Animal Protection (in relation to hares) Bill 2015: Second Stage [Private Members] (Continued)

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 914 No. 3

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  8 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Kevin O'Keeffe: Information on Kevin O'Keeffe Zoom on Kevin O'Keeffe]   It is the concern coursing clubs show for hare conservation that makes the sport so indispensable and unique. Without the efforts of coursing clubs and their members, the hare population would be without the significant layer of protection it currently enjoys from husbandry initiatives afforded by coursing clubs on a yearly basis. Without regulated coursing, there would be an increase in unregulated illegal hunting taking place throughout the year, with no organisation taking responsibility or interest in the overall well-being of the hare. Reports published on wildlife crime in the UK, where coursing has been outlawed, point to how the banning of regulated coursing in 2005 coincided with a dramatic increase in poaching by non-coursing people from criminal backgrounds.

  In 2013, the Animal Health and Welfare Bill, which was enacted by the former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, was instrumental in overhauling the archaic animal protection laws that previously existed. This ensures that the welfare of all animals, including non-farm animals, is properly protected and penalties for offenders are increased significantly. It also copperfastened advances in how we treat our animals and tackled the threat of epidemics devastating our livestock. I believe from this that there is a sufficiently robust regulatory framework in place to ensure the highest animal welfare standards are maintained with respect to hare coursing.

  Clubs affiliated to the Irish Coursing Club catch approximately 5,500 hares each coursing season, which is roughly 1% of the national hare population. More than 95% of the hares caught for hare coursing are returned to the wild each year. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has previously said that independent scientific studies have estimated that hare mortality during captivity and coursing in Ireland is equivalent to less than 0.1% of the total adult hare population annually. The sponsors of this Bill need to review the facts. There is no hard data or scientific evidence to prove the hare is an endangered species as a result of hare coursing. From speaking to people who have devoted their lives to coursing, they have all spoken about the resilience of the hare. It is equipped genetically to accommodate the chase. Regulated coursing presents the hare with no situation with which it is either unfamiliar or unequipped to deal. Coursing clubs have been, and will continue to be, deeply immersed in the conservation of the Irish hare population, always seeking new ways to improve conservation in the face of loss of habitat due to the advances of our modern world. This is despite the uninformed and unproven efforts to try and ban it when no proven alternative conservation programmes are in place for the hare.

  The purpose of this Bill is to show Ireland's commitment to the rights of animals and that we are a country that follows the example of other civilised countries. We have always been world leaders when it comes to this issue. We have always worked in collaboration with the EU when it came to the conservation of natural habitats and continue to do so. We have always worked together with member states to form the same strong legislative framework in order to protect the most vulnerable species and habitat types across our continent. We continue to review the current animal welfare framework and we always seek ways, as a Parliament, to improve it. This is something that we have almost always had cross-party consensus on in this House.

  Due to the Irish hare listing, the Department of Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht is obliged to take an assessment of animal conservation status every six years. Following the most recent assessment in 2013, the overall assessment with regard to the hare was that it was widespread and common in Ireland, with a broad habitat niche. There were no identified threats considered likely to impact on its conservation status. I am fully confident that the next review, which is due to be carried out in 2019, will show the population status of the Irish hare to be unchanged. This will in part be down to the work of the Irish Coursing Club and its member clubs in the work they carry out in preserving the hare.

  I have the utmost respect for Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan who is sponsoring this Bill, although I am dumbfounded by many of those who are in favour of it. They have made the thousands of people who are supporters and fanatics of hare coursing out to be bloodthirsty people who get some sort of a kick out of blood sports. This is an unfair judgement on those who partake in hare coursing. At each coursing meeting, there is a vet present on the day to advise and administer care when required. Wildlife rangers are often in attendance to ensure that the 26 conditions of the licence are complied with. On conclusion of any given coursing meeting, all hares are released back into the wild under the supervision of the control steward. Each meeting is assessed by the general purpose meeting of the ICC, which determines whether any improvement action is required and also imposes sanctions if it feels they are necessary, as has already been indicated by the Minister. These are the actions of people who realise the duty of care and responsibility they have in preserving the hare. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan did not take into account the full facts before she rashly sponsored this Bill. The history of coursing in this country dates back many centuries. It is the bedrock of many small rural communities.   The Deputy did not take this into account before she sponsored the Bill. She has listened to the views of one side but has failed to listen to those of the other.

