I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of hare coursing.
I am very fortunate to represent a constituency that has both urban and rural communities. In Sittingbourne and Sheppey, we are privileged to have access to lots of green space where we can enjoy our wonderful rural natural environment. We are also privileged to be surrounded by many acres of good quality agricultural land, where our local farmers produce fruit, vegetables and cereals that are as good as any found in any other part of the garden of England.
I am conscious that those privileges come with the great responsibility of ensuring that we properly protect our land, its wild animals and the habitats that they call home. That protection extends to our population of native hares, which is why I applied for this debate. I want to highlight the damage caused by the barbaric practice of hare coursing. That, for those who do not know, is defined as the sport of hunting hares using sight rather than scent.
I beg to differ. Hare coursing is as far removed from sport as you can possibly get. It is nothing more or less than the cruel use of live hares to train dogs to hunt them down and kill them just to make money. Increasingly, the so-called training events are organised on a competitive basis and used as an opportunity for hare coursing supporters to take part in illegal betting.
I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s bringing to the House this important subject, which is of extreme concern to my constituents in Huntingdon and to people in wider Cambridgeshire. On the point that he raises, is he aware that those events are being streamed not just locally but nationally for gambling purposes, and that therefore this problem goes beyond all our constituencies and is a national problem that must be dealt with as such by the Government?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. The betting generates thousands of pounds for the greedy and unscrupulous organisers of the events, who truly have the blood of hares on their hands.
Hare coursing is having an adverse effect on our native hare population, which in turn has an effect on biodiversity. That is why hares are included in the UK biodiversity action plan.
Sir Christopher, I sought the hon. Gentleman’s permission to intervene. I suspect that he is coming to the game laws. Section 4 of the Game Laws (Amendment) Act 1960 makes provision for “seizure and forfeiture”, but those powers do not extend to the aggravated offence in section 32 of the Game Act 1831. Therefore, does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that the older game law should be amended to create consistent seizure and forfeiture powers for all poaching offences, including those involving dogs and vehicles, and that that would act as a deterrent, assist the police and enable the courts to impose penalties that reflect the seriousness of the offence?
My hon. Friend will be delighted to learn that I am about to come to that in my speech; he has pre-empted me somewhat.
In addition to the adverse effect of hare coursing on the hare population, there is a negative impact on the lives of farmers and landowners, who have to put up with all sorts of illegal acts, such as vandalism of property, theft, intimidation and the destruction of crops, with the consequential loss of income. Of course, those who take part in illegal hare coursing are also guilty of other crimes, such as road traffic offences—including the driving of unlicensed and uninsured vehicles—drug taking, the possession of firearms, and the illegal betting that I mentioned earlier.
I would like to tell the experience of one of my local farmers, a friend of mine. In October, just before harvest time, my friend discovered that vehicles had been driven on to one of his fields, leaving wheel marks and scuffs on the turns. He said that although the marks left by the wheels largely faded away, the scuff marks did not, and he lost crops at harvest, which meant a loss of income and earnings. It was not the first time that that had happened. My friend is not alone: many of my local farmers experience similar problems.
Other hon. Members have made the point that the old game laws need to be reformed to increase fines and the money that the courts can reclaim from those criminals. My hon. Friend mentions the impact of the damage on farmers. Farmers also have to invest quite significantly in defences against hare coursing, such as digging ditches and putting locks and bars on gates. Does he agree that it should be possible for councils or the police to recompense farmers for some of the costs that they incur in defending against illegal hare coursing if, as I hope he will mention, the courts can reclaim far more money from the criminals?
My hon. Friend must have been reading my speech, because my very next paragraph explains that my farmer friend decided to dig ditches around his fields and install locked metal gates wherever he could. Even those sensible actions did not deter the criminals because, as my hon. Friend explained, they now come prepared with battery-powered disc cutters to cut off the padlocks or cut through the metal barriers to get to the fields and continue their hare coursing. How on earth are our hard-working farmers meant to earn a living in the face of these determined thugs who break down barriers to trespass on their land?
The behaviour described by that farmer is not that of opportunists, but well planned acts by people who are motivated by nothing more than greed and money. That is clear from the equipment they carry with them. They are prepared for breaking and entering, invading other people’s land, and causing long-term damage while they are there. That behaviour needs to be stamped out, but the available sentencing powers are insufficient to be a deterrent.
