Police Scotland have announced the launch of a new campaign aimed to target people involved in hare coursing.
The campaign, which uses the code name Operation Lepus, is a national operation to counter hare coursing activity and this year Police Scotland will be undertaking targeted patrols in known hare coursing areas in an effort to apprehend the coursers.
Hare coursing is a UK wildlife crime priority and an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is committed by a small number of individuals, who travel far and wide to indulge in this illegal activity. It is predominantly a seasonal crime, occurring during the spring as crops emerge into fields and during late Summer and early Autumn when the crops have been harvested.
The persons involved in this antisocial activity will use lurchers, greyhounds and whippet dogs which hunt by sight and are normally walked across fields on slip leads and are released when any hares run off. It has been known for multiple dogs to chase one hare and money to change hands depending on which dog kills the hare.
The Brown Hare (Lepus eurpaeus) is an animal of arable farmlands although it does occur on higher ground. The population of the Hare declined rapidly in the 1960’s and 1970’s before stabilising in the 1980’s and good populations are found on the arable farmlands throughout Scotland.
Hare breed between March and August raising their young in a shallow scrape in the ground known as a form, therefore at this time of year there will be a population of mixed ages. However, because they have no burrows hares tend to rely on vegetation and their colouration to camouflage them from predators.
As a result they are currently particularly vulnerable because arable crops have been cut and they are easily seen on stubble fields and fields that have been sown.
Poaching and coursing are wildlife crime priorities and there are several issues associated with them that merit the attention of police. These include:
Public safety - Offenders may have access to firearms, not all of them licensed; Rotting hare innards and other parts are a public health issue.
Livestock safety - Sheep/cattle (and horses) can be injured by lurchers and/or 4x4 vehicles; livestock can escape if gates are left open thereby causing traffic issues and potentially loss of income for farmers.
Animal welfare issues - It is often the case that hare are not killed outright causing prolonged suffering; coursing dogs are run to exhaustion and sometimes injured.
Habitat destruction - 4x4 vehicles can cause considerable damage to wildlife habitats.
Research has shown that the type of person who takes part in this type of activity is often linked to other types of criminality. Typically, they will also be involved in other types of wildlife crime and are amongst the most prolific offenders in respect of wildlife crime. For those offenders, this type of crime is usually a ‘status symbol’, and can run from generation to generation.
The police cannot tackle this issue alone and will be working closely with partners organisations including Scottish Land and Estates and the National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) to raise awareness of the issue amongst their membership.
Officers involved in the operation will make contact with their local farmers and landowners with a view to establishing new information and to encourage closer working and sharing of information in the long term. However, the public in general and specifically the wider rural community all have a role to play in tackling this type of crime.
Where coursing has actually been witnessed, police officers can take action on the information from a single eye witness and can seize the dogs and any vehicles concerned if it is considered appropriate. Similarly, reports to police, and even historical reports made, can identify areas of hare coursing to police which can be investigated.
Sergeant Andrew Mavin, Wildlife Coordinator for Police Scotland, said today: “Wildlife crime is a high priority for Police Scotland, and as part of the wider commitment to tackling this type of crime, we’re launching Operation Lepus, focusing on hare coursing.
“We’re aiming to raise awareness about the issue of hare coursing across Scotland. We have dedicated wildlife crime officers across Scotland who work closely with landowners and farmers, and liaise with organisations such as the NFUS and the Scottish Land and Estates.
“Hare coursing is barbaric and the mind-set of those who partake in such crime is beyond comprehension. I would urge anyone who wishes to report this type of crime, if they are a witness to this crime, or simply, if you are a farmer or a landowner and you’d like to report any suspicious activity or people on your land – particularly suspicious people with dogs such as lurchers or greyhounds – please contact police on 101.”
Allan Bowie, vice-president of NFU Scotland, and of Allan’s Farm in Fife, said: “Farmers are better placed than they may realise to help prevent this gruesome form of rural crime.
“It is in our industry’s interest to report suspected cases or incidents of hare coursing too, as the activity can cause distress among livestock; additionally, people taking part in hare coursing are often involved in other types of criminal activity, such as stealing agricultural machinery, trailers and tools.
“Operation Lepus has known local success in previous years, with scores of incidents reported by farmers and members of the public, and I am proud that our industry can help play a part in stamping out rural crime. Hare coursing still takes place, however, and I would encourage anyone living, working in and visiting the countryside to report any suspicions that it is taking place to the police.”
Paul Wakefield, director of operations and communications at Scottish Land and Estates, which represents 2,500 landowners across Scotland commented: “As a committed and active member of the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime Scotland (PAWS) we are sadly only too aware of the ongoing issue of hare coursing, which becomes an increasing problem at this time of year. We and our members have been working in partnership with Police Scotland for a number of years and I am delighted to see that this has assisted greatly in crime prevention and enforcement measures. However, despite this concerted effort hare coursing remains a problem and we will continue to urge anyone who lives and works in the countryside to remain extra vigilant at this time and to report anything suspicious or out of place to the Police.”