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Hunting: rabbits yes, hares no

AFTER ALL its haste and determination to ban hunting with dogs, the Government conceded a little ground recently – it is, apparently, permissible for dogs to hunt rabbits, but not hares!

According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, hunting rabbits "is a relatively humane means of controlling them".

Hunting foxes, hares, deer and mink with hounds, however, is described on DEFRA’s website as "perceived to be a cruel and outdated activity", but, to be on the safe side, it emphasises that it is not branding anyone cruel.

A spokeswoman for DEFRA denied that there was any paradox and said that hunting rabbits was "relatively humane" compared to alternative methods. She said that it had been the Government’s original intention to allow a hunt registrar to decide "the least cruel method used for pest control" —and successive Hunting Bills have always exempted rabbits.

A lengthy question-and- answer section about the Government’s proposed ban on hunting appeared on the website last week, having been compiled because the department has been inundated with questions.

Bringing smiles to hunt supporters is the suggestion from the website that any hunt caught hunting is likely to avoid prosecution because there would be insufficient evidence to prove intent. One question asks: "What will happen if the dogs taking part in a drag hunt kill a fox?"

The reply says: "The provisions of the Bill are clear and easily understood — innocent bystanders who witness an illegal hunt, farmers whose land is used against their will, or people, including those engaged in drag hunting, whose dogs chase and kill a fox against their wishes will not be guilty of a crime. This is because people will only be hunting when they intend to pursue the quarry animal."

Despite this apparent loophole, the Government is giving police the power of arrest to prevent illegal hunting or participation in a hare-coursing event.

A spokesman for the Countryside Alliance said: "As people have been given a ready-made excuse, how is a policeman going to know when an offence is ‘clearly about to happen’, given that the offence is apparently reliant on the ‘intent’ of the individual? A successful prosecution would seem to require both the evidence of the hunting of the non-exempt mammal and evidence that it was the intention to pursue that animal."

It is surely not beyond reason to suppose that a hunt may take place which may be defined as a ‘Drag Hunt’ but during the course of this, the hounds may sniff out a fox and then pursue it – all quite accidentally, with the riders following the hounds. Would a police officer – assuming he or she could keep up with the hunt – prove that the hunt was taking place illegally?

As for Lagomorphs, the crucial questions relating to Hares and Rabbits from the DEFRA website, numbered E13 to E16 are as follows:


E13. Why are hare coursing events specifically referred to?

Organised hare coursing events do not fall within the ordinary meaning of hunting (as the people participating in the event are not themselves hunting the hares but rather are watching dogs compete with each other to turn hares). In addition, if hare coursing events were not mentioned specifically in the Bill, it would not be clear who would be committing an offence - the organiser of the event, the dogs' handlers, the dog owners or landowners. The Bill puts that beyond doubt by outlawing both organised and unregulated hare coursing events as soon as possible.

The separate activity of hunting a hare with dogs is sometimes referred to as "hare coursing", which has in the past given rise to confusion. This activity clearly falls within the ban on hunting with dogs.

E14. Is there existing legal protection for hares?

Yes. Hares are game, and any persons killing, taking or pursuing hares by whatever means other than by coursing with greyhounds or by hunting with dogs, other than on enclosed lands they own or occupy, are required to hold game licences.

They are also provided with some legal protection during the breeding season. The Hare Preservation Act, 1892 forbids the sale of hares during the notional main breeding season of 1 March to 31 July inclusive. This discourages farmers from shooting hares for commercial gain at this time, and aims to limit control during the breeding season to that strictly necessary for crop protection.

The Bill will prohibit hare coursing events and hunting with dogs.

E15. What steps will be taken to prevent hare coursing events being driven underground?

Since all hare coursing events by definition will be illegal it will be easier for the police to identify any offences and take enforcement action. At present, the need to determine whether hare coursing events are taking place with the landowner's permission, and then to prove the elements of the civil offence of trespass, greatly complicates the police's job in preventing illegal hare coursing events.


E16. Why does the Bill ban hare hunting and hare coursing events but exempt rabbit hunting?
Rabbits are a pest in most parts of the country, and hunting is a relatively humane means of controlling them. In contrast, hares are seldom a pest.

Where hares are a pest, shooting is used to a large extent to deal with them. Lord Burns found that an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 hares are shot in Britain each year (paragraph 5.85). In contrast, hunts kill in the region of 1,650 hares in a season (paragraph 5.89) and some 250 are killed each year at official hare coursing events (paragraph 5.90).

Finally, let us not forget that just two or three years ago, a Rural Affairs Junior Minister – apparently quite seriously - stated that a dog should clearly be able to differentiate between a rabbit and a hare, so there should be no confusion in any event.

Hunting Questions and Answers may be found on DEFRA’s website as follows: