Britain's most prestigious hare coursing event, the Waterloo Cup, took place yesterday amid a blistering gale on the Lancashire plain. If the McFall Bill, which will have its second reading in the Commons on 3 March succeeds, it will be the last.
The Bill aims to outlaw hunting with dogs and the Cup, held at Altcar in Lancashire, is one of its main targets.
The event, which drew crowds of 80,000 regularly at the turn of the century, has declined to relative obscurity and fewer than 2,000 attended yesterday, However, it is still the focus of protesters' anger.
The League Against Cruel Sports, which is sponsoring the Bill, held a demonstration. More than 100 people marched down the road alongside the coursing field, closely flanked by police.
Unusually, the officers were there mainly to protect demonstrators from the attentions of coursing supporters. Policing pressure at other field sports is generally directed at containing demonstrators to prevent them disrupting the day's hunting.
Coursing supporters looked on in bemusement as protesters chanted "this is your last" and "cowards". After an hour-long confrontation, the demonstrators marched off and left the coursers to watch greyhounds chasing hares, periodically catching one and mauling it to death.
Hare coursing is mainly a working-class sport. Supporters say it is the only way to test a greyhound's skill. Protesters claim it is simply a barbaric hangover from a previous era and is on a par with cock fighting and bear baiting.
"People are simply ignorant about the sport," Charles Blanning, secretary of the National Coursing Club, said. "They say that 85 per cent of the population want to see hare coursing banned, but 85 to 90 per cent do not know what it involves so they are not in any position to judge."
John Bryant, of the League Against Cruel Sports, disagreed: "There's no excuse for this sport. There's not even an element of pest control in it. The only reason they do it is for entertainment and gambling.
"It's the only blood sport left to be involved in an arena, watching an animal be killed."
In addition, he said, the hare population had declined precipitously in recent decades from 4 million at the turn of the century to about 800,000 now.
Six hares were killed yesterday lunch time. Supporters claim that killing hares is not the central aim of the sport, which is to test a greyhound's running and turning abilities - the death of a hare is just a by-product.
Hares are driven from open farm land on to a "coursing field" flanked by supporters. As the hares enter the field, two dogs are released and give chase. Points are awarded to each dog every time it forces the hare to change direction.
At about one in five courses yesterday, a hare was killed. They were often mauled to death between two dogs as supporters looked on and cheered. Others were not there for the kill, but cheered as the hares were driven in ever-tighter circles as they ran for their lives, before finally being killed or escaping.
Many supporters yesterday said that if coursing were banned they would simply carry on illegally. Don Smith, who lives near Manchester, said he would be "deeply upset" , but added: "It won't stop me from coursing."
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