It was a chilling set of calling cards, left at the side of a farmer’s field in the bleak arable lands of Cambridgeshire. Ten brown hares, freshly-despatched, their bodies still warm.
The people who had killed them weren’t interested in taking the animals home for the pot. They were making a ghoulish and none-too-subtle point to the landowner: they would be back.
This Mafia-like tactic is the latest face of a crime-wave sweeping the countryside, one in which hardened criminal gangs are trying to terrorise farmers into letting them pursue illegal hare-coursing on their land.
Police found the 10 hares on a road last month at Six Mile Bottom, close to the village of Boxworth in Cambridgeshire.
PC Tom Nuttall, who mounts regular patrols in the area with the local rural crime unit, told the Mail that such incidents are now common – earlier this year nine dead hares were found carefully spaced out on a road on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border.
It was a deliberate attempt by criminals to intimidate local farmers, PC Nuttall said. ‘What they are doing is not a sport, it is cruel and totally illegal – and they have become an absolute menace.’
Hare-coursing – in which dogs are unleashed to chase down hares and catch them in their jaws – has been banned in Britain on cruelty grounds since 2005.
But it is nevertheless big business as criminal gangs organise coursing events to stream live on the dark web to thousands of punters who bet on the kills – which dog, which hare, how many turns the hare makes before it is killed, and so on.
A group of suspected coarsers were stopped by Humberside wildlife and rural team on 7 November in Lowthorpe and given a section 35 dispersal order despite not being found with any hares
One of four men stopped by police during a Mail investigation was happy to pose for pictures with their dogs, which were clearly well looked-after and in good condition
Lincolnshire farmer Chris Carter has spoken of his troubles with hare coursing from poachers on his land
A sign on a Lincolnshire farm warns that hare coursing is illegal and carries a maximum fine of £5,000
Police sources suggest that nationally more than 10,000 incidents of hare-coursing are reported every year – and even that may be an underestimate. One senior officer told us that 15,000-20,000 was likely to be a more accurate figure
This week the police were given new powers to aid them in their fight against the rise of this gruesome bloodsport.
Amendments tabled to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill earlier this month increased penalties, introduced new criminal offences and created new powers for the courts to disqualify convicted offenders from owning or keeping dogs.
The new legislation was welcomed by the police at the sharp end of the battle against the hare-coursers.
‘The dogs are key,’ says chief inspector Phil Vickers of Cambridgeshire police, the national lead on hare-coursing.
‘The new legislation will give us much more teeth when it comes to dealing with these career criminals, who are often involved in more serious crime such as drug dealing. Not only can we seize their dogs, we can ban them from keeping them in the future.’
‘The changes in the law could not have been more timely, since January is probably the time of year when hare-coursing reaches its peak and these criminals are at their most active, causing devastation in the countryside.’
For the time being, however, the ‘sport’ is booming – as the Mail found when we travelled to Yorkshire and East Anglia to investigate.
Police sources suggest that nationally more than 10,000 incidents of hare-coursing are reported every year – and even that may be an underestimate. One senior officer told us that 15,000-20,000 was likely to be a more accurate figure.
And, given the money involved, the gangs are often composed of hardened criminals prepared to go to any lengths to keep their pursuit alive.
Many of the farmers we met were so afraid of retribution from them that they would only speak on condition of anonymity. After all, the gangs have little compunction about intimidating or assaulting those who get in their way.
A group are stopped by Humberside wildlife and rural team on 7 November in Lowthorpe and given a section 35 dispersal order despite not being found with any hares. There is no suggestion that they have any connection to the threats to farmers
They come armed with iron bars and in some cases shotguns, causing mayhem by churning up land, destroying crops, wrecking farm buildings – in some cases setting fire to them – and stealing farm equipment and machinery.
One farmer who tied an abandoned hare courser’s dog to a farm building returned later that day to find that the animal had been retrieved. He also found the corpse of his own dog. It had been crucified – nailed to one of the outbuildings.
Another who challenged the coursers was reportedly shot at in his Land Rover.
Yet another, based in Cambridgeshire not far from where the dead hares were found, told the Mail: ‘On Friday I heard a gunshot as I was outside working in the yard. But I was too scared to search for them. That is the big fear.
‘These people have no morals. They are making us prisoners in our own homes while they are free to drive around with loaded firearms. If someone did this in a town there would be an uproar.’
Meanwhile, the police – hopelessly under-resourced and constrained by archaic legislation – are finding it impossible to keep control.
To find out more, the Mail joined the rural crime unit at Humberside Police led by Sergeant Jenna Jones.
