. "And the cruelty to the hare when it's caught. When the hare gets caught between two greyhounds they won't kill it quickly. It becomes a live tug o' war."

Vicky Moore, of Fight Against Animal Cruelty in Europe, who has staged a vigil outside Altcar for the past 12 years, says of the Waterloo Cup: "All the people who are there are there to enjoy the suffering of the animals. They are there because they expect to see them killed."

She adds that there are two distinct groups of people at the Cup, the "enclosure" people and the "bank" people. "The bank people contain some of the ugliest thugs in the British Isles, badger-diggers, dog-fighters, everybody that enjoys sadism to animals congregates at the Waterloo Cup." The enclosure people (for which we should read toffs), she says, are different. They still try and maintain the pretence that it is a sport.

"But the bankies (the yobs) give out a cry of `Get the effing bunny!' as soon as a hare is caught by the dogs."

Sir Mark Prescott, the Newmarket racehorse trainer, who organised the Cup for many years, says that three in four hares die instantly when caught by 90lbs of greyhound running at 40mph.

The longest recorded time taken for a hare to die is 31 seconds, he said, and there are stewards, "pickers-up", to ensure that the hare is put out of its misery quickly.

Coursing enthusiasts do not enjoy seeing hares killed, says Sir Mark. They go to see the dogs. "If you want to see hares killed you can go on a day's hare-shoot and have a splendid time and see 250 shot in a day. If you go to the Cup you might see five or six killed out of 64 hares coursed.

"The League Against Cruel Sports say 82 per cent of people think that coursing should be abolished. I don't know whether that's right or wrong, but I'm sure that 98 per cent don't know the first thing about it. I mean, if I sat at home and watched two socking great dogs chasing a poor little hare and I had never been out of Surbiton, I have no doubt that I would think it was wrong. So it's a question of education."