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Tim Bonner: Poaching, the Hunting Act and why the hare is the loser

Earlier this week the government finally succumbed to pressure from across the House of Lords and brought forward proposals to tackle hare poaching. The Bishop of St Albans had gathered cross party support for the amendments he had moved to the Police Bill and with the prospect of an embarrassing defeat looming Ministers finally published their own amendments which look certain to become law. This was the successful culmination of a long campaign by the Alliance and our colleagues at the CLA, NFU and RSPCA to strengthen the law and help the police tackle a crime that has become a blight on so many rural communities.

In the background to this good news story, however, is the lingering influence of a much less beneficial piece of legislation. In fact, a law that has had only negative impacts. Seventeen years ago the Hunting Act banned coursing along with other forms of hunting with dogs. Coursing even got a whole section of the Act to itself which makes it an offence not only to actually course a hare, but also to participate in a coursing event or to own a dog that runs in one. Now some people might not like coursing, but the arguments were fairly clear that those who did spent a lot of time and effort looking after hares. Nowhere were hares more plentiful than on ground where coursing took place under National Coursing Club rules and poachers were actively discouraged. When I hunted beagles on Romney Marsh, the local coursing club policed that empty corner of the country and closer to my current home coursing clubs like Epping and Ongar made short shrift of anyone trespassing on their ground.

Poaching, or illegal coursing, has always been a problem however, and since the prohibition of legal coursing it has become even more so. Meanwhile, the conservation work that was associated with formal coursing has also been lost, and in extreme cases farmers have even become so harassed by poachers that they have shot out hare populations. Whatever else the Hunting Act has, or has not achieved, it has certainly done nothing for the hare.

The whole sorry saga rather reminds me of this government's current proposal to legislate on 'trophy hunting' by prohibiting the import of trophies from a number of species. Personally, I am not particularly keen on the thought of big game hunting and certainly would not want to do it myself. I am though, very aware of a number of very credible academics who argue vehemently that the government's proposals will only do harm both to conservation and communities in Africa where trophy hunting contributes significantly to the environment and the economy.

This government, like the last one, seems poised to legislate on the basis of what it thinks people like, rather than whether that legislation will have a positive impact on animal welfare or conservation. That is not a good place to be and perhaps Ministers should apply the 'hare coursing' test to any new animal welfare legislation. You might not like it, but is banning it going to make things better, or worse?

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