Hunting was banned in Scotland in 2002 and England and Wales in 2004. However, these bans have not been properly enforced, the attempts to eliminate or weaken them continue, and hunting is still legal in Northern Ireland.

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Hare hunting and hare coursing

Hare hunting is the lesser known cousin of fox hunting and deer hunting, but in the days before hunting was banned in England and Wales, one in three hunts were actually hare hunts. Despite the ban, when hunting with dogs was made illegal, most of these hunts still exist, and are chasing and killing hares in the name of 'sport'.

Hare coursing is a different 'sport', involving two fast dogs being set loose to chase a hare. Traditionally, this could take place on a small scale but also as a large-scale, organised event, such as the famous Waterloo Cup event which attracted thousands of spectators who came to watch and place bets. Hare coursing was banned, along with hare hunting, by the Hunting Act 2004, and is illegal, but coursing still takes place.

Two hares on the grass

According to the Hare Preservation Trust, the number of brown hares in the UK has declined by 80% since the late 1880s – that’s a devastating drop. While modern farming practices are thought to be the main cause of this decline, hare hunting and hare coursing also had an impact. A return to these cruel sports could see brown hares wiped out in many parts of Britain. The brown hare is listed as a conservation priority in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan, meaning we should be doing all we can to protect this vulnerable species.

There is nothing ‘natural’ about a hare being chased with a pack of dogs. Hares have evolved to sprint at high speeds for short periods to escape predators. They cannot match the stamina of hunting hounds who will continue the chase until the hare is exhausted and can run no more. When talking about hares and hunting with dogs, the Government’s Burns Report published in 2000 concluded that ‘this experience seriously compromises the welfare of the hare.’

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What is hare hunting?

Hares are hunted with packs of harriers, beagles or bassets, typically followed by the hunt on foot but there are harrier packs which operate on horseback. When beagles are used, the activity is normally known as 'beagling'.

According to the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles, there are still 71 hunts in existence which were set up to target hares – 55 Beagle foot packs, eight Basset foot packs and eight harrier horseback packs are listed.

The hare hunting season runs from late August or early September until March. Hares are reluctant to leave their territory and don't venture onto new ground and as a result, hare hunting normally takes place in a limited area of the country, of not more than one or two miles square.

Hares spend their lives above ground so do not seek refuge underground like foxes when being hunted. Hares tend to run in circles around the territory they know and they gradually get worn down by the pursuing hounds. In the end, after a chase of up to an hour, the exhausted hare is overwhelmed by the lead hounds and torn apart. If there is anything left, the huntsman sometimes cuts of the head (mask) and tail (scut) as trophies.

Watch this video if you want to know what hare hunting looks like:

Is hunting hares legal?

No. Hare hunting with dogs was banned in England and Wales by the Hunting Act 2004. Hare hunting is therefore illegal.

The Act did includes some examples of 'exempt' hunting some of which are exploited by the hunts to cover up their illegal hunting.

What is hare coursing?

Hare coursing with hare coursing dogs such as lurchers or greyhounds (or other fast, 'sight' hounds) involves the dogs competing against each other in pursuit of a live hare. Bets are placed on which of the two dogs will be the quickest to turn and catch the hare. Before the hare coursing ban some of these competitions were undertaken in very high profile events with many people in attendance, such as the famous Waterloo Cup, the three-day event run annually at Great Altcar in Lancashire. This event has not happened since the ban was put in place as the Hunting Act also makes the participation or publicity of a hare coursing event an offence.

Coursing enthusiasts have claimed that caught hares die instantaneously from the bite of one dog. However, hares are often unsuccessfully grabbed several times by the dogs causing terrible injuries and stress. The hares are sometimes heard screaming in terror and pain as the dogs fight over them, as they may become a living rope in a brutal tug of war between the jaws of the dogs.

The government inquiry into hunting with dogs concluded in 2000: ‘It is clear, moreover, that if the dog or dogs catch the hare, they do not always kill it quickly.

Reports of hare coursing in the Fens, East Anglia and other regions around the country are becoming more frequent in the media, but it happens in any areas where hares still live. While it is important to recognise that some reports of hare coursing actually relate to hare poaching (see below), it is worrying that reported incidents of this awful activity are increasing.

Two greyhounds tearing apart a hare

What is the difference between hare coursing and hare poaching?

There has been a substantial increase in the number of reports of hare coursing in certain parts of the country, leading to concerns that this traditional ‘sport’ is having a revival. Hares also face the threat of poaching (not to mention hare hunting, as described above). To ensure the different threats to hares are dealt with appropriately, it is important to understand what each of them look like:

  • Hare hunting- the activities of beagle packs, harriers and basset packs in which hares are hunted by scent using a pack of scent hounds, controlled by people on foot or mounted (which in England and Wales continues illegally under the cover of ‘trail’ hunting cover or through the abuse of the exemption in the Hunting Act which allows rabbits to be hunted).
  • Organised hare coursing- involving many dogs competing with each other in a competition involving rules, referees and spectators, such as the famous Waterloo Cup event. This type of hare coursing has practically disappeared since 2009 after some high profile prosecutions and because the Hunting Act 2004 specifically bans even being an spectator of these events.
  • Hare poaching- trespassing on private land to catch hares, perhaps for food or fun. Although the same type of dogs hare coursers use are used to poach hares, this does not typically involve a competition between two dogs. Hare poaching is still quite common.
  • Improvised hare coursing/poaching– a mix of coursing and poaching, which involves trespassing to catch hares but is also a competition between dogs. This is less common but still exists.

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