by Nic Rigby
BBC News Online
Up 80 people have descended on farmers' fields
Farmers across the east are living in fear of illegal hare coursers.
Gangs of up to 80 men have descended on fields without permission to take part in the activity, threatening and intimidating anyone who stands in their way.
Dealing with illegal hare coursing has become a regular chore for farmers in parts of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Norfolk, Northamptonshire and Suffolk.
The offenders - who often arrive in convoys of 15 to 20 vehicles from as far afield as Kent and Sussex - may also have led to a dramatic decline in brown hare numbers across the east.
The coursing often involves gambling with thousands of pounds sometimes changing hands.
How can illegal coursing be tackled?
Supt Simon Edens, of Cambridgeshire Police, believes police need more powers to deal with illegal coursers
At present they have to rely on trespass and poaching acts dating back to the 1830s which do not carry powers to arrest people
These laws also do not allow dogs to be seized
Pc Danny Cracknell, a Norfolk Police wildlife crime officer, said: "A normal group will have between three and eight cars, but for bigger events the number can increase to between 15 and 20 vehicles.
"A group of illegal hare coursers could be anything between two people and as many as 60 or 80."
He added: "One of the problems we have got is getting incidents reported to us.
'Fear of reprisals'
"We know that fear of reprisals is a big factor among farmers."
Pc Cracknell said one of the worst incidents happened in November last year when a gamekeeper was assaulted when he challenged four coursers on land near Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen.
He said coursing is also damaging wildlife by encouraging farmers to shoot brown hares in the region - on the grounds that offenders are not interested in areas without hares.
"We could lose brown hares from particular parts of Norfolk and Fenland," he said.
A farmer who lives near Oundle in Northamptonshire, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said that the situation has got steadily worse over the years.
"If we do approach these people we are offered abuse and we are threatened and our families are threatened," he said.
Police Constable Barry Kaufmann-Wright, Essex Police's wildlife officer, said he had come across a number of incidents where coursers have turned violent.
"I have been shot at by coursers with a catapult with metal pellets and we had a police car rammed in another case," he said.
"There is also a lot of intimidation. It is frightening for people in rural areas and it increases fear of rural crime."