28th May 2017
The Hare Preservation Trust invited Hounds Off Founder, Joe Hashman, to write the The Magic Of Hares to mark the occasion of their 2017 Annual General Meeting & HareFest which took place at Aldeburgh in Suffolk on Saturday 28 May:
THE MAGIC OF HARES
It’s hard to know how to properly explain what I think about hares.
It’s not enough to say, “They’re amazing creatures, magical, beautiful, I love ’em, look at their ears, those legs, you wanna see them moving, they’ve got wild eyes.” Words don’t adequately convey my feelings towards hares, or how they pull on my heart strings and stir emotions which always feel deep.
I do love hares. I love hares that I see doing their thing in passing fields beyond the windows of a car, I love hunted hares which I worry about and desperately want to escape, and I love all the hares in between.
My first encounter with a live hare was when I was in my early teens, while travelling on a West Oxfordshire backroad to play an evening tennis match. She was large and upright, poised on the tarmac ahead, then gangly but strong, powerful, poetic as she ran.
It was a straight and open stretch of single track lane so we were treated to an extended view. My Mother slowed to an appropriate speed so we could safely but closely see this almost unbelievable creature. Then, in a bound, she was gone, jinking right-handed into the luxuriant verge.
This hare made quite an impression. In that moment her species lept off the butchers shop meat hooks in Oxford’s Covered Market, out from pages of natural history books in the school library, and into my life.
I was upset to learn that hare hunting with dogs was considered to be good sport by people who did it to keep themselves entertained.
AN INTRODUCTION TO HARE HUNTING
My next hare encounter was with the Oxford Polytechnic Hunt Saboteurs Association. They were an effective and experienced bunch. I was a 14-year old local kid but the student hunt sabs took me under their wing in almost parental fashion. They taught me well.
It was early January 1983. We parked in the middle of nowhere and walked cross-country to a remote Buckinghamshire railway hamlet called Verney Junction to catch the Old Berkeley Beagles by surprise. Elderly folk leaning on sticks and gazing into fields gave us clues where the sharp end of the hunt was, and we caught up.
Strange individuals were in charge, running around, blowing a bugle and cracking whips, wearing breeches and riding hats. They controlled a pack of beagles and quartered the sticky plough fields in search of hares to chase. We shadowed them as best we could, using footpaths and avoiding the supporters who were unfriendly and aggressive.
Sometimes a hare would jump up right in front and sprint away. The dogs erupted into mad, unified barking and set off in hot pursuit, using their noses not eyes to follow an invisible scent. The hunters in their breeches, riding hats and green jackets legged after them, and when this happened I learned what to do.
Sooner or later the beagles would ‘check’. This meant they would lose the hares scent and have to refind it. Maybe the hare had doubled back on herself then run off at a sharp angle, or done a huge leap to the side to make it seem like she had just disappeared, or any number of other tricks her species can employ to throw hounds off their backs.
A check allows the Huntsman to catch up and assist his pack. We tried to disrupt the hunt by shouting at the beagles and clapping our hands to make them lift their heads. When their noses were up they were not actively hunting.
One sab in our group had a hunting horn. If we couldn’t get near then this was blown to imitate the Huntsman and confuse the beagles. I could see it worked. They were excited and could be encouraged to come towards us which was perfect if we knew the hare had gone in another direction.
Whenever we saw the hare running we sprayed citronella oil to cover her scent. We sprayed hedges and field edges, wherever we thought a hunted hare might pass or have passed. All the time we were watching, looking for the movement of a small brown hare against a background of naked, thorny hedges and rich, deep plough, trying to keep one step ahead of the hunters and follow in her footsteps, not theirs.
Next week we were on a hillside, sabbing the Old Berkeley again. Beagles were nose-to-the-ground ahead of the Huntsman, searching after a check. We were well placed, discreetly in front and to the side.
The hunted hare broke cover and we dropped to our knees to appear small and unthreatening. The hare ran without a break of stride right passed us, so close you could hear the patter of her feet on the short turf and see into her big, bright, staring eyes.
