For many years, the CLA has been calling for legislative change to give greater powers to the police and courts to tackle the problem of hare coursing. The lack of legislative power was becoming a self-perpetuating spiral of decline for our members because police had very limited power to challenge hare coursers and, therefore, members stopped reporting incidents due to lack of action.
Members would tell us about hare coursing incidents; however, when we raised it with the local police force, we were told that there was a low level of incidents reported and that it did not feature as a priority for action. The CLA developed its first Hare Coursing Action Plan in 2015 and worked with police and crime commissioners to produce signs for members to install around their property, encouraging members of the public to report any incidents of hare coursing. We also encouraged members to ‘call it in’ even if they felt it would result in no action.
In tandem, the National Police Chiefs Council launched its Rural Strategy, which featured several priority delivery groups, including one on poaching, which includes hare coursing, which has a CLA representative. However, we recognised that hare coursing needed a specific focus therefore, outside of that group, we formed a coalition with the NFU, the Countryside Alliance and a host of other countryside and wildlife organisations to specifically tackle hare coursing. The CLA has taken a lead role in that coalition and has worked tirelessly outside the group to progress our call for legislative change.
We hosted parliamentary events, worked with MPs, ministers, lords, civil servants and the Secretary of State for Defra to press for change. Last year we were perplexed to hear that the Government was considering introducing measures to protect the brown hare from being shot at certain times of the year. We were fortunate enough to secure a meeting with Lord Goldsmith, which allowed us to set out the problem and scale of hare coursing and explain how introducing new restrictions on shooting hares without tackling the problem of hare coursing, would simply be an empty gesture. As a result of that meeting, we were very pleased to see a commitment to tackle hare coursing appear in the Government’s Plan for Animal Welfare released in May 2020.
The Plan for Animal Welfare committed to bringing forward new legislation, but we were not complacent and set about increasing pressure on the government to introduce the new legislation quickly. This included working with Robert Goodwill MP (Scarborough and Whitby) to table amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill at the committee stage in the House of Commons. The hare coursing coalition also worked with Richard Fuller MP (North East Bedfordshire) to bring forward new legislation in a Private Members Bill, which is due to be heard at the end of January 2022. The Bishop of St Albans also tabled amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill at the committee stage in the House of Lords and is primed to push these amendments to a vote at the report stage in early January.
Despite initially resisting the opportunity of legislative amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Government was faced with an uncomfortable situation if the Bishop’s amendments were carried. To that end, the Government has tabled amendments and, with cross-party support, these are expected to be carried through to royal assent and become law later this year.
The hare coursing season typically runs from August to March when arable land is cleared of crops. This earlier than expected move by the Government means that the new powers should be in place for the start of the next season, giving police officers more power to intervene. The next part of our work will be engaging with prosecutors to improve awareness of hare coursing and promote the new powers of conviction to ensure consistency in issuing punishment to offenders.
The legislative amendments put forward by the Government include:
- Increasing the maximum penalty for trespassing in pursuit of game under the Game Acts (the Game Act 1831 and the Night Poaching Act 1828) to an unlimited fine and introducing – for the first time – the possibility of up to six months’ imprisonment.
- Two new criminal offences: firstly, trespass with the intention of using a dog to search for or pursue a hare; and secondly, being equipped to trespass with the intention of using a dog to search for or pursue a hare both punishable on conviction by an unlimited fine and/or up to six months’ imprisonment.
- New powers for the courts to order, on conviction, the reimbursement of costs incurred by the police in kennelling dogs seized in connection with a hare coursing-related offence.
- New powers for the courts to make an order, on conviction, disqualifying an offender from owning or keeping a dog.