I welcome the opportunity afforded to me by this debate to suggest ways in which this long awaited Bill could and should curtail some of the appallingly cruel practices perpetrated against our wild and domesticated animals. The question is whether the political will exists to avail of this opportunity.
Cruelty to animals in the State is inextricably linked to our wildlife legislation. The Wildlife Act, 1976, provides the legal framework by which many cruel practices are permitted or facilitated. The Minister's argument that her statutory remit is specifically focused on conservation and that she has no such remit in relation to animal welfare is full of anomalies and does not stand up to close scrutiny. I do not wish to misrepresent the Minister, whom I respect, but if the provisions of the Wildlife Act, 1976, come within her remit it follows, as night follows day, that she has a clear responsibility to deal with cruel activities against animals and, by the nature of the legislation, has a remit beyond conservation.
We can take the example of the Ward Union Stag Hunt. In reply to Parliamentary Question No. 230 on 18 April 2000 the Minister openly admits there is no conservation concern at issue in this context. Yet she retains in the Bill the provision to issue licences to the Ward Union Stag Hunt. If she retains the provision to issue licences to hunt deer and if there is no conservation issue involved, the inescapable fact is that she has responsibility for the welfare of the animals concerned, in this case, the domesticated deer.
The Minister should at least accept the recommendations of the Heritage Council which advises that the status of the deer is of critical importance and, if accepted as domesticated, the provision to licence the hunt should be deleted. The Minister has persistently refused to answer if the deer are wild or tame domesticated animals and instead offers the bizarre statement that the Wildlife Act, 1976, does not refer to the status of the deer. The logical conclusion is that the Minister knows the Ward Union Stag Hunt deer are tame and that it is clearly in breach of the Protection of Animals Act to hunt them. Yet she persists in granting a licence to allow the Ward Union Stag Hunt to break the law.
The Minister should follow the precedent set in the North of Ireland where in 1997 the County Down Stag Hunt was outlawed because the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture ruled that the deer were tame and not wild and therefore the hunt was in breach of its welfare of animals Act. It seems the Minister wants to have it both ways. She accepts responsibility for issuing licences to groups of individuals to carry out prac tices which have nothing to do with conservation and which inflict unnecessary cruelty on animals, in this case, tame animals, but she will not accept responsibility for animal welfare.
My primary argument is that animal welfare issues are inextricably linked to this wildlife legislation. In contrast to the silence in this House on the issue of cruelty against wildlife, there is widespread disgust among urban and rural people at such cruelty and widespread support for the position I am putting forward. It is touching the Minister should have such interest in the fossilised tetrapod footprints, which are within her remit, found at Valentia in County Kerry, an interest I share. However, her concern does not appear to extend to living creatures, whether stags, hares or a variety of wildlife which will be lamped or torn asunder by packs of hounds rampaging over the countryside, courtesy of this Bill. I wish to refer specifically to a number of the important issues which could have been addressed in the Bill but which were either completely ignored or, in some instances, were intended to be but were not addressed because the Minister regrettably capitulated to certain vested interests. She is now intent on amending the legislation – at the behest of the hunting lobby – on Committee Stage in order to remove some of the most progressive of her initiatives.
The first matter to which I wish to refer is section 23 of the 1976 Act, as amended by section 31 of the 1999 Act. I thought that this country had made worthwhile progress following the introduction in 1993 of a Private Members' Bill in my name to amend the 1976 Act to ban live hare coursing. My Bill, which was defeated on Second Stage, was voted down on the basis that measures would be introduced to provide for the muzzling of greyhounds in order to ensure the elimination of the killing of hares, a protected and most gentle species of wild animal.
Since then, the practice of muzzling has, we are informed by the Irish Coursing Club, proved to be highly successful in every respect. I strongly dispute this claim in so far as timid hares continue to be cruelly taken from their wild and protected habitats and terrorised on the enclosed coursing fields, where some still die of shock or are injured in various ways. Cruel and barbaric as this practice remains, it is certainly a vast improvement on the sick spectacle of defenceless animals being torn apart by savage dogs for the entertainment and gratification of misguided people.
How has the Minister responded to this issue? Incredibly, she has left section 23(7), the original provision which deals with live hare coursing, intact. Section 23(7) states that "nothing in this section shall make unlawful" the taking and killing of hares by coursing at a regulated match or the hunting of hares by means of a pack of beagles or harriers. I hope the Minister will clarify her position on this issue.
Why was the opportunity not taken to update the law and bring it into line with the very limited progress that has been made in relation to the supposed introduction of muzzling and other welfare monitoring measures at coursing meetings? The fact that the regulations for muzzling provided for in the Greyhound Industry Amendment Act, 1993, were never introduced indicates that the Irish Coursing Club, not Dáil Éireann, is dictating the pace of change. In addition, other hunting interests have ensured that good measures proposed in this Bill will be reversed on Committee Stage.
If that is the way protected species of wildlife are provided for in the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, then what chance has the unfortunate fox which has no protection whatever? Apparently the fox is not recognised as a species of wildlife. That is very convenient for those who wish to inflict the most perverted cruelty on this much maligned and beautiful wild animal. Following another attempt to introduce a Private Members' Bill to ban fox hunting and to expose the hidden cruel activities of cub hunting, digging out and the use of terriers by terrier men, efforts were made to clean up the image of fox hunting by introducing another code of practice or some such arrangement agreed between the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and the Hunting Association of Ireland. This new arrangement, like the arrangement governing hare coursing, is not enshrined in legislation, despite the opportunity the Bill presents for doing so.