We sprang into action, spraying citronella, shouting, clapping our hands to distract the excited beagles and get them to raise their heads. We didn’t stop the hunt completely but we did continually delay and disrupt until it got too dark to keep going.
Hares are also hunted on foot with basset hounds. Bassets are very wilful creatures and can appear almost comical in the hunting field. But don’t be fooled. A basset pack which is in the mood to hunt and kill a hare is relentless and deliberately cruel. Whereas the beagler hopes for an ideal hunt of 90 minutes from find to kill, with bassets the duration can be much longer. Hares are evolved to survive with short sharp sprints, not endurance running.
Hunting hares with hounds by scent demands patience, concentration and skill. Sabs developed and employed tactics designed to test all of these to the limit.
The most effective tactic is to take the pack completely. Beagles especially will happily run after nothing at all. They can be encouraged off the line of a hare when they check with appropriate horn and voice calls. Then it’s important to run as fast and far as possible before the hunters can get them back.
Beagles and Bassets are vulnerable to disruption and by 1986 had gone underground. The Shooting Times ceased advertising hunt meets full stop, and the Horse & Hound ‘Hunting Appointments’ section had reduced to a hard core of mounted fox and stag packs.
Luckily, in September 1986 I was given access to an archive pile of Horse & Hound magazines and noted five seasons worth of Old Berkeley Beagles meets.
There were clear and reliable patterns. October meets were nearly identical and then quite predictable for the rest of the season. One or two, like Monks House Farm outside Evenley near Brackley in Northamptonshire, took a bit of working out, but we got it. Lots of meets were held at pubs so a well-thumbed phone book and ringing around with a fake posh accent confirmed most fixtures with uncanny accuracy.
One Wednesday from Botolph Claydon the beagles picked up the line of their quarry early. The hare they were onto chose not to sit and sprint but kept on the move slower and steadier, way out ahead of hunting beagles. Elderly followers would indicate that they had seen her by raising a stick or holding aloft their caps. These signals informed the Huntsman where and when to gently guide his hounds.
It just so happened that the hunted hare and I crossed paths repeatedly during the early afternoon. Whenever this happened I’d put down some citronella and hope to buy her some time. But conditions that day were unhelpful and her scent was strong. Eventually the hunted hare ran towards me, then turned along a hedgeline with the pack on full cry just seconds behind.
The only way to stop them this time was to break cover. I shouted, sprayed and caused as much distraction as possible. Initially it worked. Beagles burst through the other side then lost momentum, lifted their heads and spread. But there were too many and it was too hot for me to handle. I was assaulted by the Field Master but wriggled free and had no choice but to get away as fast as possible to avoid a beating from him and others.
My moped was parked by the church. It stepped-through first time and I rode home at a top speed of 30 miles an hour. It was a traumatic experience which I recounted to my Mum. She listened and said only that, “Hares can sense when you are there and trying to do good.”
In 1986 I was an estate worker for the Berkshire Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire Naturalists Trust, doing practical woodland and other habitat management. I was an excellent worker; punctual, reliable and keen.
It was quite a shock when the Old Berkeley Beagles Huntsman walked in to the office on the evening of our Christmas party. Turned out he was the North Buckinghamshire Regional Chairman. Early in the New Year I arrived five minutes late for work and was sacked on the spot.
RADLEY COLLEGE BEAGLES
A few public schools keep their own pack of beagles and at these institutions, hare hunting is on the curriculum. One, the Radley College, used to access many of its meets by driving right passed the top of our road. Even younger kids from an Oxford prep school called The Dragon were bussed out twice a week to join them in the countryside and learn how to kill for fun.
In late 1989 at a place called Appleford they hunted a hare into private gardens. Locals were outraged. A petition was launched asking the Radley College Beagles to stop meeting at Appleford and 80% of villagers signed it. The Bursar of Radley College publicly promised “to do everything possible to avoid future problems”, but he wouldn’t commit to dropping the meet at Church Farm.