One of the dogs seized by Humberside wildlife and rural team on 7 November in Lowthorpe
A coarser’s Subaru which was crashed, dumped and burnt out in a dyke in Lincolnshire
A sign warns against trespassers and says: ‘Violators will be shot, survivors will be shot again’
It is a Sunday morning and the unit is preparing for a dawn patrol. Sergeant Jones checks the logs for reports of poacher – or hare-courser – activity. She primes her Taser.
Her team’s patch, which covers 1,000 square miles of farmland from the East Riding village of Fordon in the north to the Humber Estuary in the south, offers rich pickings for coursers: remote farms, empty fields, easy getaway routes and a dense population of hares.
They are at their most active in November, after the fields have been harvested and before the frosts come, when their dogs can easily spot their quarry.
They travel to the flatlands in 4×4 off-road vehicles, sometimes driving several hundred miles from South Wales, the Pennines, and the north-east – anywhere too hilly for hare-coursing.
They use encrypted social media messaging apps to pass on details of forthcoming events.
The police have responded by launching drones over the fields but they are outgunned; Sergeant Jones’ unit is made up of only three full-time officers who deal with a broad range of rural crime, not just poaching.
The first report of activity comes in at just after 7.30am. A group of four men have been spotted with dogs and a four-wheel drive.
Sgt Jones jumps into the Land Rover and gives chase, arriving 20 minutes later at a track close to a bare wheatfield. The four men, each with a dog, have been stopped by Sgt Jones’ colleagues in another police vehicle after a high-speed chase that topped 90 miles an hour.
At least one of them is known to the team, and the vehicle’s registration plate has been flagged up by police cameras.
Later, when the men’s details are run through the Police National Computer it comes as no surprise to the rural crime team to find that they have previous convictions, not for hare-coursing but other more serious offences.
When interviewed, the men were evasive and arrogant: perhaps because they knew they hadn’t been caught in the act.
Their dogs were three lurcher/whippet crosses and a Saluki hound, the coursers’ canine of choice due to it speed, exceptional eyesight and ability to take down a hare in a matter of seconds.
Such was their bravado that all four were happy to pose for pictures with their dogs, which were clearly well looked-after and in good condition.
One of the men even jokingly offered to sell his dog, Izzy, to the Mail for £100. In a broad north-east accent, he said: ‘Go on, I’m skint’.
Signage that a farmer has removed from his land through fear of retribution
A gate which was rammed in Tongue End, Lincolnshire, to gain access by coursers
A coarser’s Subaru which was dumped in a field after intimidating farmers to use land for hare-coursing
In reality, dogs such as Izzy are the gold-plated currency of the coursers – a proven champion can sell for many thousands of pounds.
On the same day, further south in Lincolnshire, another local rural crime unit was apprehending a poacher who boasted that one of his dogs had earned him £32,000 in winnings from illegal betting.
The apparent leader of the group, whose name was Tony, insisted that they were in the area not to hunt for hares but simply to walk their dogs.
One of his friends claimed that they were on a camping holiday. But there was no tent, nor any other camping equipment: just the dogs and their beaten-up old Subaru.
The group all had similar north-east accents and the addresses they gave were in County Durham, nearly 200 miles away.
There was no hard evidence that they had been coursing. But Sgt Jones was able to issue temporary dispersal notices to all four men, which meant that they would have to leave the Humberside area for at least 48 hours.
‘That’s all we can do,’ says Sgt Jones. ‘But we know they will be back.’
One courser who won’t be returning to the sport any time soon is Paul-Michael Bowes who was seen standing on a hare while his dogs mauled it.
In a case heard at Hull magistrates court, Bowes was fined £728, given a suspended sentence for cruelty, forbidden to own animals for five years and banned from driving for 12 months.
Sgt Jones said she was pleased with the sentence. ‘Hare coursing is a barbaric and bloodthirsty crime… Not only does our wildlife suffer, but it significantly impacts our rural and farming communities as crops, hedges and gates are often left damaged as a result of these horrific crimes.’
A recent survey by the Yorkshire Agriculture Society showed that almost half its members had suffered verbal abuse and threats from hare-coursers: nearly 90 per cent reported some form of criminal damage.
Only last week, Chris Carter, whose family have farmed arable land for three generations in Lincolnshire near Spalding, found a group of hare coursers driving a 4×4 across his land at breakneck speed, once again filming a dog chasing a hare.
He called the police but he had no choice but to stand and watch as the vehicle carved up his fields.
He was furious – but feels ultimately impotent: ‘A significant number of those who turn up here just will not accept what they are doing is illegal. They are quite shameless about it – and they do exactly what they want.’
A council meeting in north Yorkshire recently heard that the hare coursers were ‘traumatising’ communities. Conservative councillor Robert Baker said he had ‘been on the receiving end of a beating by a gang of poachers I tried to apprehend while waiting for the police to get there. It’s a massive problem and they are getting really vicious.’
