ANOTHER VIEW : Hunting is good news for hares

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The Independent Online
The Waterloo Cup is the Derby, Grand National and Cheltenham Gold Cup rolled into one as far as coursing folk are concerned: tens of thousands of spectators flock to Great Altcar near Liverpool for this prime test of coursing greyhounds.

Every year the 158-year-old event comes under fire from anti-field sports campaigners. Every year, the League Against Cruel Sports trots out various attacks on the sport: hares are breeding early, hares are in decline - theapproach it thinks will get the most publicity.

All attacks ignore the simple fact that coursing is good for the hare population. On estates such as Altcar, farming practices lean more towards preservation of the hare than profit - and it is modern farming practices that are most responsible for a decline in hare numbers (from former pest proportions) this century. On good coursing estates, the fox population is strictly controlled to give young hares the chance to reach adulthood.

Coursing is perhaps the oldest of field sports, and it was thanks to the Romans' love of coursing that the brown hare was introduced to the British Isles. In AD 116 Flavius Arrianus wrote: "The true sportsman does not take out his dogs to destroy the hare, but for the sake of the course ... and is glad if the hare escapes." The same applies today.

Coursing is the test of the merits of two "gazehounds" which chase by sight, not scent. There are strict rules, which favour the hare, and points are awarded for the way in which the dogs turn the hare. The hares are gently and expertly driven to the coursing field by a line of beaters, but it is the task of the "slipper", a skilled official, to ensure that a single hare is fit and running well before slipping the two dogs. The hare is given a head start of at least 80 yards.

The agile hare can turn in its own length and more often than not outwits the hounds, which overshoot and lose ground. Hares have greater stamina than the dogs and as a prey species well adapted to flight will usually escape unharmed. If caught, the death is virtually instantaneous, but there are four "dispatchers" at vantage points to ensure there is no suffering.

The Game Conservancy Trust concluded in 1992 that "hunting has not been responsible for the decline" in hare numbers in modern times. Only field sports and farming can forge the creative partnership to ensure that the hare flourishes in our countryside.

In days gone by the London Stock Exchange closed early as the results of the Waterloo Cup were received via carrier pigeons. Today the results are unlikely to make News At Ten, but the three-day festival will be relived many times by a small army of devotees.

The writer represents the British Field Sports Society.