Two sets of severed hares ears were sent to my parents house through the post so clearly our campaigns were touching a nerve and sabbing on the day saved lives. The importance of non violent direct action cannot be underestimated. But looking back it’s worth considering, with these schoolboys especially, did we win hearts and minds or just make them more stubborn and entrenched?
HARE MEMORIAL DAY
On March 6th 1989 a vigil was held at the Martyrs Memorial in Oxford to remember hares killed by hounds. Over 40 people attended, listened to speakers and held a silence. Afterwards some of us went on to sab the Christchurch & Farley Hill Beagles. This is the Oxford University hunt and, as with the school packs, introduces many outsiders to so-called “fieldsports” and the lifestyle that goes with it.
Students who wanted to go beagling met at Oriel Square in one of the colleges, then got a lift. On Hare Memorial Day we had someone at Oriel Square, working undercover. She called in from a phone box to tell us the meet was at East Hanney. No hares were killed but the police were heavy handed.
I was arrested and charged with possessing an offensive weapon – a hunting whip – and threatening behaviour. In May, Wantage Magistrates Court ruled that the case should be discontinued but in early July I received a summons for non payment of outstanding costs. They were holding me liable for £156 because, technically, the case was never formally dropped. I went straight to the press and a week later Wantage Magistrates Court ruled that it was unfair to expect me to pay costs for a case which never got heard.
On another occasion out with this lot, we were set apon by a gang of local foxhunt thugs. Horns and sprays were stolen, we were assaulted, bloodied and bruised.
Be in no doubt that folk who enjoy killing a creature as timid and harmless as the hare will use any means possible, fair foul or violent, to quieten dissenters.
THE WATERLOO CUP
The Waterloo Cup was a three day festival of hare coursing. In coursing, hares are used as a live lure to test the speed and agility of two fast-running dogs like greyhounds. The Waterloo Cup was a sixty-four dog stake which, by process of elimination, whittled down to a grand final and eventual winner. There was prize money, prestige and the bookies loved it.
The hare coursing season ran from September to March. During that time lots of clubs around the country would hold smaller events of one day, sometimes two. The Waterloo Cup was the peak of the season, bringing together all winners and qualifiers. In its heydays of the late 1800s, crowds of eighty thousand would flock to watch.
The National Coursing Club was the governing body for this sport. They advised spectators not to identify with the hare because doing so might spoil their enjoyment. You have to wonder what kind of sub-human gets their kicks from watching hares running for their lives right before their eyes, sometimes even in and around their feet, twisting and turning, often being caught, frequently being savaged in the jaws of both dogs, almost always having to be killed by a coursing official called a “picker up” who would put the pitiful creature out of this totally unnecessary and extended misery by pulling its neck.
In 1985 the Hunt Saboteurs Association organised its annual disruption of the Waterloo Cup. Previously, terrible violence had been dished out to sabs by coursing supporters so on Day One protesters marched the lanes as close to the coursing fields as possible, always with a heavy police escort.
Day Two was different. Sabs were up before dawn, driving to a secluded spot just beyond the northern fringes of Liverpool in an assortment of battered transit vans and old cars.
Ahead was the River Alt. The location had been identified as a suitable fording place to reach the fields opposite. Later that morning hares would be corralled there so they could be released, one by one, into an arena in front of the dogs and jeering, rowdy crowds.
Gamekeepers encouraged unnaturally high numbers of hares around the West Lancashire village of Great Altcar specifically for coursing purposes. Hares were also imported from other places before this and other big coursing events. It was quite likely that some had recently arrived from the Six Mile Bottom Estate in Cambridgeshire. Sixty-three hares were needed to run the Waterloo Cup itself, and many more to complete the Plate and Purse competitions which ran concurrently. The last thing that coursing officials wanted was a shortage of quarry.
