MOUNTED POLICE waged a desperate struggle to separate protesters and supporters on a windswept field in Lancashire as the 158th – and most likely last – Waterloo Cup, the UK’s major annual hare coursing event got off to an even more ill-tempered start than usual on Monday of this week.
The organisers had brought the three-day festival forward by one week in order to escape the ban on hunting with hounds that comes into force today (Friday).
The decision infuriated animal rights campaigners who turned out in their hundreds, chanting, sounding air horns and waving banners, to register their disgust. The demonstrators jeered at coursing supporters, yelling "Last time! Last time!"
The organisers appeared determined to make the most of what will be the last time the greyhounds are unleashed for the knockout tournament in Lancashire, unless legal challenges produce a stay on a ban on hunting. They remained resolute that the contest will continue in some form, hinting at a possible move away from the British mainland, possibly to France.
Simon Hart, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, said today’s event would not be the last:
"I am absolutely, 100 per cent certain that the Waterloo Cup will take place in some form in 2006.
"It may not be here, it may not even be in this country, and it may be in a different form, but the Waterloo Cup will live on. We will return. The mood of the spectators today is one of quiet determination.
"We are not defeated or downbeat and there is no sentimental end-of-an-era feeling. The prevailing attitude is that we have been presented with a problem and we are dealing with it and we will overcome it."
He added: "I don’t have a problem with the protesters. They are free to come along and make their point, although I don’t see what they have to add to the debate at this stage. The debate now is really between the rural community and the Government."
The first hare-coursing club was established at Swaffham, Norfolk, in 1776, and the popularity of the sport boomed in the 19th Century. The Waterloo Cup was established at Altcar in 1836 and is the Blue Riband event of the coursing season, which runs from September to March. Entrepreneur William Lynn founded it, partly as a device to drum up business for his ‘Grand National’ steeplechase at Aintree racecourse.
By the late 1800s the Waterloo Cup was a major national event. Daily crowds of 75,000 were recorded, and winners were treated as national heroes. Three-times winner Master M’grath was presented by royal command to Queen Victoria. Carrier pigeons carried the results to all major cities, and in London the Stock Exchange closed early when the news of the winners arrived.
The National Coursing Club says the aim of the sport is not to kill the hare but to test the skill of the dogs. A pair of dogs chases each hare. About one in eight hares is caught and killed.
The popularity of hare-coursing waned after the introduction of modern greyhound track racing in 1926.Mr Hart said that the government's ban on hunting with hounds had left the law in chaos:
"The definitions of legal and illegal hunting are so blurred that the police are being asked to make impossible judgments. You can hunt a rat but not a mouse, a rabbit but not a hare, an artificial scent but not a real one."