Regional police forces in the UK are reporting a surge in brutal illegal blood sports such as hare coursing and badger baiting which see wild animals hunted or ripped apart by dogs — at the same time a dedicated national agency tasked with confronting the crimes is threatened with potential closure.
Hare coursing involves sighthounds — dogs such as greyhounds and lurchers that rely on their speed and vision rather than sense of smell to hunt — chasing hares through fields. Once caught, the hares can die slowly or be mauled to death, or be torn apart if more than one dog is involved.
Usually taking place in expansive flat arable regions, key hubs of the activity include the eastern counties of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, and Norfolk.
According to Chief Inspector James Sutherland, force leader for rural crime for Cambridgeshire Constabulary, the first three months of the current season for hare coursing from October to December 2015 saw 147 reported incidents, compared to just 51 the previous year.
That almost three-fold increase was repeated in Lincolnshire, with police reporting in early January that 152 people had been arrested or reported for hare coursing since September 2015, compared to 65 during the entire season the previous year.
According to Jane Russ, chairperson of the Hare Preservation Trust, beyond the torment and gruesome death experienced by the hares, the dogs involved can also suffer as a result of their owners' callous attitudes towards animals.
"If the dogs have accidents or are involved in problems, they are often just abandoned at the site. So this is not just a hare welfare issue," she told VICE News.
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Sutherland said that before and immediately after the Hunting with Dogs Act 2004 was passed, hare coursing events were static meets where spectators parked up beside fields to gather and gamble on the outcomes of the pursuits.
While the 2004 act is most well-known for criminalizing fox hunting, Sutherland said the vast majority of convictions secured under it have been for hare coursing.
When the introduction of the act was initially met with resistance, according to Sutherland it was easy for police to break up hold-out events because officers could quickly swoop on crowds, and seize vehicles and cash.
"You don't have to seize very many high-value vehicles and cash before things change," he told VICE News.
But as formal coursing was marginalized by police actions, in its place a far more destructive counterpart has become more prevalent. Instead of gathering in crowds, coursers invade farmland in vehicles, dropping dogs out to chase hares, and pursuing them across fields until they make the kill.
"Now hare coursing incidents take minutes," said Sutherland. "Once the kill's been made, the dog is straight into the back of the car or truck and it's off again."
The result is churned up fields and wrecked hedgerows, coming at significant financial cost to landowners — a cost that remains hard to quantify, with many farmers intimidated out of reporting such incidents by threats and violence.
Beyond such intimidation, Russ says hare coursers are also often involved in other types of crime, such as theft and burglary, and may target the same farmers whose land they have invaded.
While Sutherland is quick to emphasize there is little hard evidence of coursers committing such crimes during coursing trips, he said a significant number of people arrested for coursing do have prior convictions for such offences.
"I am confident to say that I believe there is a link between rural crime and hare coursing," he said. "But not every rural burglar is a hare courser and not every hare courser is a burglar."
According to Chief Inspector Martin Sims, head of the UK's National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), in one case three years ago, a group of hare coursers based in Sussex were found to have been committing armed robberies in other parts of the country.
At the same time that hare coursing appears on the rise, so too is the illegal persecution of badgers — an offence that experts say is generally more prevalent in northern English counties such as Yorkshire and Lancashire, as well as Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Badgers are protected in the UK under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, which makes it illegal to kill or be caught in possession of a badger, or to have tampered with a badger's sett, or den. Offences can carry a six-month prison sentence and 5,000-pound ($7,200) fine.
But according to police, up to 10,000 badgers are illegally killed each year in the UK.
Those deaths occur in a variety of horrific ways. If they are not trapped in illegal snares, the animals can be subjected to various kinds of baiting. Those include being attacked and killed in their dens by terrier dogs trained for underground hunting, dug out of their setts and thrown to the ground to be set upon by dogs, or taken away and made to fight them.
Dominic Dyer, CEO of the Badger Trust, says his organization has received increasing reports of abuse in recent years and that badger persecution is driven by a misplaced belief the activity is a sport, with people keen to prove to others how capable their dog is of taking on such an animal.
"[They see it as] the ultimate test because the badger is a very, very powerful animal and if cornered it will fight back," Dyer told VICE News.
According to Geoff Edmond, national wildlife coordinator of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the dogs involved are also victimsy, having been put through brutal training regimes since they were puppies and often being gravely hurt in the fights.