Sabs waded across the river and were organised into long lines which stretched across the fields. I was in one of these lines. There were sabs to both sides at close but regular intervals. Our tactic was to move in unison and shepherd hares out of the danger zone. As we walked, hares were jumping up all over the place. Some tried to dodge between the gaps. We had to create a wall of noise to turn them back.
Soon the police arrived. They emerged from the mist mob-handed and all wearing regulation black wellies. I was grabbed and frogmarched to a waiting mobile police cell which soon filled up. Sixteen of us were tried and found guilty at Ormskirk Magistrates Court of causing Criminal Damage to a field of cabbages. We were bound over to keep the peace. Prosecution witnesses included cops, coursers and their lackeys. They all lied through their teeth so we appealed. I was a minor at the time of the arrests. The Judge at Preston Crown Court granted my appeal alone, on the grounds of being led astray by the grown-ups.
The Waterloo Cup ran for another twenty years but 2005 was to be the last. For all it’s faults, the Hunting Act was unequivocal in making hare coursing illegal.
PALMER MILBURN BEAGLES
Beaglers and their like circumvented the Hunting Act by inventing the false alibi of ‘trail hunting’. They claimed to lay a scent themselves then set their dogs on to that. And because rabbits are not protected by the Hunting Act, they would pretend to be hunting these animals whenever it suited.
Rabbits bolt for a hole at the first sign of danger and are never more than a short dash away. I remember reading one post-ban feature article in the Horse & Hound about a beagle pack in Somerset, and the impossible tale of a “rabbit” that led hunters and their hounds a long and merry circular dance around the cider orchards of West Bradley.
The Palmer Milburn Beagles used trail hunting as a cover for illegal hare hunting in Berkshire and Wiltshire. One of their favourite hunting grounds was Salisbury Plain, a huge area used by the Army for training exercises.
Salisbury Plain mostly comprises vast tracts of open, uncultivated grassland with scattered woods which stretch as far as the eye can see. There are few metalled roads. It can be a desolate and wild place.
In this habitat hares thrive. They are big, wily creatures who enjoy sheltering amid the dips and folds of rough vegetation and dining on an unrivalled selection of naturally occurring seasonal herbs and grasses. For hunters, these hares are prime quarry and for that minority of people who are thrilled by such things, Salisbury Plain is an ideal place for pitting a pack of beagles against hares which are in the peak of physical condition.
For a couple of months during Winter 2006/07 I followed the Palmer Milburn Beagles with my colleague, Shely Bryan. Shely and I worked for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Our job was to gather evidence of Hunting Act offences for prosecutions.
We had a source for meets on Salisbury Plain so decided to take a look. First time out we pretended to be four-wheel drive enthusiasts who enjoyed muddy rides along the numerous tank tracks and green lanes. Then we pretended to be interested in watching the beagling but were too lazy to get out and walk. Instead we followed in our vehicle. Nobody objected so we spent many days tagging along.
Shely and I used the cover of being in a vehicle to discreetly gather loads of evidence. Our films showed that people were using a pack of beagles to find, chase and kill hares on Ministry of Defense land just as they had before hare hunting was banned. We showed that this was being done repeatedly and deliberately. We got footage of hares being chased by beagles, hunt staff and supporters in that order. We identified the people involved and evidenced other behaviour that was specific to beagling.
One piece of footage showed a hunted hare running below a supporter, then changing direction. A minute later the beagles came along the same line as the hare. Where the hare turned, they checked. The supporter who had seen the hare running below them raised his cap on a stick to show the Huntsman where she had gone and he, in response, got his hounds on the line again.
On one occasion we filmed the beagle pack in full cry some way off. They hunted fast and hard then stopped and sniffed about. We could see the Huntsman nearby in the same area of long grass. Suddenly the beagles all converged really quickly in one place and the Huntsman blew his horn to signal a kill. This was confirmed to Shely and myself by the Whipper-In, who was standing close to our four-wheel drive as we all watched.
“That’s a kill,” she said, then, “Don’t tell anyone I said that, it doesn’t happen.”
We prepared all our evidence properly and handed it to the Military Police in person. We gave them everything they needed for justice to be done, but there were no charges.
