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Battlelines drawn up over Waterloo Cup

ILLEGAL hare coursing is on the increase across the North West in the face of Government pledges to ban legal forms of the bloodsport.

ILLEGAL hare coursing is on the increase across the North West in the face of Government pledges to ban legal forms of the bloodsport.

Politicians and animal welfare workers claim instances of gangs trespassing on land near to the course have been on the rise in the run-up to this year's Waterloo Cup event.

The competition is one of the highlights of the field sports calendar and attracts thousands of people from across the UK and Ireland.

But according to West Lancashire MP Colin Pickthall, whose constituency is home to the three-day event, legitimate coursing has attracted increasing interest from illegal coursers.

The Waterloo Cup is held annually on Withins Field, on the late Lord Leverhulme's Estate, at Altcar, near Formby.

This year's cup is being held from February 26 and will see 64 greyhounds battling it out in knockout rounds for the 166-year-old trophy.

The competition is carried out with the full consent of the landowner and in the presence of trained professional judges and "slippers" who decide when the dogs should be released to give the hares a chance of survival.

The main aim is not to kill the hare but to accrue points which are awarded for speed, agility and the way the greyhounds force the hare to change direction.

But the problems of illegal coursing have encouraged anti-bloodsports campaigners to claim the only way to stamp out the problem is to ban the sport altogether.

According to the RSPCA, Sefton and West Lancashire have witnessed increasing problems with gangs operating in fields around Formby, Lunt, Altcar and Little Crosby.

The charity has even received reports in urban districts of lurchers and other hunting dogs being set on cats and smaller dogs in the street.

If confronted by landowners, the illegal coursers have been known to threaten them with violence.

Mr Pickthall, a firm opponent of all forms of hunting with dogs, said: "The Green Welly Brigade, as I call them, are becoming rare visitors to coursing events.

"An increasing number of spectators and dog owners are coming in from the urban districts of Liverpool and Greater Manchester.

"I have had meetings with a number of farmers and gamekeepers who tell me illegal coursers trespass on to their land, kill the hares and leave them on the field.

"They do not take them home to eat like traditional poachers, or even keep as trophies, they just kill them for fun and then leave them.

"Farm owners have been threatened with violence for trying to stop them.

"But it has proved difficult to mount a campaign of any significance while coursing in general remains legal.

"It seems we are telling people you are able to enjoy your sport if you have land but otherwise you have to do without."

The problem is increased by the difficulties posed in policing the fields in the dead of night.

A spokesman for Merseyside Police said the force would always take complaints of illegal poaching seriously and would follow up any reports.

Although it has often proved difficult to secure convictions some people have been caught several times and prosecuted under gaming and trespassing laws.

Even supporters of legitimate bloodsports are vehemently opposed to the gangs who operate outside the law.

Countryside Alliance spokesman Adrian Yalland said both his group and the National Coursing Club condemned illegal hare coursing.

"There is no similarity between the ethos that underpins legal coursing and that which underpins illegal hare coursing," he said.

"In properly organised hare coursing, the object is to test the skill of the dog and the hares are released a sufficient distance away to allow them every chance of escape.

"In illegal events, it is to kill the hare as quickly as possible. It also involves gambling, trespassing and serves no animal or environmental welfare purpose."

Efforts to outlaw all forms of hunting with dogs have been thwarted in recent years after successive Parliamentary Bills have run out of time.

But Mr Pickthall is confident the issue has enough support in the Commons to bring it to the attention of the nation once again.

He said: "We are pushing hard for the Bill to be re-introduced, but a lot of time has so far been taken up with post September 11 legislation.

"But we are hopeful in the near future MPs will once again be given the option to either leave things as they are, regulate the sport and require registration, or ban blood sports altogether. "Even those who generally agree with hunting have trouble justifying coursing.

"Hares are not a pest and indeed, are a declining population.

"In the main coursing is a spectator sport so there is no great fun in taking part in the hunt or getting a decent ride on horse back. The only attraction is the prospect of seeing animals killed."..SUPL:


David Holmes
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