As violent hare coursing gangs terrify farmers across the country, Lauren Dean met one rural police team in Cambridgeshire to find out what they are doing to stamp out the crime.
Police in Cambridgeshire have promised to up the ante on rural crime after farmers complained incidents in the area were not being dealt with properly.
The creation of the Rural Crime Action Team (RCAT) in April 2016 saw one sergeant, five police constables (PC) and one police community support officer (PCSO) specifically allocated to stamp out rural crime.
Only one member of the team did not grow up on a farm or have any former agricultural experience.
Tournament-style hare coursing in the area is growing in popularity, and while the team is on hand to deal with arson, haystack fires, farm burglaries, church and heritage crime, about 90 per cent of what they do is tackle hare coursing – and the problem is only getting worse.
PCSO Sandra Warren said: “Farmers used to say, ‘What is the point of ringing when you do not do anything?’ ’Yes’, we say, ’but you do not ring us’.
“I have this saying: use us or lose us. Tell us what is going on and we will do everything we can to do something about it.
“Do not tell us, and we cannot.”
In the first few months after the team was set up, PCSO Warren said it was a hard job convincing farmers to tell the police what was going on, but over the past three years, incident calls shot up 153 per cent, from 28 to 181.
That can only be a good thing, according to the team.
In terms of hare coursing, the issue has become such a high priority the chief constable in Cambridgeshire deemed it worthy of a 999 call for immediate response.
“If they are on your land, trespassing, and they are in pursuit of game – they have got their dog out, they are chasing hares – that is a crime in progress and a 999 call,” said PC Sam Thompson.
If the call is about intelligence instead, it is a 101.
“At this point, you have not seen them do no good, you just suspect they probably are,” PC Thompson added.
Farmers in Cambridgeshire and across the rest of the country are now having to deal with a different class of criminals, who are not afraid to use threats of violence and violence itself to intimidate whole families.
Sergeant Richard Jackson, who heads up the RCAT, said the officers tended to ’hunt in packs’ to have a better chance of obtaining a result.
PCSO Warren said: “Gone are the old fashioned and old-style hare coursers where they come up and park nicely, get out the car and walk around. They do not do that anymore.
“The damage they cause is just ridiculous.”
PC Thompson added: “It has evolved because we chase them. It always used to be with hare coursing they would park up on one side and walk, in a line, three or four of them, with their dogs.
“But instead of doing it like that – because we get involved and try and stop them – they will go out in vehicles, drive the field until they see a hare then throw the dog out of the window.
“Then they know all they have got to do is get the dog to come back into the car and they can drive off.”
But the most pressing issue for farmers and landowners, according to PC Thompson, is the police’s failure to enforce substantial fines and penalties.
He said many of the prolific hare coursers ‘know just how far they can push you’ but police officers no longer hold the right to arrest due to a change in the code of practice which governs arrest powers.
Unless there is a code G – a necessity to arrest – the battle in court is lost.
“They really know how to push your buttons,” PC Thompson said.
“Some are fine, but nothing will stop them. They do not care if it is illegal – it is just part of the risk of doing what they like to do.
“They often say no comment to every question, which is their right, but then people ask why we have not done anything about it.”
The RCAT spends a lot of time compiling evidence for cases, but it is rare to get a good result with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
According to PCSO Warren, the team does everything it can, but it has to rely on the courts.
She said: “A previous inspector did some work where he got a couple of magistrates and some judges together. He said to them: ‘Who understands what hare coursing is?’
“One said, ‘Oh they just chase some bunnies around a field’.
“So we put this presentation together and got a couple of farmers and one lady who had a real problem with hare coursers to explain to these people what happened to them.
“One of the magistrates who was at the meeting came back some weeks later saying: ‘The lady who came had more impact on me than anything’.
“When she explained the impact it has on the farmers and landowners to them – it is not fair on the hares either, to see them ripped to bits – the inspector said he saw a lightbulb suddenly turn on.”
Since then, fines have increased somewhat, but are still very low for the amount of work that is involved.
The team handed out its first ever Criminal Behavioural Order (CBO) towards the end of last year, which left a hare courser with an indefinite ban on entering the county.
The man was also handed a 12-month driving ban with a £7,000 fine, and a ban on entering Cambridgeshire with dogs, or with anybody else who had dogs.
“But sometimes it is only a couple hundred pounds if that,” PCSO Warren said. “They just grin at you.”
PC Thompson agreed. He said: “They get fines but they are not worth it.
“The courts make the decisions. The problem is their hands are tied by the laws in this country, because if somebody says to you, I only get £50 a week benefits and you cannot prove actually they are a millionaire, you have to prosecute them relative to what they say their means are.”
Hare coursers have their favourite places, and many – including teenagers – take on the activity because of tradition.
PC Thompson said they may not be able to read and write, ‘but ask them directions and they know it all’.
Despite this, not many who course the land are local and instead come from areas such as Newcastle, South Yorkshire, Sussex, Middlesex and Essex.
“It is constant repeat offenders,” PC Thompson said. “You have got several people who are tour guides, effectively.
“You know it is their business – they know hare coursing so well they take people hare coursing and get paid for each job. It is like a safari.”
PCSO Warren added: “Fortunately we have a lot of brown hares in Cambridgeshire. Some of our prolific hare coursers will actually say what a brilliant place for hare coursing it is.
“But we say to them, if you come to Cambridgeshire we will do everything in our power to get everything done in court to stop you from coming here and doing that to the people who live here.”
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