At a meeting with the Investigating Officer, he told us that the Huntsman had been called in for interview and claimed that what we said was film of a kill actually showed the beagles pouncing on a packet of biscuits which he had hidden for them in the long grass.
We suspended our disbelief and told the Investigating Officer that it’s illegal to chase hares, you don’t just have to kill them.
But it was too late. The six month window for charges to be brought was just about to elapse and all our cases were effectively dead.
YORKSHIRE ‘GREYHOUND TRIALLING’ (aka HARE COURSING)
The Hunting Act Enforcement Team at IFAW was aware that the coursing community had adopted cosmetic changes to their sport which they hoped would enable them to defeat the law as well. When we received information that a post-ban version of the Waterloo Cup was to be run near Malton in Yorkshire in March 2007, Shely Bryan and I were sent to investigate.
For this job we used a camera hidden in binoculars and a pinhole camera worn on the lapel. I was on the binoculars. They were a brilliant piece of kit which allowed targeted, covert filming to take place whilst standing in the thick of it.
The evidence we gathered over two days of competition secured convictions of two landowners plus celebrity chef Clarissa Dickson-Wright and hare coursing officianado Sir Mark Prescott.
The landowners claimed that they were hosting a new sport called Greyhound Trialling. In reality the only difference between this and pre-ban hare coursing was that the dogs wore muzzles and a length of orange barrier netting was staked up some distance opposite to where the hare and dogs started from. It was no barrier. More often than not hares would flee to either side. If they could keep going long enough the greyhounds would tire and stop. Sometimes the hare ran out of sight, followed by greyhounds and then their puffing, blowing, lumbering trainers.
With the binocular camera we shot film of a hare being pinned down against a wire fence and pummelled by the muzzled jaws of the dogs before the picker-up got there, wrestled the hare and killed it by grabbing the ears and feet and pulling in opposite directions.
These convictions at Scarborough Magistrates Court in July and September 2009 augmented those achieved by us in partnership with the the RSPCA and League Against Cruel Sports at Kings Lynn Magistrates Court in December 2008, following a Joint Operation on an event at Great Massingham in Norfolk.
We exposed Greyhound Trialling as a sham, well and truly. Word on the rural grapevine was that we had finished organised club coursing with these court cases.
I’d like to believe that this is still the situation. But we would be unwise to take such things for granted. History shows that bloodsports fanatics should never be trusted.
In Spring 2010 a Tory landslide at the upcoming General Election seemed imminent and I was really worried that this would jeopardise the future of the Hunting Act. I was determined to find a way of stopping hunting which would work effectively, regardless of the state of the law.
The idea of creating a network of wildlife sanctuaries, where landowners prohibited hunting on their property, made a lot of sense. I was familiar with League sanctuaries in the West Country and the way these once worked to scupper hunting.
I also remembered how hard the bloodsports community fought in the mid 1990s to overturn County Council bans because these had a real and negative effect on hunting across the country.
And I was inspired by locals from Elcombe in Gloucestershire. There, the Cotswold Hunt was once a frequent and unwelcome visitor. In 2006 residents organised themselves. They engaged with Stroud Council and the Police to try and get an ASBO against the hunt. Matters didn’t get quite that far but the Cotswold Hunt did receive an official warning under the 2003 Anti Social Behaviour Act and the problems stopped.
The fact is that if you take away land you take away hunting opportunities.
Friends, family and colleagues at IFAW helped to crystallise this thinking and in September 2011 a campaign was launched called Hounds Off.
The original mission was two-pronged;
First, to provide online resources specifically designed to help people to protect their property, livestock and pets from hunt trespass.
Second, to support the 2004 Hunting Act.
During the 2011/12 hunting season Hounds Off dealt with twenty-six complaints of hunt trespass. In 2016 this had risen to ninety-four cases of trespass and havoc by seventy-three different Hunts across the UK.
