Police chiefs have urged the public to help them snare criminal gangs coming to the North-east to practise a “barbaric” bloodsport.
Groups of people linked to serious organised crimes are turning up to fields across Aberdeenshire to organised hare coursing events – where lurcher-type dogs chase hares and kill them while people watch and gamble.
The cruel chase is often filmed so criminals can play it back later – also for gambling purposes.
To target the problem, Police Scotland launched Operation Black Falls and that has led to a reduction in hare coursing incidents.
According to police, there have been 54 incidents of hare coursing so far this year – 21% fewer than the same period last year.
As well as securing evidence for prosecutions – some of which are ongoing – officers have seized four cars.
They are also working with other organisations to secure antisocial behaviour orders which would ban repeat offenders from owning dogs or associating with known criminals.
And while police are delighted Operation Black Falls is getting results, they have appealed for the public to report incidents – focusing on the fact that officers in the North-east solve 94.5% of all hare coursing incidents reported.
Chief Inspector Murray Main, the area’s rural crime lead officer, said: “Our detection rate is high. My concern is that under-reporting is going on and that there are more incidents taking place than people who are coming forward to tell us.
“We need as many eyes and ears as possible on this kind of crime to allow us the opportunity to investigate it.
“We take these things seriously. If people report it, they are not wasting our time.”
Outlining the scale of the problem, Chief Insp Main added: “We have quite a problem in the North-east with hare coursing.
“We’ve had incidents in Huntly, Mintlaw, Inverurie, Banff, Stonehaven, Laurencekirk, Keith and Elgin.
“Often, it involves a group of individuals and there is a very recognised link with serious organised crime. Individuals typically go out in groups of up to six.
“They often seek fields that are flat so they can have a good awareness of people coming and going. We know that people will travel into the area. It does happen elsewhere, but there is a perception that the North-east is a good place for it.
“We know people come from Tayside and from the Highlands and Islands and we know that betting goes on in terms of the dogs and there is a recognised link between hare coursing and other criminality, sometimes violent crimes.
“The consequences of the activity itself are barbaric in terms of the impact on the hare, but there is also damage to the fields and antisocial behaviour and intimidation of residents and farmers.”
Last August, Colin Stewart, 31, of Aberdeen, was jailed for 89 days after being convicted at Forfar Sheriff Court of hare coursing.
Stewart had been caught by police after DNA from a dog linked him to an incident of hare coursing in Forfar.
Other hare coursing court cases are ongoing and police raided the homes of suspected hare coursing offenders in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire following incidents in Rothienorman, Huntly, Laurencekirk and Turriff.
Because those who carry out hare coursing are also involved with other types of crime, Operation Black Falls has called upon extra police resources from the divisional alcohol and violence reduction unit (DAVRU) – and that has helped police deal with reports of hare coursing within minutes of reports coming in. Chief Insp Main said: “I took the decision to call upon those resources because of the association between that type of horrific crime that is hare coursing and other types of crime.
“Using DAVRU’s investigating abilities, which they have applied to serious violent crime, and bringing that into the environment of rural crime has been very successful and that may explain why our detection levels are so high.”
He added: “Rural communities can feel vulnerable and intimidated by the individuals carrying out these types of crime.
“However, I don’t think we’re getting a full picture of all incidents and we want to encourage people to come forward to let us know.”
To get this message across, police have delivered leaflets to farms and have worked with agricultural colleges, young farmers, the rural crime partnership and other groups.
National Farmers Union Scotland’s (NFUS) legal and technical manager policy manger Gemma Cooper said: “Hare coursing is absolutely illegal, and we are aware that a number of NFUS members experience ongoing issues with this.
“Pleasingly, Police Scotland have a number of instances recently where they have detained and charged those who have undertaken these activities.
“NFUS is working on this, and other rural crime issues, as part of the Scottish partnership against rural crime.
“We would always encourage both members of the public and farmers to report any suspicious activities to Police Scotland.”