People who take part in hare coursing, an illegal bloodsport, face tougher sentences under plans set out by the government on Tuesday.
Hare coursing involves dogs being used to chase, catch and kill hares, sometimes in competition. The competition between dogs can be fierce and the hares are not always killed quickly.
The practice was banned in 2004 along with other types of hunting but the government said it remains a serious problem in rural areas.
Two criminal offences to specifically target hare coursing are proposed: one outlawing trespass with the intention of using a dog to hunt a hare and the other outlawing being equipped to do so.
Both would be punishable by up to six months in jail and/or an unlimited fine.
The maximum penalty for poaching would also be raised to the same level. And courts would be granted new powers to ban offenders from owning dogs.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, said: “Illegal hare coursing has blighted rural communities for too long, resulting in criminal damage, threating violence and intimidation against farmers and landowners.
“Those responsible are often involved in other criminal activities – including drugs and firearms offences.”
Chris Sherwood, chief executive of the RSPCA, said: “We’re pleased to see proposals to crackdown on hare coursing; a barbaric bloodsport that sees hare cruelly chased, caught and killed by dogs. It’s time hare coursing was consigned to the history books, where it belongs.”
The RSPCA said that besides the hares, the dogs used for hunting are often treated poorly and abandoned once their owners see no use for them.
Stuart Roberts, deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union, said farmers will be “relieved” by the announcement.
“I hope this will signal the start of a real crackdown on these organised gangs of criminals who break into fields to let dogs loose to chase hares, causing huge damage to crops and farm property and intimidating people living in rural communities,” he said.
Campaigners welcomed the plan but said the government should introduce harsher punishments for all forms of hunting with dogs.
Chris Luffingham, director of external affairs at the League Against Cruel Sports, told The Independent: “[We] would like to see these measures extended to the fox, deer and hare hunts still operating in the English countryside.
“Enough is enough. We are calling for a strengthening of the Hunting Act so that the barbaric practice of hunting with dogs is consigned to the history books.”
He added: “One practical step would be to increase the maximum prison sentence, extending it from six months to five years in line with the Government’s recent Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act.”
Offences under the Hunting Act 2004, such as fox hunting, are currently only punishable by fines or seizure of the animals or equipment used.
Brown hares are common in the UK but they are declining in number and are listed as a priority in the UK's Biodiversity action plan. It is estimated that there are less than half a million left in England.