Waterloo sunset for hare coursing - a pursuit that may have run its course

It has been the highlight of hare coursing since 1836, so there were strong passions and protests when 10,000 people turned out to mark the end of the Waterloo Cup in Britain

If the bookmakers are right, Equal Status, a greyhound belonging to the celebrated racehorse trainer Sir Mark Prescott, will become the last champion at the Waterloo Cup.

The controversial event, the Blue Riband of the hare coursing calendar, which once attracted crowds of 75,000 to Great Altcar in Lancashire, will pass into history. Barring a successful last-minute High Court challenge, coursing and the Cup will go the same way as fox hunting when the ban on hunting with dogs comes into force this week.

Passions between protesters and supporters of the sport, which has been held in Great Altcar since 1836, boiled over yesterday. Three people were arrested when hundreds of spectators from the 10,000-strong crowd jeered and waved foxtails at their opponents - 200 animal rights campaigners. As protesters chanted "losers", two fireworks and a dismembered hare were hurled, while bottles, cans, stones and clumps of earth rained down. Mounted police intervened when 20 supporters attempted a charge.

"We are the only blood sport where the idea is not to kill the quarry," said Len Elman, the Cup organiser. The coursing fraternity has joined forces with the Countryside Alliance to oppose the ban and supporters are being urged to attend the final legal fox hunts on Saturday in solidarity.

Simon Hart, the Countryside Alliance's chief executive, said: "I am absolutely, 100 per cent certain that the Waterloo Cup will take place in some form in 2006. It may not be here, it may not even be in this country, and it may be in a different form, but the Waterloo Cup will live on. We will return."

Hare coursing supporters believe the sport has inherited a tradition of agility and speed dating back to the pharaohs. As more than 50 courses were completed yesterday, supporters say only a handful of hares were killed. The knockout competition, upon which the Wimbledon tennis tournament is said to be modelled, pits two dogs against each other as they chase a specially bred hare. The hare is delivered into their path by beaters and is given a 100-yard head start, known as "the law", and the first animal to reach it forcing it to turn, picks up three points. Each consecutive turn earns the dog another point. There are no points for a kill. The winner's purse is £6,000.

According to Mr Elman: "The hare knows when the dog is approaching and can turn on a sixpence. The greyhound turns more like the Queen Mary."

When the ban becomes law, he said, the 2,000 specialist dog owners in Britain will face three choices: they can take their animals to Ireland, where coursing is a popular and lucrative pastime; keep their animals as pets; or have them put down. He said thousands of hares would now also face being shot to save them from poachers.

The League Against Cruel Sports believes there is no justification for hare coursing. The hare population has fallen by 80 per cent in the past 100 years.Tony Peters of Greyhound Action, also believes that thousands of lurchers and greyhounds that take part are killed each year. "There are a lot of injuries ... When they can't run they are simply got rid of," he said.