As Members of Parliament, we have a duty to our constituents and hard-working business owners to ensure that their firms are protected. Farmers are businesspeople. These callous acts of criminal damage would not be tolerated against any other business. Why should it be any different for farmers and landowners?
This year has proved challenging for lots of rural businesses, including farms, which have not escaped the pandemic and the resulting economic impact. Farms have also faced the worrying possibility of a no-deal Brexit. They do not need the additional threat posed by criminal gangs, who are increasingly targeting rural communities.
What can be done about hare coursing? The Crown Prosecution Service website admits that
“Hare coursing can cause significant disturbance in the countryside”,
as well as causing a lot of concern to people living in the wider rural community where the activity takes place. Those words are small comfort to farmers who believe that the “significant disturbance” is being ignored, as are the laws that have been put in place to protect them. As hon. Members have pointed out, three pieces of legislation cover the problems that farmers face.
First, section 30 of the Game Act 1831 includes two separate offences for trespassing during the day in search of game. Fines depend on the number of people involved: up to £1,000, or up to £2,500 if a group contains five or more people. Secondly, Section 1 of the Night Poaching Act 1828 sets out two separate offences: the first makes it illegal to go on someone else’s land unlawfully at night to take or destroy game, while the second makes it illegal to enter land unlawfully
“with any gun, net, engine, or other instrument, for the purpose of taking or destroying game”.
Someone caught committing those offences could be liable for a fine of up to £1,000. Finally, the Hunting Act 2004 outlaws activities associated with organised hunts.
Hare coursing, however, was an offence of its own long before the Hunting Act 2004 came into force. I share the view of the Nation Farmers Union and see no reason why the Hunting Act 2004 should have to be used to sort out this problem. Hare coursing is a much wider issue that should be treated in isolation, not in conjunction with the Act. Legal guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service says that more effective tools for prosecuting are either the Game Act 1831 or Night Poaching Act 1828, both of which I mentioned earlier. We have enough legislation to tackle hare coursing, but the problem is how the maximum penalties in those Acts are implemented: the truth is, not very well.
Rural crime, including hare coursing, has escalated in Kent in recent years and policing methods have had to adapt and change with the growing threat this now presents to rural communities. Officers in the Kent police rural taskforce do excellent work in tracking down the perpetrators of rural crime and building cases against them. However, they do not always receive the support they deserve because they are not always backed up by the rest of the justice system. For instance, the Crown Prosecution Service decides whether a crime is worth prosecuting and the courts decide what punishment should be meted out once prosecution goes ahead and somebody is found guilty.
Farmers and other people living in rural areas in my constituency want to see a toughening of the penalties imposed on those found guilty of rural crimes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) said, because the current penalties are simply not enough to discourage hare coursing criminals. The NFU released some research a couple of months ago that looked at the level of fines imposed on those found guilty of hare coursing. Between 2014 and 2018, the average fine under the Game Act 1831 was £227, when the maximum fine for offences under the Act is £1,000, or £2,500 if five or more offenders are involved. It cannot be right that the average fine imposed by the courts was just £227, and I am sure you would agree, Sir Christopher, that such a penalty is derisory.
As I mentioned, a lot of money is made from hare coursing. Sometimes hundreds of thousands of pounds is involved; surely nobody believes that such a small fine is going to put perpetrators off. Frankly, it is tantamount to a slap on the wrist. How can such risible fines be justified to farmers who, due to biosecurity concerns, may have to scrap tens of thousands of pounds worth of crops damaged by hare coursing? It is just adding insult to injury.
When the victims are brave enough to confront the trespassers—as some of the farmers in my constituency have in the past—they are met with threats of violence and untold amounts of verbal abuse, and it has to stop. We are a civilised nation that relies on its farmers, and we have to protect them from these thugs. They need Government support that they are currently not getting.
In the absence of that support, the NFU has this year worked with other farming business and rural wildlife organisations to create an alliance that aims to produce an action plan to end illegal hare coursing. This coalition believes that some simple changes to the Game Act 1831, together with better guidance for the judiciary when passing fines, would go some way to mitigate the worry, the disruption and the intimidation experienced. For instance, it has been suggested that the most powerful way to get through to the people committing those crimes is to seize their dogs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford mentioned earlier. Currently, police forces are deterred from taking such action because the cost of keeping animals in kennels cannot be recovered from the offenders in the same way as it would be if dogs were seized for their own protection under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
I understand that police fully support an amendment to the Game Act 1813 and Night Poaching Act 1828 along those lines. These are not controversial proposals, and, unusually, there is widespread agreement and an acknowledgement that something needs to be done as soon as possible. Why, then, have campaign groups been met with reluctance and hesitation by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to take any of this forward?
