In a letter to the Environment Minister, George Eustice, the coalition which includes the NFU, CLA and Countryside Alliance, said the current laws were hindering attempts to tackle the “devastating” impact illegal hare coursing was having on the British countryside.
The offence in the 1831 Game Act the coalition is looking to amend is ‘trespassing in pursuit of game’. Arresting suspects under this offence for hare coursing is more practical for the police as there is not a requirement for the hare coursing to be physically taking place at the time of arrest.
This, the coalition said, is unlike the Hunting Act 2004, which does include a specific offence of hare coursing but the powers are difficult for police to use in practice.
In a joint statement, the coalition said: “There is no doubt that hare coursing is as prevalent as ever and having huge impacts on rural communities.
“Whether it is farmers being intimidated and threatened by coursers, the damage their vehicles cause to our iconic landscape or the cruelty this inflicts on our native wildlife, the impacts on the British countryside from illegal hare coursing are huge.”
The group is asking for enhanced powers to be given to the police and criminal justice system, which includes giving them the power to seize and confiscate dogs and vehicles; remove the maximum penalty limit of £1,000 fine and enable police forces to recover kennelling costs from the perpetrators.
It is also asking for better information and guidance for magistrates and prosecutors along with support for the police to build on the success of national initiatives like Operation Galileo.
Operation Galileo, spearheaded by Lincolnshire Police, involves a number of forces clamping down on poaching – which refers to the illegal taking, killing,injuring or pursuit of game, deer or fish – including North Yorkshire’s Rural Taskforce.
Inspector Jon Grainge, who led the Rural Taskforce at the launch of the operation, said very often poaching involved an element of intimidation.
“All too often, offenders involved in poaching are also involved in other aspects of criminality, and landowners who suffer from this activity are often victims of other offences.
“They often report threats of violence or intimidation if they are challenged leaving them feeling especially vulnerable to further crimes, such as theft or criminal damage.”
The threat of violence was also highlighted by CLA North rural adviser, Libby Bateman, who said: “Very often hare coursing is about high stakes illegal betting. The poachers are very tech savvy, a vehicle is driven alongside the dogs so it can be recorded and live streamed with people placing bets.
“It causes so much damage. Broken fencelines, vehicles driven around crops, sometimes getting stuck and just left, as well as the dreadful impact it has on wildlife.
“Farmers and landowners who have confronted them have been threatened and sometimes assaulted.”
Something Beverley and Holderness MP, Graham Stuart said he was all too aware of the problem. He said poaching was a “blight” on his constituency which has wide open areas of flat, arable land.
“I’ve been working with partners like the CLA, the NFU and Humberside Police for some time to tackle hare coursing. It isn’t just scaring a few hares in a field, it’s high-stakes illegal betting, and the people who do it are often linked to wider criminal activity. I’ve also heard from local farmers about the threatening and intimidating behaviour they face if they dare to challenge these trespassers.
“The police are doing their best to stop the criminals in their tracks, or preventing them from carrying it out in the first place through Operation Galileo, but I support the coalition’s efforts to secure changes to legislation so police have the tools and powers to stamp this out.”
In the letter the coalition said: “We are asking the Government to support simple changes to the Game Act that would give police the powers they need to properly tackle this crime and deter criminals with a sentence that fits the crime.”
A Government spokesman said: “We take rural crime seriously, and the Hunting Act 2004 completely bans hare coursing. Those found guilty under this Act are subject to harsh penalties, including the possibility of an unlimited fine.”
The decision on how to prosecute is taken independently of Government by the Crown Prosecution Service.