ILLEGAL coursing is being blamed for a sudden decline in the population of wild brown hares at a Worcestershire golf club.

The hares have been a popular feature of Sapey Golf Club, Upper Sapey, near Tenbury, for the past 20 years and a favourable habitat has seen their numbers grow from a handful to nearly 30 in that time.

But in the past three months, staff and members have seen the hare population dwindle to just five or six and it is believed illegal coursing – using dogs to hunt animals – is to blame after manager Phil Smith made a late night discovery.

“The hares at Christmas time started to disappear and we just thought they were leaving the course to go somewhere warmer,” he said.

“Then one evening in January I was driving back from a night out with my wife and we saw three or four people standing outside a parked vehicle with lurchers.

“We reported it to the police and we’ve been keeping quite a sharp eye out since.

"We’re right out in the sticks so you notice anyone hanging around. I’ve never known it before and I’ve been here since the club started.

"So many members and people want to see the hares as well as play golf.

"They’re such a feature of the course and so tame you can walk within five metres of them.

“But what can we do except for just try to keep our eyes open more and more at nights.”

West Mercia Police said they had received three reports of suspected coursing activity in Worcestershire on the night of January 21 and one report in Herefordshire of three men acting suspiciously in a white van with dogs.

Officers went out to the incidents but no one was found.

Hare coursing was banned under the Hunting Act 2004 and anyone caught committing the crime faces a penalty of up to six months in prison and a £5,000 fine.

RSPCA spokesman Andy Robbins urged people who suspected illegal hunting to contact the charity. “Hare coursing is illegal because it’s hunting with dogs,” he said.

“There are people who argue they are using dogs to flush out hares but we do get people who find enjoyment in setting dogs on wildlife.

“There is a huge animal cruelty element to coursing, not just to the wildlife but also for the dogs if they are set on larger animals such as badgers.”