by Countryside Alliance

The Government has acted on calls to tackle illegal hare poaching gangs, after many years of campaigning by rural groups including the Countryside Alliance.

Plans to strengthen the powers and penalties available to tackle illegal hare poaching were set out by the Government today.

In amendments tabled to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill today, the Government has set out measures to strengthen law enforcement for hare poaching by increasing penalties, introducing new criminal offences and creating new powers for the courts to disqualify convicted offenders from owning or keeping dogs – this includes an order to reimburse the costs incurred when dogs are seized in kennels.

The welcome move comes after an almost identical amendment in the House of Lords to the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, tabled by the Bishop of St. Albans, was rejected and subsequently withdrawn back in November. At the time, the government were accused of ‘fumbling a prime opportunity for action’ by the Alliance in the column for the Yorkshire Post.

In December, the NFU, Countryside Alliance and CLA wrote to Peers in the House of Lords urging them to support the amendment at the report stage of the Bill. The Bishop of St. Albans was also successful in lobbying fellow peers and secured cross-party support. 

The government has now tabled its own amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Tim Bonner, Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance said:

“It is very welcome that the Government has finally accepted that there is no need for further delay in introducing these new measures. Hare poaching and associated crimes have been a blight on rural communities for far too long. Despite their best efforts police forces across the country struggle to tackle hare poachers and we have long campaigned to give them and the courts additional powers. These proposals will create modern laws to tackle 21st century rural crime.”

  The full proposals outlined today 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.   

Changes in farming practices, especially in the West of the country, saw significant declines in the hare population through the middle of the last century, but numbers have stabilised in recent decades and, especially where farming is predominantly arable, there remain high densities of hares in many areas.

In its wake comes criminal damage, theft, vandalism, and violence. The “season” usually begins after harvest, as poachers take advantage of bare fields. A single incident can cause thousands of pounds worth of damage to land and crops, and see farmers and landowners violently abused.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said:

"There are persistent groups who illegally perpetuate hare coursing creating challenges for the police.

"These new measures will give the police the additional powers to bring prosecutions and confiscate dogs from owners involved in hare coursing.

"To deliver these measures, the Government will be tabling amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill for debate at Lords Report stage in January."

Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said:

"Illegal hare coursing has blighted rural communities for too long, resulting in criminal damage, threating violence and intimidation against farmers and landowners.

"Those responsible are often involved in other criminal activities – including drugs and firearms offences. I have been a longstanding supporter for essential reforms to our laws to stop hare coursing which is why we will act to prevent more people from suffering as a result of the actions of a law-breaking minority.

"We are introducing new measures in the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to empower and equip the police and courts with the powers they need to combat this crime. They will deter those breaking the law, and send a clear message that we will do all we can to keep our rural communities safe."

NFU Deputy President Stuart Roberts said:

" The NFU welcomes government plans to table amendments which would strengthen the law and finally give rural police forces and the courts the necessary powers to tackle hare coursing and the wider problem of organised crime.

Our members have had to deal with the impact of illegal hare coursing for far too long and will be relieved that after much campaigning by the NFU and others over many years there is now light at the end of the tunnel.

I hope this will signal the start of a real crackdown on these organised gangs of criminals who break into fields to let dogs loose to chase hares, causing huge damage to crops and farm property and intimidating people living in rural communities."

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