Hare coursers will face prison and the police will be given more power to tackle offenders in new legislation welcomed by farmers.

Yesterday (Tuesday, January 4 ), the government set out measures that include increasing penalties for hare coursers, introducing new criminal offences and creating new powers for the courts to disqualify convicted offenders from owning or keeping dogs.

This includes an order to reimburse the costs incurred when dogs are seized in kennels.

The numbers of brown hares across the UK are declining.

Their population is estimated at less than half a million in England and they are listed as a priority in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan.

They face a range of threats, including poaching and habitat loss.

Hare coursing is an illegal activity in which dogs are used to chase, catch and kill hares.

Not only does it obviously involve extreme cruelty to wild animals, coursers challenges farmers with damage, theft and violence.

The new proposals include increasing unlimited fines and - for the first time - the possibility of up to six months in prison.

Two new criminal offences are proposed: trespass with the intention of using a dog to search for or pursue a hare and being equipped to trespass with the intention of using a dog to search for or pursue a hare.

Both will be punishable on conviction by an unlimited fine and/or up to six months’ imprisonment.

Police will have the costs of kennelling dogs seized in connection with hare coursing offences reimbursed and offenders can be banned from owning or keeping a dog.

RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood said: "We’re pleased to see proposals to crackdown on hare coursing; a barbaric bloodsport that sees hare cruelly chased, caught and killed by dogs.

"It’s time hare coursing was consigned to the history books, where it belongs."

Meanwhile farmers welcome to the new plans, but warn that there "is still work to be done".

NFU Deputy President Stuart Roberts said: “Our members have had to deal with the impact of illegal hare coursing for far too long and they will be relieved that, after much campaigning by the NFU and others over many years, there is now light at the end of the tunnel.

“I hope this will signal the start of a real crackdown on these organised gangs of criminals who break onto fields to let dogs loose to chase hares, causing huge damage to crops and farm property and intimidating people living in rural communities.

“This is a hugely important step in the right direction but there is still work to be done to protect the countryside and farming families from the devastating impacts of other forms of rural crime, from fly-tipping to theft."