Hare coursing is an illegal bloodsport that involves chasing and killing hares with dogs. These dogs are usually ‘sight’ hounds, i.e. dogs that hunt by sight rather than smell such as lurchers and greyhounds.
Hare coursers will drive around the countryside and on spotting a hare they will stop and release one, two or occasionally more dogs. Sometimes bets are made on which dog will make the kill, and those involved in hare coursing are often linked to wide criminality.
Hare coursing was banned in Scotland in 2002, yet this week the BBC are reporting an apparent upsurge in hare coursing incidents across Scotland. The law that originally criminalised hare coursing is the same law that was meant to have stopped fox hunting, the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002. Later, the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 amended the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, to make it an offence to take or to attempt to take rabbits or hares without authority to do so, and also created close seasons during which no hares may be killed at all.
Unfortunately, as we know, fox hunting continues, brazenly exploiting loopholes in the law that allow hunts to use the excuse of pest control as a decoy for their bloodsport. The Scottish Government has, however, recently announced its intention to strengthen the law, which we welcomed warmly.
Unlike fox hunting, however, the problem with hare coursing does not appear to be the loopholes in the law. Indeed, six arrests linked to hare coursing have been made in the past few weeks, and Police Scotland have a long and impressive record of taking this crime very seriously. So why hasn’t hare coursing been stopped in its tracks?
This is of course a complex question, and there will be a host of reasons, including the cultural value this activity still has among some groups of people. But, I would argue that the other reason is that it’s easy to get away with it.
Firstly, in spite of Police Scotland’s valiant efforts, wildlife crimes like hare coursing, which take place in rural areas where there are often few or no witnesses, are difficult to detect. Detection is made even more difficult by limited resources dedicated to wildlife crime. The simplest way of significantly improving the situation would be to give the Scottish SPCA powers to investigate wildlife crimes. The Scottish Government has been contemplating this for years and a decision is apparently due by June. The Scottish SPCA have 60 trained inspectors throughout Scotland, who, given the powers, could work alongside Police Scotland and others to crack down on wildlife crimes like hare coursing.
Secondly, a successful prosecution for hare coursing can result in little more than a slapped wrist. Between 2010 and 2015 there were 17 cases of hunting with dogs that went to Scottish Courts and resulted in charges. Most of these will be hare coursing. Only one of these resulted in a jail sentence and whilst 11 were fined the average fine was just £416.
These meagre sentences simply won’t act as a deterrent. Nor do they get to the root cause of the problem.
We’re calling for urgent reform in sentencing for hare coursing and other wildlife crimes. This was recommended by experts appointed by the Scottish Government in its 2015 report on wildlife crime penalties. Penalties for hare coursing must be tightened to act as a serious deterrent, and at the same time we want to see therapeutic programmes introduced so that those sentenced in cruelty cases do not simply reoffend.
There’s no place for hare coursing in a modern Scotland. Not only is it cruel, it’s a serious nuisance for farmers and rural communities. Giving the Scottish SPCA these extra powers and implementing the recommendations of the Wildlife Crime Penalties Review Group are simple, off-the-peg solutions that would go a long way to stamping out this bloodsport for good. They would also help in the much wider battle against wildlife crime across Scotland.
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