Last November a woman contacted Hounds Off. She had experienced a pack of beagles chasing a hare through her garden. She was upset about illegal hunting and also that a fence had been damaged. She told us the Beagle Master visited after the incident to reassure her that they were not hunting illegally. Apparently the hares they were chasing were “already injured” so the dogs were being used to execute mercy killings. The woman who had her Saturday afternoon ruined by hunt trespass and lies was seeking advice and support.
The first thing we did was help her to secure her property against future hunt trespass incidents using the ‘Hounds Off Belt & Braces Approach’. This is the standard action which we have encouraged and supported hundreds of people like this woman to do. It’s part of a suite of resources to be found on our website and can be implemented by anyone.
The next matter to address was the broken fence. We were able to provide the information needed so this hunt could be contacted and asked to pay the bill for damage repairs.
The third aspect we considered was the illegal hunting of hares. You see, it’s true that the Hunting Act does include an exemption which allows for the use of two hounds in dispatching genuinely wounded quarry. But if this exemption is claimed then it’s a condition that no more than two dogs are used and that those dogs must be under control.
Make no mistake, I’ve no doubt that this beagle pack was deliberately hunting healthy hares.
But who is going to pursue this? Who’s going to hold the hunters to account? The police are mostly indifferent and the big anti hunting charities have their own agendas.
Sadly at the moment, Hounds Off doesn’t have the resources to do it. We operate with volunteers, in personal time and with minimal funds. But we are always learning, always growing, always developing. And we have vision. Right now, we are establishing a specialist legal team which can advocate for the woman who contacted us to ask for help, and for the hare.
Last year the Hare Preservation Trust got in touch. They wanted to see hare hunting and coursing represented on the downloadable No Hunting poster which is available on www.houndsoff.co.uk . We agreed it was a great idea and if they stumped up the neccasary pence, we would make it happen.
The ‘Hounds Off Our Hares’ logo was launched last Spring. We made No Hunting & Coursing posters available and promoted a limited edition offer on merchandise which engaged lots of people, raised awareness and helped us to cover costs.
Once again, the Hunting Act is in danger. As in 2010, there is the very real prospect of a big Tory majority in the House of Commons after the upcoming General Election, and subsequent move by bloodsports apologists at Repeal.
I’m aware that here in Suffolk you have ongoing issues with illegal hare hunting by harrier packs and a brick wall of institutional corruption within Suffolk Police.
In darker moments it can all feel too much, too heavy, too painful. But these dark moments pass. The hunted hare must remain alert and strong if she is to survive and see tomorrow, and so must we.
There has never been a more important time to stop hunting where you live. Every farm, every field, every garden, every backyard, every community greenspace, everywhere counts. Please please please, use www.houndsoff.co.uk as a resource to help you do this. Share this website with your family, colleagues and friends.
Hounds Off is the people’s campaign against hunting and the beauty is that, to succeed, we need rely on no-one but ourselves.
“THE STAG OF THE STUBBLE”
I would like to finish by reading a piece I wrote on August 12th 2009;
“Harvests are coming in from the fields. The shape and texture of our landscape is changing again.
“I travelled back from the other side of Salisbury at dusk. In the expansive flats east of Fovant, combines were working under the gaze of their own bright lights. Great chuntering machines, spewing chaff in a continual jet of solids funnelled out sideways, gobbling vast swathes of rape, whose aroma filled the air as I passed through, windows down, enjoying the freshness of the Summer evening breeze.
“Somewhere betwixt front cutting blades and the stream of waste, somehow within that huge state-of-the-art monument to human invention and beneath the tiny seated driver, what needed to be done to render a crop useful in the factory was done.
“The combine I saw was literally on the final strait. A single remaining column of standing arable almost swallowed up.
“And so the earth is laid bare again. A naked spread of soil and stalks to be picked over by small birds and, in waxing moonlight, that lolloping, nose-twitching, wide-eyed, ever cautious, perfectly proportioned, ears keen, harming none, built-for-speed, always ready to run, stag of the stubble – the hare.”
© Joe Hashman