Farmers expose the true extent of the problem

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Farmers have spoken out about the widespread problem of hare coursing where gangs are trespassing onto land, threatening land owners and using dogs to slaughter hares for sport.

Kent’s rural community said the law against the blood sport is continuously being flouted with groups of coursers moving around the county to stage hunts with other gangs who come in from outside of the county to take part and place bets.

As well as being cruel, the illegal practice damages crops where the trespassers drive across fields in 4x4s. It is also threatening generations of hares.

Coursing, which involves lurcher dogs being used to chase and catch hares before tearing them apart, was made illegal in 2005.

But Kevin Attwood, who owns Down Court Farm in Doddington, said it has continued despite the ban.

“It happens in the autumn when the crops have been cleared and there is also a spell around March before the crops get too tall,” he said.

“They use lurcher-type dogs. There are several issues; there’s crop damage, when they drive onto land, but the key issue is the loss of one of our iconic species.

“They breed in February and the babies are only about five or six weeks old in March – they don’t stand a chance. They just get slaughtered. It wipes out a generation of hares.”

Mr Attwood said it was also intimidating for farmers to go and speak to large groups of people trespassing on their land during the day and night.

“To have to go and confront them can be daunting and they can be intimidating,” he said.

Mr Attwood, who is chair of the National Farmers Union’s south east committee, said the problem was that gangs just moved from one area to another meaning no part of Kent was protected.

At night coursers use off-road vehicles and high-powered lamps to light up fields to hunt nocturnal animals, damaging crops and wiping out potentially huge yields.

And in areas of the UK where the problem has been unchallenged, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of hares.

Farmers said Kent Police was working hard to try and stamp out the problem, but admitted it was hard when covering such a large area.

Difficulties securing evidence had also meant prosecutions were harder to secure as offenders could only be prosecuted if there was a hare carcass.

According to some farmers, gangs travel down from Essex to course with local gangs and bet large sums of money on the blood sport.

One farmer, who asked not to be named, said when he had asked coursers to move off his land he was threatened.

Catherine Barr, of East Lenham Farm between Maidstone and Ashford, said they suffered problems with hare coursing.

“We get it all the time; sometimes we see them, sometimes we don’t,” she said.

“Sometimes they dig ditches so they can get their vehicles through onto the fields. We try and keep a look out. If another farmer sees them on our land they give us a ring and we do the same.

“If they drive around on growing crops it does a lot of damage. We try and conserve plants and wildlife on the farm.

“I know there have been cases of lamping where they go out with big lamps and go shooting.”

Kent Police works in rural areas with gamekeepers and landowners to address hare coursing and poaching.

A force spokeswoman said: “As a result landowners know officers will take these matters seriously and are more likely to report incidents.

“Kent Police undertakes several neighbourhood initiatives to tackle rural crime and poaching issues and operations are running across the county with close liaison with the local farming community.”

Current prosecution figures were not available, but the spokeswoman said in 2008 six people were arrested for hare coursing offences and a further six people were believed to have been reported for poaching/hare coursing offences.

She said: “In addition, the National Wildlife Crime Unit is researching and analysing poaching offences in general and is building up profiles of behaviour and offenders.

“This is something that will assist local officers in identifying the overall picture of hare coursing.”

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