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Coursing and Poaching – a problem old and new.

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

In the first century AD the Greek scholar Arrian encountered and participated with Romans using dogs to hunt by sight and described one of the earliest written accounts of hare coursing:

“…they do not take their dogs out for the sake of catching the hare, but for the contest of the sport of coursing, and they are glad if the hare escapes. If she flies to any thin brake for concealment, where they see her trembling and in the utmost distress, they will call off their dogs. Often, indeed, when following a course on horseback, have I come up to the hare as soon as caught, and have myself saved her alive, and then have taken away my dog, fastened him up, and allowed her to escape. And if I have arrived too late to save her, I have struck my head with sorrow that the dog had killed so good an antagonist.”

This is the first of three posts where I look at problems farmers have with dogs and people. The first post will look at Coursing, poaching and the law old and new and challenge the effectiveness of enforcement. The second post will look at fear of poachers, coursers and other physical altercations and how to protect yourself largely by avoiding them. The final post will look at livestock worrying.

The Hunting Act 2004 made hunting with dogs illegal, but has, in my opinion, too wide a scope for defence and evasion of the law by hunters and too small a penalty for coursers.

A person commits an offence if he knowingly permits his land or his dog, or a dog under his supervision, to be used in hunting. More specifically under hare coursing the following people can be deemed to commit an offence:

“if he –

a) Participates in a hare coursing event

b) Attends a hare coursing event

c) Knowingly facilitates a hare coursing event, or

d) Permits land which belongs to him to be used for the purposes of a hare coursing event.”

And each of the following commits an offence if a dog participates in a hare coursing event:

“ a) any person entering a dog into an event

b) any person who permits a dog to be entered

c) any person who controls or handles the dog for the purposes of the event.”

By itself the law has two significant weaknesses in my humble opinion:

For being a law against hunting a wild mammal with a dog, defences of flushing, for crop and livestock protection, or for taking an animal for meat, may and have been used with hunts having falcons and guns which prior to this law would have not been seen.

The second defence is ”if a person reasonably believed that the hunting was exempt.”

In both cases it is not just a case of looking at cases that have gone to court, but some of those that have never made it to court. Whilst I am no fan of hunt saboteurs I do have a little sympathy with their frustration with the law and its application. The thing to realise is that this law does not stand by itself and stands alongside other laws some of which are referred to or amended by this Act.

To make the matter worse the 2004 Hunting Act removes one avenue that the farmer may willingly seek just to get peace of mind. That is, to permit coursing as a pragmatic action in an effort to enable coursers to exclude others and reduce or prevent damage to crops.

At this point I state that I have attended hare coursing, fox hunting and cubbing and witnessed them first hand. Of the three the cleanest kills and that, that was most acceptable to me was the kill of the hare in coursing when it occurred. Often the hare escaped. Cubbing I was most uncomfortable with, and whilst a kill of a fox by hounds can be clean of the three kills I have seen, the one that saw the fox ripped apart, due to a poorly performing “whip” was brutal and not a pleasant sight. However, at the time of me attending these were all legal and legitimate. Also, my standard will be different to many, who do not like the cruelty of killing an animal, what matters to me is the respect that an animal is shown in life and death, a very difficult concept for those against blood-sports to either conceive or understand. It is perhaps a paradox that I am very intolerant of deliberate cruelty or disrespect of any animal, or person for that matter. But we all create our own standard. Although many will not understand this, hare coursing is usually not about killing the hare, but the quality of the chase and even in illegal hare coursing this is often true and is as described by Arrian in my opening paragraph.

Of animals to hunt, the hare in both mythology and reality can have human qualities. A wounded hare can sound like a human baby. When you skin a hare to me the flesh underneath can appear human. I can call hares to me ( a much annoying ability to my fellow guns when I went on a hare shoot) and to see them respond it is almost like they have human qualities.

None of what I write is intended to be legal advice, but rather a view on the law and how it is actioned. You have to look at the laws that are available, and how they could be used, and then be pragmatic about their use. You also have to have a mind to case law. The main Acts in England that are of use to the landowner and police are The Game Act 1831 and 1832 and the Night Poaching Act of 1828. In the case of coursing the former is more likely, but the same “crowd” are just as likely to participate in the scourge of hunting with dogs at night. Indeed, I once saw the grizzly remains of a pony killed by dogs of organised night poachers, and very little remained! Whilst dated, these are good laws that have lasted well and are still of use nearly 200 years later as they have been bolstered by case law.

Now the farmer will understand that “trespass” on its own is a tort, and a civil offence against the landowners rights. By itself, if I walk onto a farmer’s land without permission it may not warrant calling the police, however, the act of trespass is essential for the criminal to be convicted of certain crimes and this requires witness of the act of trespass for the offence to be upheld. Such an offence may be, if I am carrying a firearm, armed trespass; if I am hunting, poaching; or if I cause damage or harm, aggravated trespass. All these criminal offences have in common the act of trespass, that is entering land without consent or permission of the owner or occupier or their agent.

The “poacher” which coursers are, cannot seek refuge on a public path or highway and claim not to be committing trespass. Indeed if I am look out on the road for coursers in a field I can be committing the offence of poaching. If I drive my car deliberately at a hare on the road to kill it I am committing the offence of poaching as a person taking game on the highway adjacent to land is deemed to be trespassing on that land as if he was stood on it. If you report to police, especially if its poachers on the highway, you may need to explain to the control room that this is in fact a crime in progress under the law in order to be taken seriously.

The offence of trespass in “search or pursuit” of game does not mean that actual chasing or running after game can be proved. The mere intention of looking for game whilst on land can suffice, even if there is no intention to kill the game (Stiff vs Billington 1901). It is an extra offence of “Gang poaching” in the event of five or more poachers and having face blackened or disguised in any way whilst poaching is also breaking the law. This can increase fines from £2500 to £5000. If any of the poachers are armed with a gun or crossbow six months imprisonment can be added.

