How The National Coursing Club Tried & Failed To Circumvent The Hunting Act
It used to be that, around the end of every February or early March, a three day event was held in Lancashire called the Waterloo Cup. It was the pinnacle of the hare coursing season, considered by aficionados of the sporting greyhound to be its ultimate test. Canine speed, agility and stamina would be scrutinised by putting in front of them a live . Greyhounds would be released in pairs, scoring points for how quickly they ran up to their quarry and their skill in working her at every twist and turn. Publicly, coursing supporters would say that the object was to exercise not kill the hare. But from the crowds at Waterloo, which sometimes numbered thousands, cheers and celebrations were loud and drunken when she was snatched, "bowled over" or clamped between the jaws and screaming, tragic and doomed, a living tug-of-war rope. The Judge on horseback awarded points for that, too.
In this knock-out competition which started with 64 entrants, winning greyhounds progressed until the victorious dog's trainer was awarded the Waterloo Cup itself, loads of money and legendary status in the history books. There was a Plate Event for losers and side shows. Many were needed and had to be imported regularly from East Anglia to keep the population artificially high.
Hare coursing was well organised by different local Clubs. Weekly meets were held across England and Scotland every September to March under rules stipulated by the National Coursing Club. Then the Hunting Act (2004) made it illegal. However, just as foxhunters invented so-called trailhunting as a false alibi to carry on as usual, so the hare coursing community rebranded their sport 'Greyhound Trialling'.
Acting on information received, on 2 and 3 March 2007 I found myself in Yorkshire, working undercover to expose the myth of Greyhound Trialling at a two-day event being billed as the New Waterloo Cup. We knew that there had been numerous similar, smaller events throughout that winter and this was the culmination of efforts to cynically subvert the law and facilitate the reintroduction of live hare coursing.
My partner wore a pinhole camera, I had a camcorder wired into binoculars.
On arrival we could see people waving plastic bags on sticks, working as 'beaters' away in the fields beyond a belt of trees. There were lots of vans with greyhounds being tended and prepared by people. Just out from the field edge was a man standing in a three-sided shelter, wearing the traditional red coat, holding a pair of greyhounds on a leash. Hares were being shepherded, manoeuvred to run, one at a time, from behind the shelter into the area in front and in view. Greyhounds would be straining now and slipped from their leash. The sprint was on. Parallel lines of people stood in the field to scare the hare back towards the middle whenever she tried to break free to the side. All these things were entirely consistent with organised hare coursing run under National Coursing Club rules pre-ban. I was well informed because I'd attended on and off in various guises for twenty years before it was outlawed.
There were a couple of subtle differences. First, the greyhounds were muzzled. We didn't see any hares get savaged although we did film them pinned and pummelled before men wrestled them away and pulled their necks. Second, there was a man with a gun who, to comply with the law, was supposed to shoot hares which had been 'flushed' beyond a stretch of orange plastic barrier netting. He only ever discharged his gun into the air, to laughter and ironic applause, and the netting was both unfit for purpose and often in entirely the wrong place.
Organised hare coursing is covered by Section 5 of the Hunting Act, which is unequivocal. It states, "A 'hare coursing event' is a competition in which dogs are, by the use of live hares, assessed as to skill in hunting hares." There is little wriggle room for people who get caught.
The upshot of our undercover operation was that two landowners were found guilty at Scarborough Magistrates Court (in July 2009) of hosting the illegal event. Subsequently, celebrity chef Clarissa Dickson-Wright and racehorse trainer Sir Mark Prescott bowed to a private prosecution brought by IFAW and pleaded guilty too. Although Dickson-Wright made the headlines, it was Prescott who was a lynch pin of the coursing world. He had revived the original Waterloo Cup in its later years when it seemed to be dying a natural death.
This, and convictions against organisers and landowners for facilitating and attending a so-called 'Greyhound Trialling' event in Norfolk at around that time*, signalled a victory for the Hunting Act (Section 5) and the end of organised Club Coursing as we know it - ...
* Evidence was gathered in a Joint Operation between the League, RSPCA and IFAW. The RSPCA ran the prosecution.
Banner image: In the slips for the Waterloo Cup. Lilian Cheviot (1914)