SUPPORTERS of the Waterloo Cup are considering muzzling their dogs in a last ditch attempt to head off a hare coursing ban due to come into effect alongside fox-hunting legislation.
The knock-out competition, held in Altcar near Formby each February, involves a series of races or "slips", in which a hare is chased by two dogs.
Animal rights campaigners have condemned the so-called sport as "barbaric", while the RSPCA calculates on average at least a fifth of all hares coursed are killed each year.
But enthusiasts say the aim is to test the prowess of the dogs, not to kill hares, and are now seeking legal advice to see if there is any way they can avoid a ban.
One idea is that all dogs be muzzled, to show there is no intention to harm the hares.
It is understood members of the coursing world have asked QCs how a judge would interpret the definition of coursing as set out in the Hunting Bill, and if this would cover coursing with muzzled dogs.
David Midwood, chair of the Waterloo Cup organising committee, was last night unavailable for comment. But Charles Blanning, secretary of the National Coursing Club, which supervises 23 greyhound clubs, confirmed legal advice was being sought on a number of issues related to the Bill.
Mr Blanning, who works closely with the Waterloo Cup committee, confirmed muzzling was likely to be one of those issues considered by lawyers.
Asked if he thought muzzling was a realistic solution, he said: "It is quite clearly a position that the National Coursing Club standing committee would have to address."
Muzzling is already used in 90% of coursing events in Ireland, where "park coursing" takes place in an enclosed space, and the dogs run in a straight line.
However renowned horse racing trainer and former Waterloo Cup organiser Sir Mark Prescott was doubtful whether fans would approve of muzzling here.
He told the Daily Post: "We have trialled muzzling before and it wasn't very successful, because the hares tend to get knocked about and injured, rather than killed outright.
"We want them either to survive outright or be killed, otherwise that is not coursing.
"Muzzling works in Ireland but that is park coursing and it is easy to catch an animal if it is running in a straight line. Open coursing event is entirely different, because the dogs run in different directions."
Mr Blanning did not want to discuss a possible ban, but said: "It is obviously an anxiety for people who support coursing that it could be sacrificed.
"We believe it is illogical not to allow all forms of hunting to be decided by an independent registrar.
"Hare coursing has minority appeal and only some 10,000 supporters turn up for the Waterloo Cup, the most important date in the coursing calendar."
Organisers have already pledged to bring forward the date of the 158th Waterloo Cup to squeeze in one last event if the Hunting Bill, is passed and a ban imposed.