YOU place a bet, the dogs are released and it’s then simply down to the animals’ speed and agility to determine if blood will be drawn.
Hare coursing, although made illegal in 2005 as part of the Hunting Act 2004, is still going strong in Cambridgeshire, with 200 reported incidents during the last season.
The handlers and their dogs are out in their fields a month after the harvest. When the farmers have ploughed the fields, the furrows attract hares (they like to sleep/rest on open farmland) and the fields are free from crop stubble that could cut dog’s pads.
The conditions for hare coursing are ideal until about April, when the crops start to grow again.
Pc Simon Page joined the Tactical Team in April after three years with the Rural Crime Team where he has built a vast knowledge of the countryside and the coursing hotspots, which include the north of Huntingdonshire.
On the wall at the team’s base in the force’s Hinchingbrooke headquarters there is a pinboard with known offenders, young and old, and the cars used to ferry them around.
Pc Page said: “Hare coursing is an organised rural crime and is seen as a sport to the offenders. The closest comparison is horse racing with the dog owners gambling on the outcome of the event. I’ve heard of bets of £30,000 being put down on the results.
“Groups of men, normally between four and six, will walk through a field in a line, spread out, to disturb and find the hares. When a hare is spotted, the dogs are set on them, and the winner is whoever’s dog catches the hare first.”
The hare is normally killed.
The coursers come from all over the country to Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, where they have 2,000 reports a season.
“They come here because we have a large number of hares and rolling fields. The hares are quicker and fitter, so the dogs need to be the best, which adds to the prestige,” said Pc Page.
“The road system also helps attract coursers because it’s easy to get to and when they’re here. They normally use binoculars to spot a good field with hares in.
“It’s a prestige sport, there is a league where at the end of the season, the winner gets the bragging rights and can say they have the best dog. You can then go back to the horse racing analogy – the dog can be put out to stud and the owner paid lots of money to produce good offspring.
“Because of this, coursers normally look after the dogs as they need to be in good condition, but some will starve their dogs the night before to give them extra hunger for the coursing.”
Traditionally, coursing was scored by how well the dogs kept up with the hares. Some supporters also believe that the hares are caught for food, but “it’s not normally the case as they leave it behind, which just shows it’s a sport”.
Pc Page’s colleague is Pc Sam Thompson. An officer for seven years, it is his first season tackling hare coursing.
On a typical day, they check the reports and head out, on this occasion to the south of the county while another team heads north.
After seizing a Peugeot 106 near St Neots, they head towards Cambridge to follow up on a coursing report from the night before.
The witness is not at home but Pc Page goes to talk to a farmer he knows. Two teenagers were seen coursing in a field near the A14.
The farmer, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “The main issues with the coursing for us farmers is that they are trespassing on our land. It can also be a front for looking round our farms seeing what we have. They have their shopping lists and just steal anything they think they can sell, or use equipment to steal cash machines like they have done quite recently.”
On the way back to the A14, Pc Thompson spots a van in the middle of the field used for hare coursing the night before. While there is a dog cage in the back, the vehicle’s registration is not one known to the Tactical Team.
“It’s not the usual vehicle the coursers use, they’re normally old Land Rovers or Subaru Foresters,” Pc Page said. “It’s also registered to an address. Hare coursers’ cars are normally unregistered.”
Just before midday, Pc Page gets a call from the control room. Up to six men with dogs have been seen hare coursing on a farm at Abbotsley.
Using his knowledge of the area, Pc Page orchestrates the Tactical Team officers to set up a containment area to block possible exit routes. A car has not been spotted, which gives the team a slightly higher chance of an arrest as the coursers would have to escape across rough terrain on foot.
Pc Thompson, a police-trained 4x4 driver, makes his way up the grass track, keeping an eye out for the offenders while his partner finds out whether a helicopter from the National Police Air System is on its way.
They both scour the hedgerows looking for the coursers but there is no trace.
The officers head for St Neots to a little-known track to try to cut off the coursers. They sit and wait, keeping a constant eye on the farmland, but the minutes are ticking by and they sense the opportunity has been missed.
About an hour after the original call, a helicopter arrives and sweeps the area, but there’s nothing to be found.
“It’s a bit different now as we no longer have a dedicated helicopter,” said Pc Thompson, “The only time I have caught a hare courser is with a helicopter.
“Before it would have been at the farm within minutes, before anyone else, and they would have directed officers to the coursers, or would have landed and arrested them.
“Now it takes slightly longer, so it’s down to our knowledge of the area, luck and intuition to catch them.”
Pc Thompson believes the coursers had a driver waiting to pick them up.
After the search is called off, the officers patrol the area as coursers are likely to work several fields in a day.
The team are then alerted to two people with dogs in a field near Great Gransden. They arrive to find the dogs are not lurchers or similar dogs, but Pc Page steps out to speak to the walkers.
“They are one type of people who report coursing,” he explained later. “It’s either dog walkers calling in, farmers, contacts, or other forces telling us about coursing on our borders.”
The courts cannot send coursers to jail but magistrates hand out fines.
Pc Page said: “Our main power is the courts can confiscate the cars used for coursing and disqualify them from driving.”
INFORMATION: If you suspect any hare coursing or any suspicious behaviour in fields call 999.