For their part, the police warn the beleaguered farmers that the criminals should not be approached.
‘But what should we do?’ asks a landowner based near Boston, Lincs, the epicentre of hare-coursing. ‘Should we let them burn down our farms while we wait an hour for the police to arrive?’
Amendments tabled to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill earlier this month increased penalties, introduced new criminal offences and created new powers for the courts to disqualify convicted offenders from owning or keeping dogs
Only last week, Chris Carter, whose family have farmed arable land for three generations in Lincolnshire near Spalding, found a group of hare coursers driving a 4×4 across his land at breakneck speed, once again filming a dog chasing a hare
Damage to land in Cowbit, Lincolnshire amid a recent boom in hare coursing
In an attempt to tackle this growing scourge, 26 separate police services in Britain have signed up to Operation Galileo, a nationwide operation sharing intelligence across different forces.
Galileo has helped to build up a picture of the poaching fraternity and it is clear that many illegal hare-coursers – though not all – have their roots in the travelling community.
James Mills, an arable farmer based in the East Riding, says that some groups of coursers on his farm have been made up of three generations.
‘Sometimes on a Sunday morning we have found entire families of travellers who come onto our land to chase hares with their dogs; it’s as though the children are being groomed to take over the succession.
‘We have had a lot of trouble, and my own father was beaten up. It gets a bit much to be abused and given the finger on our own land by a nine-year old while Dad and Grandad look on, having a good laugh.’
A number of senior police officers told the Mail that hare-coursing as a sport is ’embedded’ in travellers’ traditions.
But, understandably, there is a reluctance to single out the community. Chief Inspector Phil Vickers of Lincolnshire Police, who set up Operation Galileo, says: ‘Travellers are involved. But it’s not just travellers. Members of the criminal fraternity – some of whom have served significant prison sentences – are involved in hare-coursing simply because it is their blood sport of choice.’
Vickers told us that coursers had even tried to intimidate the police – one officer of his involved in a hare-coursing case had recently been visited and threatened at his own home by members of a gang.
Another senior officer, Chief Inspector Kevin Kelly, who heads the national wildlife crime unit, told the Mail that there is a ‘dark underworld’ of crime currently involved in hare coursing.
‘It attracts networks of criminal gangs and they will go to any lengths to take part in it. There is a sense of belonging – and low penalties so in their eyes it’s worth the risk.’
One Lincolnshire farmer, whose own father had once been pulled out of his tractor and badly beaten, is only too familiar with the type of gangster the chief inspector is talking about.
‘It was terrifying,’ he says, ‘partly because he kept coming on to our land. He was relentless. We knew him as ‘Derby John’ since we knew he came from the Derby area.’
Derby John, it turned out, was one John Devine who is now serving a 10-year sentence after he was found guilty at Derby Crown Court of conspiracy to supply cocaine.
Devine was involved in a gang that was convicted of an operation to supply drugs worth a total of £35million.
Another notorious Lincolnshire hare-courser, Thomas Jaffray, was also convicted of drugs offences and money-laundering and is serving ten years for his involvement in a £100million drugs gang.
Many of the hare coursers are shameless in the way they break the law. Under an assumed name, the Mail infiltrated a number of the most popular websites, including East Midlands Hare Coursing, Essex Hare Coursing, Hare Coursing Crew and Southwest Lamping and Corsing.
Each of these groups offered much the same range of accessories: dogs, high-tech equipment, and second hand 4x4s. They stopped short, however, of advertising hare-coursing events in advance.
These include an illegal hare-coursing event held in secret every year, often in Lincolnshire, called the Fir Cup.
At events such as these, tens of thousands of pounds in prize money can change hands. More money is bet illegally online.
‘Hare-coursing has become an epidemic,’ says Chief Inspector Vickers, ‘but our problem has been that the law supposed to control hare-coursing and poaching was simply not fit for purpose.’
Groups such as the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union welcome the new legislation.
Under the new laws rules police will have the power to charge their owners for their kennelling. At present, although police can seize the poachers’ dogs, they are reluctant to do so since the kennelling and vets’ fees will come out of their own budgets. This can run to thousands of pounds.
Libby Bateman of the Country Landowners Association told the Mail ‘the best way to stop hare coursing is to take the dogs off the offenders’.
The effect of the new legislation will take time to bear fruit. Meanwhile the farmers of the flatlands face another long winter siege.
The coursers, it seems, have the upper hand. As autumn draws into winter, a shiver is moving down the spine of these sparsely-populated flatlands in East Anglia and the East Riding of Yorkshire. A shiver caused not by the wind that habitually sweeps across the rich arable plains. It is a shiver of fear.