These are issues that have been raised for many years and, sadly, these types of attacks on farming communities are nothing new. I have raised this subject before in a Westminster Hall debate. On that occasion, I read this letter from a constituent:
The Isle of Sheppey has a population of over 36,000. During the summer this number is more than doubled. We have read in the local newspaper about yet another reorganisation, but the fact remains that police presence on the Island is inadequate.
On Saturday 2nd November…we had cause to phone 999 as there were four men with dogs coursing hares on our farm. Only one patrol was available. No criticism is intended or implied of the individual officer, but he had no realistic chance of apprehending four experienced criminals who were playing ‘cat and mouse’. With assistance from my husband they were caught, but yet again have got away with it.
This incident was not an isolated one. There have been six incidents here since September…We have witnessed them all and found numerous gates open on all six occasions. This is done deliberately so that the dogs have an unimpeded chase after the hares… we had twenty four incidents of this kind, all of which were reported. Some incidents were attended by the police and some were not. Of the twenty four incidents, arrests were made on only two occasions. In the first case the culprits received £250 fines and we are still waiting for the £15 victim cost.
In the second case the CPS abandoned the case only informing us the day before the hearing. This cost us money as we had already made arrangements for someone to care for our animals during our absence. The CPS claim there was insufficient evidence for the charge that was brought. Our view is that the case was dropped to save money. (It has been reported that the CPS drop 500 cases a week)…We are now in despair and have reached the stage where we may as well let these people have their fun without interruption.”—[Official Report, 9 April 2014; Vol. 579, c. 99WH.]
That Westminster Hall debate took place on Wednesday 9 April 2014. If my calculation is correct, that is six years and eight months ago, give or take a few days. Sadly, the woman who wrote that letter is no longer with us. She died a couple of years ago. The scandal of hare coursing, which filled her with such despair, remains.
I do not want to have to come back for a Westminster Hall debate on hare coursing in another six years, so I urge the Government to listen to my farming community, make the necessary changes to the law and, at the same time, vastly increase the maximum fines for what is a truly barbaric crime. The time for such action is long overdue.
It is a pleasure to be here with you this morning, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson). I think he said he started raising this issue six and a half years ago, which was just before I arrived here. I did look up whether he had raised it before. It is an issue that has grown and expanded and I applaud him for returning today to raise it again.
Given what a short time we have for the debate, a surprising number of colleagues have come along to intervene, which demonstrates the strength of feeling, including my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger), my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Quite a number of hon. Friends and hon. Members have also written to me on this subject.
Hare coursing is a vile and despicable activity. When I was a news reporter years ago back at HTV in Bristol, when I first started as a young girl, badger baiting was rife. Hare coursing is not unlike that terrible activity, which certain people thought was an acceptable thing to take part in. It is vile and it is ghastly.
I point out, unequivocally, that hare coursing is illegal. The brown hare—the Lepus europaeus—is a naturalised species listed as a conservation priority in the UK’s biodiversity action plan. It is a much-loved creature and its core habitat is arable farmland, with some improved grassland. As I was discussing with a colleague earlier, people tend to like pursuing this activity in the open fields, where there is lots of space to get around.
The hare is not endangered, but we are a nation of animal lovers, are we not? I, for one, think this is a dreadful activity.
I am actually fairly horrified by that. I hope that is hearsay; I hope it is not true. I was raised and brought up on a farm, and to see a hare out in its natural habitat is a great thing. Certainly, my brother has hares on his farm, and I do not think they have had any incidents of this, but that is not anything that one wants to hear.
This is not just about the harm to the creature, of course. This activity causes real harm to rural communities, which is why we are determined to continue our efforts to prevent it, and my Department is working very closely with the Home Office on this. We have heard some very compelling accounts this morning from my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey about the serious harm in his constituency; harm to farming families and to others in the community. We have also heard stories of property theft—the joint is cased while the activity is happening, and often the stealing happens later—dangerous driving, and even arson, assaults and intimidation. Only recently in Cambridgeshire, for example, a man engaged in hare coursing was convicted of dangerous driving and criminal damage and jailed for two months, having driven at speeds of nearly 100 mph across the farmer’s field to try to evade the police. It is also fairly horrifying to hear that these events are now being streamed, which is further expanding the audience.
