Defying the ban: Lincolnshire's illegal hare coursers

Police question hare coursing suspects in Lincolnshire
Image caption Lincolnshire Police's dedicated hare coursing team, Operation Galileo, feels it is making headway in tackling the problem

The flash of brown fur was difficult to see as it raced across the muddy field, but the dog was easy to spot.

It was over in seconds. The hare disappeared into a hedge and the lurcher slowed down to a trot.

No luck for the hare coursers this time.

Although the practice is against the law in the UK, the chase was clearly still happening in this field near Walcott - just one of more than 500 reports Lincolnshire Police received in the latter half of 2012.

A group of men seen nearby were stopped by officers, and made no attempt to deny what they had been doing, or how they felt about it being illegal.

"We chase and kill the hare but a farmer can take a shotgun on his land and blast the hell out of a hare - is that fair?" one told police.

"This is diabolical - all this police action is just costing the taxpayer - do you see the four-by-four he's driving around in?" he added, pointing to the wildlife officer's vehicle.

The three men were arrested, and officers also confiscated a lurcher and a greyhound.

An hour later, we found the carcass of a hare floating in a ditch a few miles away.

An eyewitness told the police a gang of men had let a greyhound off the lead, which easily caught it.

Image caption Coursing is illegal in the UK but is still allowed in the Republic of Ireland

"They leave the hare in the field or in a ditch - they don't have any monetary value at all - they don't even eat them," wildlife officer Nick Willey said.

"It's not like the old days where it was one for the pot."

Hare coursers often bet on their dogs, which are sometimes worth as much as £9,000 if they are successful.

"A massive amount of money is involved... it is the betting that drives them," PC Willey said.

"They are not fazed by the law because they don't think they doing anything wrong

"They don't think it should ever have been made illegal."

Lincolnshire farmer Mark Leggott, who grows vegetables near Coningsby, said: "I heard once a few years ago that a few cars came on to a farmer's land and the last one was an expensive car with a bookie in it - and he had £20,000 to handle the bets."

Coursers prefer flat, rural areas where the dogs can see their prey more easily - and tend to hunt in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.

Cambridgeshire Police has dealt with more than 100 hare coursing calls this season - resulting in dozens of arrests and vehicles being seized.

The Hunting Act 2004 made hare coursing illegal and anyone convicted can be fined up to £5,000 by a magistrate - although it is more common for suspects to be convicted for trespassing in pursuit of game - with smaller fines of about £300.

Mr Leggott said he has had a few run-ins with coursers.

"I have confronted hare coursers in my drive and they have spat at me and threatened me."

Lincolnshire Police's dedicated hare coursing team, dubbed Operation Galileo, feels it is making some headway in tackling the problem, and Mr Leggott agrees.

"The police are doing a great job this year," he said. "I haven't seen any hare coursers on my land so far.

"It seems the word has got out that the police have a special team and they are staying away from Lincolnshire."

Image caption One suspect at Walcott told police his greyhound was the fastest in the country
Image caption The police are often called to fields that are miles from their base to find the suspects have already moved to other areas
Image caption Special hare coursing leads are designed to allow the dogs to be released quickly
Image caption The flat terrain in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk attracts hare coursers

But the practice remains popular in some circles, with many willing to travel long distances to to find the ideal surroundings.

One Lincolnshire officer said he once stopped a suspect with a dog, and asked him what he was doing.

He said he was just out walking his pet - but the man was from Kent, a county almost 200 miles to the south.

Many hare coursing supporters have called for the UK ban to be overturned, but they face resolute opposition from animal welfare groups.

The RSPCA has said it would "continue to campaign to make sure the act is retained even though a lot of people are campaigning to bring hare coursing back".

"It is a horrid way for any animal to die to be brought down by dogs in this way," said the charity.

"We don't agree it is a good way for any animal to die - they are literally ripped apart."

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