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Tim Bonner: Government must act on hare poaching

Hare poaching, often called illegal coursing, has been a significant problem nearly everywhere there are decent numbers of brown hares for decades. The problem was only exacerbated by the Hunting Act which prohibited organised coursing and left the field, very literally, open to poachers and trespassers. As the poachers have become more brazen the impact on the countryside has grown. The associated criminality ranges from the violence and intimidation perpetrated on farmers and keepers who try to stop poachers, to machinery and fuel theft which comes in their wake.

Increasingly, poachers are also looking beyond hares for their quarry, with deer being targeted in many parts of the country, often with larger lurchers bred specifically for the role. This sort of organised poaching is not simply a wildlife crime, it has consequences for the entire rural community.

For several years the Alliance, alongside a number of other rural organisations including the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) and the NFU, have been campaigning for action to address poachers, primarily through amendments to the Game Acts which date back to the 19th century. The Acts exactly address the offence of poaching by prohibiting "trespass in pursuit of game", but lack some of the powers of more modern legislation, especially around the confiscation of vehicles, the seizure of dogs and recovery of kennelling costs. The penalties associated with the Game Acts are also lenient in comparison with similar legislation.

We have been frustrated by a lack of understanding of the seriousness of hare poaching within government, with Defra and the Home Office passing responsibility for addressing it back and forth with neither seemingly wanting to grasp the issue. That frustration came to the fore when Defra started discussing the introduction of a close season for brown hares, a policy which we do not oppose in principle but for which there is very little evidence that it will have much impact either on hare populations or welfare. It was made very clear to Ministers that legislating on what it perceived as an 'eye catching animal welfare initiative', whilst ignoring a real and persistent wildlife crime issue that is a blight on many rural communities, was going to generate some serious and valid criticism.

We were, therefore, very pleased to be briefed recently by Ministers that the government does now finally intend to legislate to amend the Game Acts along the lines that we have been proposing. Our message is that there is no time to lose as farmers and rural communities across the country will be suffering the impact of poachers almost as soon as the combines have left the fields in the coming weeks. There is criminal justice legislation in parliament at the moment which could easily be used to amend the Game Acts along the lines we have been proposing for years. The police, rural organisations and government are aligned so there is no need to delay. The government needs to act now for hares, deer, farmers and for the countryside as a whole.

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