However, I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that a lot of progress has been made, certainly over these past six and a half years. I commend the work of the police, because they are doing a great deal in many areas to deter hare coursing. The Government support the police’s efforts to tackle this through the National Police Chiefs’ Council rural and wildlife crime policing strategy—that is a big mouthful, but it is definitely there to help, and it aims to target the problem through better preventative action, improved intelligence and enforcement activity. We are now seeing a much more co-ordinated approach across many police forces.
I particularly pay tribute to Chief Inspector Phil Vickers of Lincolnshire Police, who is the national lead for colleagues and other forces on something called Operation Galileo. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has heard of that, but it focuses on the prevention of hare coursing, and it now joins together 21 police forces, sharing information and intelligence from across the whole of the UK to target offenders. It is supported by other, more sophisticated prosecution capabilities, bringing them to justice; it has also invested in drones, which I believe will be very helpful in something like this, and other technologies so that they can track and monitor hare coursers, as well as gather evidence, which of course is one of the key things. It is bearing fruit: for example, the last two seasons have seen the smallest number of incidents on record in Lincolnshire. What they have learned there is something that others can also learn from and share.
Poaching, which includes hare coursing, is one of the UK’s six wildlife crime priorities. Those priorities are set by the UK Wildlife Crime Tasking and Co-ordination Group and the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which I am very pleased is working well and remains in existence; it has just had its next year’s funding confirmed by DEFRA. It is a joint operation between the Home Office and DEFRA; lots of other interested bodies take part in it, and it also gets funding from the Scottish Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and the National Police Chiefs’ Council. They all put money into the pot, and hare coursing is definitely on their radar.
I must just say that this Government are committed to providing more police officers, and recruitment is well under way, with 4,000 already in place and more on their way. That should also make a difference, particularly in our rural areas.
Does the Minister share my concern that the increase in police numbers, while extremely welcome, is still being done according to the old formula, which privileges urban police forces over rural ones? We have to get more police officers into our rural constabularies.
It is about priorities, obviously. I urge my hon. Friend to engage with his local police force. They understand rural crime and its big knock-on effects—it is not a one-off thing; it can spread to all these other things. Hare coursing has knock-on effects, from stealing to arson to other issues. That is definitely being highlighted in rural areas.
I have highlighted lots of good work, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey that there is more to do. My Department recently convened a roundtable meeting with a range of rural partners, the police and the Home Office to consider what further action could be taken to strengthen the response to hare coursing. Those discussions will continue. The Minister for Crime and Policing and I really value the insights that those meetings provide us with, and the input that we have had from other hon. Members who have written to us. For example, south Cambridgeshire MPs recently sent a letter about the issues in their area.
I am aware of suggestions that the police should be given greater powers to seize the dogs used in hare coursing, and that the courts could possibly confiscate the dogs permanently on conviction. At the moment, they can seize the dogs, and they look after them in kennels—often at vast expense—but when the person is prosecuted or fined, the dogs get handed back, which could allow for further illegal activities. That has definitely been raised, and we are exploring it further. Similarly, it is up to the courts to decide how to hand out fines and how much to fine, and valid points have been raised that some of the fines are not high enough. Sentencing guidance could potentially help with that, especially for these rural areas.
I accept that the courts interpret the level of penalties. However, is for us to decide what the maximum penalty should be. If we increase the maximum penalty from £1,000 to £100,000, for argument’s sake, the courts would have to take that into account and would be less likely to fine somebody £100.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I get the message about the exasperation. Those messages are being heard. Going forward, consideration will be given to some of the other options that have been raised.
As I said, we will keep up those regular discussions with the Home Office and the hare coursing coalition, which my hon. Friend referenced and which brings a wide range of bodies to the table, including the Country Land and Business Association, the NFU, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Kennel Club and others. A diverse group of people have been brought together by this frankly horrific activity.
I thank all those who have taken part today, but particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey for keeping his eye on the ball, albeit after waiting for six and a half years. He was right to open up this discussion, and I thank him for it. I am fully aware of the impact of hare coursing on our farmers, who we so value in our countryside and who work so hard to make their operations viable.
Question put and agreed to.