  Those who partake in coursing respect and love nature. They would not do anything that would harm it in any way. In many ways, they are more respectful of nature and endangered species than those who claim to be against blood sports, of which coursing is not one. Those who love coursing and love nature back up their words with actions. They go above and beyond the call of nature to ensure that no species is endangered. Coursing is so much to so many. It has been in families for generations. The traditions that coursing entails have been passed down from one generation to the next and I hope they will continue to do so for many years to come. If one attends any coursing meeting in this country like I do, one will see it is a sport that incorporates all ages. It is a sport that brings communities, families and friends together. The Irish Coursing Club has clear guidelines, ethics and regulations. It takes any threat to these as an attack on coursing itself. Coursing is important to the economies of many small towns and villages where yearly meetings are held. It brings people from far and wide together and it is an important source of income to local economies at a time when this is hard to come by.

  The proposed amendments to the Wildlife Act are short-sighted and irresponsible and will have far-reaching repercussion that have not yet been considered by those proposing the ban. Those who support this Bill are unable to provide a viable alternative conservation strategy. These groups are also completely unconcerned about the issue of the illegal hunting of the Irish hare. We have debated this issue before in the Dáil, yet illegal hunting has never been brought up in this House by the sponsor of the Bill. I have grave concerns over the extent to which anti-coursing groups and their selected Deputies are sufficiently informed and there may be a rural-urban divide when it comes to the issue. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan has taken no notice of the vast improvements made in regulated coursing and has no interest in the Irish Coursing Club goal of ensuring the overall longevity of the species through its own conservation contributions and by assisting the Garda and the National Parks and Wildlife Service in combating the practice of illegal hunting. If coursing is outlawed in this country, the hare will no longer be a protected species and it will become a forgotten one. All proposals to ban hare coursing are poorly researched and are based on exaggerated facts and hysteria. I remind Deputies that there is still a week to go before we vote on this Bill. I encourage all Deputies to check the facts and properly inform themselves of the issues and then make a judgment call, rather making than a spur-of-the-moment decision based on emotion that is influenced by others and not themselves.

Deputy Martin Kenny: Information on Martin Kenny Zoom on Martin Kenny I see I have ten minutes, but I will not need that amount of time. While respecting the heartfelt views of the proposer, Sinn Féin does not support this Bill, which sets out to amend the Wildlife Act by proposing to ban hare coursing completely. A ban on hare coursing is not compatible with Sinn Féin policy. Our policy on this and all matters is based on motions decided at our Ard-Fheis. This issue was dealt with by a motion that was passed at our party's Ard-Fheis in 2010, after a passionate debate during which strong opinions were expressed on both sides of the argument, both for and against hare coursing.

Some rural practices may be distasteful to certain people and are often presented as cruel or abusive, as is the case here, as we have two opposing views on hare coursing. We believe Irish hare coursing practices should be properly regulated to ensure sustainable wildlife management and to minimise unnecessary suffering to all the animals involved. These regulated coursing meetings occur across the country in the winter months and are a part of rural life for the many who participate in these events. At a regulated hare coursing event, each chase is over a short distance, where two muzzled greyhounds are released to chase a hare until the hare reaches the specially constructed escape hatch. In all, it lasts about 20 to 25 seconds. Killing or mauling the hare is not the purpose of regulated hare coursing.

The banning of hare coursing would drive it underground, as has happened in many other countries, and would remove current regulations and restrictions, which are essential to protect the animals involved. Therefore, we oppose such an outright ban. Hunting, fishing and hare coursing should continue to be regulated in the interests of sustainable wildlife management. This is not like blood sports by which I mean, dog fighting, badger baiting or cock fighting, which we all continue to oppose.

While opposing this Bill to ban hare coursing we are committed to ensuring the proper regulation and management of the practice is maintained and believe the banning of hare coursing would drive it underground and remove current regulations, which are essential to the protection of all the animals involved. That is the real issue. Therefore, Sinn Féin will oppose such an outright ban.

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