Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Hare Coursing

By Henry S. Salt

COURSING, the practice of chasing a hare with two greyhounds, slipped simultaneously from the leash, is one the most ancient of blood-sports; but the spirit of those who take part in it does not seem to have improved with time. It may be doubted whether modern patrons of the sport are as chivalrous as those referred to by the old writer Arrian, whose work on Coursing dates from the second century:

"For coursers, such at least as are true sportsmen, so not take out their dogs for the sake of catching a hare, but for the contest and sport of coursing, and are glad if the hare escapes; if she fly to any thin brake for concealment, though they may see her trembling and in the utmost distress, they will call off their dogs."

What is the attraction of coursing? The author "The Encyclopaedia of Rural Sports" (1852) is forced to admit that coursing has been found dull:

"We may be asked," he says, "what pleasure there can be for people marshalled in line, at certain distances from each other, monotonously to walk or ride at a foot pace over a ploughed field or across a wide health on a bleak November day, the eye anxiously directed hither and thither to catch the clod or the sidelong furrow that half conceals poor puss, or to espy the tuft she has parted to make her form in."

But even so stupid a pastime as this has its charms for many people, when to the zest of seeing a timid animal's life at stake there is added the more modern excitement of betting on the prowess of the dogs.

Of the cruelty of coursing, as practised in the chief contests, from the Waterloo Cup down, there can be no question. "What more aggravated form of torture is to be found," says Lady Florence Dixie, "than coursing with greyhounds—the awful terror of the hare depicting itself in the laid-back ears, convulsive doubles, and wild starting eyes which seem almost to burst from their sockets in the agony of tension which that piteous struggle for life entails?"

Open coursing is bad enough, on the score of inhumanity; but when the coursing is enclosed, or the hares are bagged ones turned out for the occasion, the case is still worse. The use of enclosed grounds dates from about 1876, and we learn from the volume on "Coursing" in the Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes (1892), that "many of the old school opposed it strongly, and with the best reason, for it utterly lacked the elements of real sport." At the present time it is by a strict system of "preserving" hares rather than by keeping them in enclosures, that a sufficient supply is maintained for the great coursing matches. What an object-lesson in cruelty these meetings afford may be judged from the fact that at some of them, such as the competition for the Waterloo Cup, there is an attendance of several thousand spectators.

Here is an "Impression of the Waterloo Meeting," by Mr. John Gullard, which appeared in the Morning Leader in 1911:

"Stretching away into the far country (if you use your eyes) may be seen two long, thin black lines, representing quite a little army of beaters. In a short while dozens of hares may be seen gaily sporting between these lines, in delightful ignorance of the terrible enemy which is lying in wait for them in front. It is the business of the beater to divert a good hare from his physical ignorance of the terrible enemy which is lying in wait for them in front. It is the business of the beater to divert a good hare from his playful companions; and if you keep your eye well directed on the black lines, you will soon detect the white flutter of a handkerchief passing along the lines, and a brown shape leaping swiftly along the ground, nervously anxious to turn to one side or the other, but kept to an inexorable straight course by the living wall of beaters. A shout from the crowd, growing every moment more excited as the short drama is about to begin, proclaims the fact that the hare is in the battle-ground, and is about to meet his Waterloo. And, higher still, and louder than all, the raucous cry of the bookmakers, ‘Take 7 to 2," ‘Take 2 to 1,’ rises shrill in the air.

"All this time a couple of greyhounds are held tight by a slipper in a box, open on two sides, in the middle of the field. As soon as the hare is beaten past the slipper’s box the greyhounds tug and strain at the leash, almost dragging the slipper with them. When the hare has had about fifty yards’ start the hounds are released, and off they dash together, looking at first like one. This is the most thrilling part of the game, and is watched in a few seconds of almost breathless silence. Pussy hasn’t, however, much chance against a greyhound, and is soon overtaken; but he still has a few arts at his command. For, just as the dog is about to hurl himself on pussy’s unoffending body, the little creature makes a deft turn aside, his pursuer flying harmlessly past. Then follows a series of turns, feints, dodges, and bounds. Puss may, indeed, lead his enemies a sorry dance for a little while, but it is an unequal contest. These greyhounds at Altcar are the best and fastest of their kind, and it is seldom that the hare escapes their teeth on Waterloo Cup day. In half a minute—at the outside two minutes—all is over."

The writer states that he thinks he has never seen "so many bookmakers and bookmakers’ clerks per head of the population" as at the Waterloo coursing. "It was the merriest gambling I have seen for many a long day," for coursing "lends itself particularly well to betting."

From Killing for Sport