Section 43 of the Bill amends section 34 of the 1976 Act and quite rightly extends protection to all wild animals and prohibits the use of gas, smoke, chemicals, etc., in the hunting of wild animals. The Minister's remit is shown here to be as flexible as she wants it to be and it could be easily extended to introduce a new code of practice to prohibit the use of terriers, the digging out of foxes gone to ground during the course of a fox hunt or, if she wanted to be particularly radical, to introduce the muzzling of hounds participating in an organised fox hunt.
A number of further important aspects of the Bill have been highlighted by the Irish Council Against Blood Sports, of which I am national vice-president. While the council welcomes the outlawing of otter hunting, it draws attention to a loophole which needs to be addressed if the repeal of the section of the 1976 Act which had permitted otter hunting is to be effective. A statement by the Irish Council Against Blood Sports on otter hunting reads as follows:
The Wildlife Amendment Bill, 1999, proposes to repeal subsection (1)(i) of section 26 which will in effect outlaw otter hunting, which is a most welcome development, albeit that this was dictated by European Directive. The otter and its habitat has been designated Category 1 status, which means that it and its habitat should be strictly protected.
However, when otter hunting licences were suspended in 1990, following intensive campaigning by the Irish Council Against Blood
Sports and because of the above EU Directive, the four otter hunting packs operating in the Munster area promptly switched to mink hunting along the very same stretches of rivers occupied by otters. They then proceeded to hunt otters with impunity under the guise of hunting mink. The Irish Council Against Blood Sports acquired video footage [which it released recently] of a so-called mink hunt in 1993 which provides evidence of this loophole.
The Irish Council Against Blood Sports submits that outlawing otter hunting could prove to be ineffective if mink hunting with hounds is allowed to continue. To fully protect otters and their habitats in any meaningful and realistic way, and to properly comply with the EU Directive protecting otters and their habitats, mink hunting with hounds should be outlawed.
As an alternative to the form of mink hunting to which the statement refers, humane, modern traps are available in more progressive countries which can be used to catch mink.
Another aspect of the Bill which is of great concern to all opposed to cruelty to animals relates to the Minister's stated intention to amend her proposal which would have outlawed the practice of lamping which involves the use of a lamp at night to dazzle or blind an animal for the purpose of shooting it or making it easy to shoot. The Minister has indicated that she intends to outlaw this practice only in the case of protected species, despite the fact that it is already outlawed in so far as protected species are concerned. The Minister advised the Dáil that a strong case had been made for the control of certain pest species. However, the Irish Council Against Blood Sports revealed the truth, namely, that this strong case was made by the National Association of Registered Gun Clubs when the Minister addressed its conference in Ennis in October 1999. The gun clubs reported, in theIrish Shooters Digest, that the Minister had “pledged to change the proposals to come before the Dáil from her Department by withdrawing the specific proposal to ban the lamping of foxes.”
It is particularly disappointing that, after years of preparation, progressive measures in the Bill can so easily be reversed or removed at the behest of vested interests and gun clubs.
I presume there were very good reasons for that while the cruel practice of lamping or dazzling animals at night time, giving them no chance of escaping from so-called hunters, was being banned by the Bill. It is well known that this is the very practice used to poach protected wild deer and that the poachers, if challenged by the authorities, use the excuse that they were lamping foxes. I presume this is one of the reasons the Bill outlawed this practice altogether.
This excuse can be used for any night hunting of a protected species, thus rendering the Act almost impossible to enforce. As it took such a short time for a small lobby group outside this House to change the Minister's mind on a pro gressive initiative in her Bill, I hope she will reflect on what I, the Irish Council Against Blood Sports and other concerned people, have said about the good intentions behind her proposal. Perhaps she would consider her commitment to reverse that proposal prior to Committee Stage.
It is interesting to note that while the Bill had a lengthy gestation period of 15 years, it only took a few weeks of consultation and lobbying for some of its most significant provisions to be reversed. Section 51 is a prime example of that. The section was intended to make unlawful the bringing onto land without permission of ferrets, dogs, hounds and birds of prey for the purposes of hunting. This important provision would have given much needed protection to land owners plagued by fox hunters with packs of hounds, hindered illegal badger diggers and baiters with terriers and reduced the plague and upset caused by packs of hounds, lurchers and greyhounds. It would also have served to strengthen the hand of the National Parks and Wildlife Service personnel and the Garda in prosecuting hare hunting and badger baiting offences.
If we are to accept that nobody has the right to be on another person's land without permission, that provision should be applied to all manner of hunters in addition to those with guns, as is currently stipulated in the legislation. The Minister's intention to remove this new protection will facilitate trespassers with dogs, hounds, ferrets, birds of prey, etc., a strange position for the Minister with responsibility for wildlife protection to adopt. I strongly submit that in the interests of wildlife protection the provision, as drafted, should be retained.
Who dictates policy in regard to these cruel activities in this country? I suggest that the experience of this Bill, which is only on Second Stage, clearly indicates that it is not any process within this House which dictates policy, rather that it is the Hunting Association of Ireland, the National Association of Gun Clubs, the Irish Coursing Club and a motley group of other coursing clubs which have flouted the new regulations. In a reply to a parliamentary question on this subject, I learned that when some of those clubs flouted the regulations to which they had agreed and abused the animals in their care, the withdrawal of their licences was very quickly reversed. For example, members of the Kilcreevan-Ballymote club met with the Minister for a few minutes and she agreed to lift the penalties which had been imposed. That is the type of action which is dictating policy and disgracing this country on the European stage.
My primary concern is that we would attempt to eradicate some of the very cruel actions being perpetrated against animals in this country. Such practices are not acceptable in the 21st century. I am very disappointed that the initiatives in that regard contained in this long awaited Bill are now to be reversed on Committee Stage by the Mini ster at the behest of small vested interests which do not represent public concern in this country.