When looking at these laws you need to realise the law is different between day time and night time poaching. Daytime is one hour before sunrise and one hour after sunset local time. This can change the law and the options available to the police or authorised person dealing with these law breakers. However, you have to be realistic, in a rural area coursers know how slowly it takes police to arrive and a lone farmer is unwise to put themselves at risk, but I will look at the risk of violence and how to manage that in my next post.

Thanks to these old Game Acts there are additional powers of arrest. These should not be confused with the common law right of citizens arrest or the power of Citizens arrest in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 2004. Under the 2004 act the power of arrest has to be for an “indictable offence” that is one that has to be tried in Crown Court, so you are looking at something quite serious like Grievous Bodily Harm, Rape, Murder etc. Many poaching offences are able to be put to a Magistrate and fall outside this criteria. However, the following people, besides police, do have power of arrest as authorised persons:

“1. Anyone having a right to kill game on land

2. Occupiers (whether they have right to take the game or not)

3. Anyone authorised by 1 or 2 above

4. Gamekeeper or servant

5. Wardens, rangers and others employed in a similar capacity in the Royal forests or parks”

The enacting of this power of arrest varies between daylight and night-time offences. In daylight the trespasser must be approached asked to leave and asked for his name and address. If he fails to leave, refuses to give a name or address, gives fake details , or returns later to the land he can at that point be arrested. He must be delivered to a police officer or taken to a magistrate within 12 hours or released.

Night-time poaching is a different offence and there is a loophole for the poacher to slip through if he claims he is in search of rabbits at night for if so the only two offences he may be committing is pursuit of rabbits is armed trespass if they are using a gun. Also the law is different at night in that the use of dogs only becomes an offence once the hare is killed. The “gang poaching” rule reduces in number to three or more at night potentially doubling the maximum fine. The list of people with authority to arrest is the same, but lets face it more can go wrong than right following this route with you risking being accused of assault or wrongful arrest; or you being at the receiving end of a violent attack. In short, leave the law to the professionals – the Police.

Now the Police have a well-publicised action against coursing in the form of Operation Galileo. This sees arrests, confiscation of vehicles and dogs and generally disrupts illegal coursing. But, certainly in Lincolnshire, this is not felt to help. There is becoming a severe fear of crime and intimidation. It has now gotten to a level of not being reported due to the repercussions. I appreciate that policing has to take a pragmatic view with resources that are available. But if you look to Sir Robert Peel’s Principles of Law Enforcement. “The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.” I cannot state this is a massive fail that is having terrible consequences on individuals. We are in a world where too many count value by what we say we do rather than what we achieve. This is not acceptable.

However, I strongly believe that offering criticism should be matched with a solution. Again Peel’s Principles are looked at that is,” the police are the only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the intent on community welfare.” This principle is part of “the police are the people and the people are the police.” With this in mind, I do feel there may be a lesson to learn from the early formation of wildfowling clubs. Many wildfowling clubs in England gained shooting rights off landlords from the 1950’s. In many cases it was done to regularise a problem of severe poaching often around sea walls or inland waterways. The motivation behind the landlords giving wildfowling clubs shooting rights was to reduce and prevent poaching of game on their land. There was a quid pro quo and the membership of these clubs (often including local poachers) became authorised persons able to help the local gamekeepers and police within the law. As a wildfowler I used to stop strangers and ask to see their permits. Whilst not always popular it was mutually respected as protecting the interests of our sport and of our landlord. Could police resources be supplemented by appropriate groups of “authorised persons” with the law? Or is this a stupid idea merely likely to cause an escalation to an existing difficult problem?

The problem with the law is the relatively low levels of fines. When I attended a legal hare coursing event in the early 90’s there was a broad mix of society, farmers, politicians, businessmen, ordinary people and some known crooks. It was a good event and this whole mix of people actually added to the atmosphere of the event. Also there was a bookmaker of questionable legality and thousands of pounds were exchanging hands, some via the bookmaker, other in exchange for dogs. I have no doubt that black money was turning grey. Interestingly after 2004 when I went to Peterborough greyhound stadium I saw a similar mix of people only instead of MP’s there were pop stars and actors in the mix, but the exchange of cash was very similar. Where there is grey money there is criminality. This means that the police powers to confiscate vehicles and fines of £2500 or £5000 are quite low compared to the sums of money that are potentially sloshing around. The hardest hit is possibly the confiscation of dogs, but this varies greatly depending upon quality of animal. These costs have become an occupational hazard of the hare courser and the vast amounts of cash indicate earnings from the black economy. This has become highly monetized with areas “auctioned off” for the “right” to hold a competition in a given area. Those involved are from a variety of backgrounds with social media enabling great organisation and co-ordination of people and vehicles. Prior to 2004 there were illegal coursers, but, especially in winter, there was a greater presence of legal coursing and legal shooting in the fields of Lincolnshire which were at higher levels than today. This meant that the risk of illegal activity being disrupted by legitimate pursuit of game was greater. Illegal coursers did not want the hassle of being met with equal or greater numbers. Reduction of legitimate activity created a vacuum filled by illegal activity, which currently has to be treated with respect to limit the damage caused. Is this acceptable?

In conclusion, the law is complicated with relatively small penalties. It is best left to the police. However, I do believe that co-operative groups of farmers and landowners could work alongside police as authorised people and create a sustainable response to this illegality. However the judicial system whether police, magistrates or courts dislike self-help measures as they fear law may be maintained at the price of order; and without the later, the former is harder to maintain.

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