Gamekeeper hurt as illegal hare coursing season gets under way in Norfolk
- Credit: PA Images
Three men were arrested after a gamekeeper was pelted with stones as the hare coursing season got under way.
Gangs with lurchers and greyhounds begin pursuing hares after the harvest, when sight hunting dogs can get a clear view of their quarry across open fields.
Large sums of money are often bet in underground competitions, while farm workers and landowners have been threatened and attacked.
A keeper suffered minor injuries after he was set upon at Flitcham, near King’s Lynn, on Thursday afternoon.
Suspects fled the scene in a green Subaru, which was later found abandoned. Police arrested three men on suspicion of hunting mammals with dogs, assault and driving offences. They are currently on bail. Officers also seized the car and four dogs.
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Earlier a silver Jeep Cherokee and a black Rav 4 made off at speed across farm tracks after police attended reports of coursing at Shouldham and Marham, near Downham Market.
The Cherokee was later located on the A134 at Shouldham and four men were issued with dispersal orders.
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Some 309 incidents were reported across Norfolk last winter. In neighbouring Cambridgeshire, there were 877, while Lincolnshire saw more than 1,000. All forces reported an increase in the illegal bloodsport.
Arrests and convictions were also up, although with cases still pending in the courts figures are harder to pin down. Chief Insp Phil Vickers, of Lincolnshire police, said gangs would travel long distances to course hares.
“There are a number of offenders in the Essex area who do offend locally to them who also travel quite widely,” he said.
“There are a relatively small number who are prolific, who are out hare coursing on a regular basis several times a week.”
Coursers from South Yorkshire and the Thames Valley also travel to East Anglia’s flat Fens, which are ideal terrain.
Traditionally, a pair of dogs would be released to chase a hare, with points awarded each time one made the quarry turn.
But since it was outlawed by the 2004 Hunting Act, gangs have turned to using larger numbers of dogs, which are released one at a time, with the contest decided by which kills the most hares over a set number of courses.
The latter leads to fewer disputes than the traditional form, where an umpire would decide with of two dogs running neck and neck across a distant field was the one which made the hare change course. It also means more hares killed and slung in ditches.
Large sums can be bet both in the field and by people watching hunts streamed on video. The dog which wins an illegal knock-out called the Fir Cup can command thousands in stud fees.
“We know that hare coursing is linked to organised crime like illegal gambling and money laundering,” said Chief Insp Vickers, whose force is the lead for Operation Galileo, a national initiative which includes the Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk constabularies.
He added police were beginning to adopt an “Al Capone approach”, where known coursers were investigated for wider criminal activity than killing hares.
“Let’s put some effort into these offenders, their offending and take them out of hare coursing,” he said. “I’m happy to get them for whatever.”
Some 12 constabularies share intelligence and tactics under the banner of Galileo.
Forces are increasingly using dispersal orders, while drones pioneered by rural crime officers in Norfolk have proven a game changer.
Courts ordered eight dogs used in coursing in Norfolk last winter to be forfeited.
But to gain a conviction, officers have to prove coursing was actually taking place. If not suspects can only be charged with trespass in pursuit of game, a lesser offence for which dogs can not be taken away by the courts.
Police and countryside campaigners want the law changed to increase penalties and give the courts powers to routinely order the forfeiture of coursers’ dogs.
Officers find it galling to have to hand back animals they have seized from known offenders - particularly when they get away without paying their kenneling fees.