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This article was originally published in The Yorkshire Post on Tuesday 16th November, which you can see here.
Having dashed, zigzagged and seasonally boxed across British fields since Roman times at least, few inhabitants of our landscape are more iconic than the hare. 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.
However, nearly everywhere that hares are abound, including many parts of Yorkshire, poaching with dogs has become endemic. 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. This is not the romantic poaching of rural myth. A local going abroad with his dog to take 'one for the pot'. Poachers in powerful four-wheel drive vehicles smash down gates, drive through crops and hedges to run their dogs on hares in competition with one another. At its extreme it can involve organised criminal gangs betting thousands of pounds on the outcome of matches.
Police forces have struggled to tackle this sort of blatant criminality despite their best efforts and increasingly close co-operation between different forces. One of the issues they face is that hare poaching is most often prosecuted under the Game Acts, which date back to the 19th century. The offences in the Acts precisely describe the problem: "trespassing in pursuit of game", but they are burdened by a range of deficiencies that have been rectified in more modern wildlife law. For instance, they lack robust powers to seize dogs and vehicles or recover kennelling costs, or penalties stiff enough for effective deterrence.
For many years the Countryside Alliance has campaigned for reforms that would strengthen the power of the police and courts to act in partnership with groups as diverse as the Country Land and Business Association, the National Farmers' Union and the RSPCA.
In May, it appeared that this activity was at last bearing fruit: the government's much-vaunted Action Plan for Animal Welfare finally included a commitment on hare poaching, and its specific proposals closely resembled the measures we had sought for so long. What we lacked was a timetable: a firm indication of when the government planned to act and as such, how much longer the rural community must wait for action.
With no government legislation in the pipeline the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which was already before parliament, seemed the ideal vehicle for reforms that already enjoy broad consensus. Our proposals would increase penalties, allow the courts to disqualify offenders from owning or keeping dogs and let the police recover kennelling costs for dogs that have been seized. They have the support of all politicians of all parties, rural organisations, the RSPCA and the police, and would deliver almost everything the Government says it wants to achieve without the need for another piece of legislation.
Last Wednesday, therefore, when the Police Bill was being considered in the House of Lords, amendments to tackle hare poaching were tabled by a group of sympathetic peers headed by the Lord Bishop of St Albans. He opened the debate with a powerful exposition of the threat illegal hare poaching poses to rural life, and as it progressed it quickly became clear that unlike much of what has been a controversial bill, the measures 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."
It was therefore more with dismay than surprise that we learned the government was once again fumbling a prime opportunity for action. It would not accept the amendments and they were withdrawn
Responding on behalf of the Government, Lord Sharpe of Epsom repeated what we have heard time and again: ministers are looking at it, there are detailed discussions, it will take time, we need to get it right. However, he failed to explain any objections to the proposals, what the government wants as an alternative or what timescale it has in mind. All he could offer was action "when parliamentary time allows." That is simply not good enough when there is a clear and urgent need for action and parliamentary time now.
Given the level of support for these measures, and the concern across the countryside about the activity of hare poachers, we fully expect these proposals to be revisited in the House of Lords. The government's opportunity has not yet passed, but there can be no more excuse for delay. Rural communities have been waiting far too long for the Government to get serious about tackling hare poaching. It is time for talk to give way to action.