"We come across dogs with horrific injuries," Edmond told VICE News. "Often to the lower jaw."
But according to Sims, while it is rare the dogs will actually die, the badgers never stand a chance of survival because if it appears a dog is losing, its owner will step in and either kill or disable the badger by smashing it over the head with a heavy implement.
"It doesn't get much sicker than that," he said.
Dyer says he fears that the government's ongoing policy of culling badgers — which he estimates cost around 5 million pounds ($7.2 million) last year based on Freedom of Information requests — in certain parts of the southwest of England as an attempted measure to tackle bovine TB encourages people to engage in illegal badger persecution.
However, the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) refutes the idea there is a link between legal badger culling and reported rises in badger persecution.
"There are a number of control programs in nature, several other populations are routinely controlled, so it's not only that we control badgers," said DEFRA Communications Officer Fulvio Menghini.
"From DEFRA there is a condemnation of any wildlife crime and if people are aware of it, they should contact the police," he told VICE News.
Meanwhile, Dyer says another concern is the increasingly broad spectrum of people beyond traditional "terrier men" that appear to be getting involved in the activity.
"There's a changing face to this criminal activity. Some of it is around organized crime and gambling, some of it is just kids looking for something to do," he said.
As well as the apparent growth of illegal blood sports, hunting with dogs has seen a number of evolutions in recent years.
Participants increasingly use social media to organize, with dozens of groups containing thousands of members dedicated to hare coursing and night-time hunting — known as "lamping" — found on Facebook.
While most of the groups are private, others are public and include members offering dogs for sale alongside descriptions of their effectiveness at hunting, as well as pictures of members with animals killed during illegal hunts using dogs.
Meanwhile, according to Sims, dedicated badger diggers will fit their dogs with radio collars in order to better track and locate where the badgers are after they have sent the dogs into their setts, so they can dig them out quicker.
The hunting community has also developed fearsome new cross-breeds, combining sighthounds with muscle dogs to create so-called "bull crosses."
The result is a formidable hound that is both fast and powerful and has been known to be used to take down deer, as well as hares and badgers.
In one case in 2012, four men were imprisoned for 16 weeks after being found guilty of digging out badgers in Yorkshire and throwing them to bull crosses.
"If you had put ['bull cross lurcher' or 'bull cross greyhound'] into Google 10 years ago, it probably wouldn't bring you anything up, now it will bring you loads of pictures," said Edmond of RSPCA.
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The police officers responsible for hunting the hunters are part of the NWCU. It tackles illegal hunting and other domestic wildlife-related offences as well as looking after major investigations and operations related to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
According to the NWCU head, Chief Inspector Martin Sims, the unit has been involved in the seizure of more than 1,000 individual items prohibited under CITES, such as ivory, furs, rare eggs, and other wildlife products, since March 2015.
"That figure is just getting bigger and bigger because there are more warrants to be done and that figure will grow exponentially this year," Sims told VICE News.
But as austerity measures continue to sweep the UK, the government has failed to say whether it will provide the less than 430,000 pounds ($619,000) annual budget the 10-person unit needs to keep going beyond March. The last time its remit came up for renewal in 2014 the government only agreed to support the NWCU for two years.
"We wait with bated breath to see what's going to come," said Sims.
For animal rights activists committed to ending illegal blood sports, the prospect of the NWCU closing down is deeply troubling.
"They're the thin blue line as it were when it comes to wildlife crime in this country," said Mark Randell, a former police officer who is now director of operations for the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS).
The NWCU plays a vital role coordinating and assisting the efforts of local police officials focused on wildlife crime and civil society organizations such as LACS, says Randall.
At a time when stretched police budgets mean little more than bare minimum resources being dedicated to wildlife crime, the closure of the NWCU would deny regional and local police forces an invaluable asset.
"The very likely outcome would be there would be even less of a deterrent for those criminals who are involved in wildlife crime because nobody would be picking it up," he told VICE News. For Badger Trust CEO Dyer, the NWCU losing its funding would be "disastrous."
"It gives all the wrong message out to the regional police as well because it basically means the central government is say we're giving up on wildlife crime and if we're not doing anything centrally, you don't need to do anything regionally either," he said.
Nevertheless, the message from DEFRA remains conspicuously ambiguous. "More information on the future funding of the NWCU will be available when further details of the Spending Review are known. A decision will be announced early this year," an unnamed spokesman said.
Follow Charles Parkinson on Twitter: @charlesparkinsn