by David Bean

Illegal hare poaching is a blight on rural communities and damaging to the conservation of one of the British countryside’s iconic species. The Countryside Alliance has long campaigned, alongside other rural organisations, for reforms to the law to strengthen the powers of the police and courts. 

After years of excuses and inaction the Government finally included a commitment on hare poaching in its much-vaunted Action Plan for Animal Welfare launched in May. In June stakeholders were informed of specific proposals that closely resembled what we had been seeking for years. There were some additions, almost all of which had universal support from us and associated organisations, including the police.

Our proposals would increase penalties, allow the courts to disqualify offenders from owning or keeping dogs and allow the police to recover kennelling costs for dogs that have been seized. They have the support of all rural organisations, the RSPCA and the police and would deliver almost everything Defra says it wishes to achieve.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently being considered in Parliament, is the ideal vehicle to make these legal changes and help the police and courts tackle the scourge of hare poaching  in the countryside. Changes that have been delayed for years could be made now without further delay. Amendments were duly tabled by a group of sympathetic peers, headed by the Lord Bishop of St Albans. Presenting the amendment, the Bishop outlined the scale of the threat posed to rural communities and animal welfare:

“It is not just the damage to land and property that causes anxiety, it is the threats, verbal abuse, intimidation and violence… One person described coursing as equivalent to being under siege—constantly having to repair damage from break-ins, and being scared for their own safety and that of the farm equipment. It is an illegal and barbaric practice that runs amok across the private property of farmers and landowners and helps facilitate organised crime, through the enormous sums that change hands in high-stake illegal betting.”

Unlike much of what has been a controversial Bill the Bishop’s amendment attracted broad cross-party support. Yet as the crossbench peer Lord Carrington observed, when similar amendments were brought to the House of Commons, “[t]he response by the Minister was that Defra was aware and dealing with the issue. Nothing further has been heard yet.”

The Government’s response failed to explain what the Government wants to see or indicate a timescale for legislation, simply talking about “when parliamentary time allows.” This is not good enough when there is parliamentary time now, and accepting our amendments would deliver most of the legislative changes needed. There is no excuse for yet more delay.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom for the Government repeated what we have heard time and again over years: Ministers are looking at it; there are detailed discussions; it will take time; we need to get it right. We have heard it all before. What we need is a Government prepared to seize the opportunity of the Police Bill to accept these amendments and finally deliver. It is time for talk to give way to action, else we will still be discussing this for years to come.

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