Environment Secretary George Eustice announced this week that increased penalties including the introduction of new criminal offences and new powers for the courts have been tabled through amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which will be debated by the House of Lords this month.
The practice of hare coursing which is where dogs are used to chase, catch and kill hares is a serious issue in many rural areas.
It can be worth thousands of pounds through online betting to the criminal gangs which carry it out and has seen landowners threatened and often left with hundreds of pounds worth of damage to repair.
“There are persistent groups who illegally perpetuate hare coursing creating challenges for the police,” said Mr Eustice.
“These new measures will give the police the additional powers to bring prosecutions and confiscate dogs from owners involved in hare coursing.”
The new powers will allow the courts to disqualify convicted offenders from owning or keeping dogs and, crucially, will create an order to reimburse the costs incurred when dogs are seized in kennels.
Currently, police forces are faced with bills running into thousands of pounds a year for the cost of keeping seized dogs which are routinely returned to their owners.
Organisations including the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, NFU, Countryside Alliance and CLA have been calling for change and a letter has been sent to peers from NFU deputy president Stuart Roberts, Countryside Alliance chief executive Tim Bonner, and CLA president Mark Tufnell, asking them to support these changes in legislation.
Mr Tufnell described hare coursing as a “despicable crime” and said the “clampdown” was “long overdue”.
“We have long argued for tougher sentences and more police powers to tackle these criminal gangs and are pleased that Government has listened,” he said.
“Hare coursing is a global industry, with these criminal gangs often live streaming their cruelty for the purposes of illegal betting.
“Their crimes go hand in hand with other acts of wanton violence and vandalism and many of our members, who so often live in isolated communities, live in fear of being targeted. This clampdown is long overdue – and we need to hold Government’s feet to the fire to ensure these reforms are implemented urgently”.
CLA North rural adviser and its lead on hare coursing, Libby Bateman said they had also been working closely with MPs to bring the legislation forward notably Scarborough and Whitby
MP Robert Goodwill and Graham Stuart who represents Beverley and Holderness.
Stuart Roberts said the announcement is the “light at the end of the tunnel” for thousands of farmers who have suffered the “devastating impacts” of the practice first hand.
“I hope this will signal the start of a real crackdown on these organised gangs of criminals who break onto fields to let dogs loose to chase hares, causing huge damage to crops and farm property and intimidating people living in rural communities.”
Last year the Yorkshire Agricultural Society carried out a hare coursing survey which saw more than 300 people respond to share their experiences.
The results, which showed the impact and prevalence of the issue on farm businesses and farming families, were then shared with MPs, the rural organisations campaigning for stronger legislation, Defra, the Home Office and other relevant bodies to highlight the severity of the problem.
Show director of the Great Yorkshire Show and York-based farmer, Charles Mills, said he has experienced hare coursing on his farm for the past 35 years and called for the new measures to be put in place “as soon as possible”.
“Stronger powers and penalties to tackle illegal hare coursing are a welcome step forward at long last, after continuous efforts by the farming community and rural organisations to highlight the terrible impact this crime is having on wildlife, farming families and their businesses.
“It is important that these reforms are implemented as soon as possible so that police forces and the courts are better equipped to deter, stop and punish offenders. This clampdown must also be backed up by more consistent communication from police forces to reassure those who report this crime that it is being taken seriously.”
The work of North Yorkshire Police and its Rural Taskforce to stamp out hare coursing were highlighted by Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner Zoe Metcalfe, who said the changes were “long overdue” but would ensure the “huge efforts” by officers to catch and prevent hare poaching are backed up by strengthened laws and tougher sentences.
“The changes are long overdue, and come after years of campaigning by the Commissioner’s office in North Yorkshire, and from groups like the CLA and Yorkshire Agricultural Society, so I am pleased action is finally being taken.”