I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Once again the Dáil has an opportunity to put an end to the cruel practice of live hare coursing. There is no doubt that it is cruel and it is animal abuse. I am struck by a number of contradictions. We live in a country of great natural beauty and yet we treat animals like hares appallingly. The contradiction and irony, which I have mentioned already, is that we have the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht issuing licences to capture and net hares. How is it part of the artistic and cultural agenda of the country to net hares and keep them in captivity for several weeks before releasing them into a field to be chased and hunted by the greyhound?
There is also the contradiction of calling this a sport because sport is about fairness, skill, talent and matching people or teams of pretty similar ability or standard of play. When I look at coursing, I look at a small, slight animal versus a much bigger and stronger animal - the average weight of the hare is about 6 lbs while the average weight of a greyhound is more than 60 lbs. I have used the analogy of it being like asking Katie Taylor to get into the ring with a Mike Tyson figure or a sumo wrestler.
There is also the contradiction that the hare is a protected species under the Wildlife Act and yet we allow wanton cruelty to it. There is a contradiction that we have an Animal Health and Welfare Act, the ethos of which is to prevent cruelty and unnecessary suffering to animals and yet it exempts hares.
I will put the other contradiction in the form of a question. There are owners of greyhounds who dislike coursing and yet in order to register their greyhounds for racing, they have to do so with the Irish Coursing Club. Even though they object to their money being used for coursing, they have to support that organisation financially.
The other contradiction is that we pride ourselves on our uniqueness. We are unique in many ways, we are special and there is a special sense of Irishness but there is another way in which we are unique, which is most certainly not special. We are one of only three countries in Europe that have live hare coursing. We are the only country in these isles with live hare coursing because it is banned in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
We should look at the facts that are documented year after year. We get these facts from various sources, including rangers from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, who do not have enough rangers to cover all of the coursing meetings, from vets and from coursers. It is not a surprise that there are discrepancies in the reports from rangers and coursers even though they are describing the same meeting. These facts are sourced through freedom of information with great difficulty. I have to ask why it is so difficult to get the facts. At one meeting, the ranger reported that 14 hares were hit, six badly, with one dying of injuries and three put down. At the same meeting, the coursers reported 12 hares "requiring assistance", which is a euphemism for hares being hit and mauled. At another coursing event, the ranger's report said there were five hares struck by dogs but the courser's report said there were two hares requiring assistance. If the coursers are prepared to minimise the number of incidents when they know the ranger is there, how can they be depended on to report accurately when the ranger is not there?
In December 2015, there were many meetings from which we have reports. I will only give a sense of them. In one, there were seven hares struck, three dying of injuries. In another one, there were three hares stuck, with two being put down. In another, six hares were mauled, three were put down and five needed treatment by the vet. There are similar figures every single year and they are examples of wanton cruelty. When people who have concerns about animal welfare try to enter the meetings to film them, they are subject to harassment and intimidation but nevertheless they persist. There is very significant video footage of hares being mauled in which we can hear the screeches of pain from them. It is available on social media to be seen or heard. Coursing clubs are known to make the work of the rangers difficult, which is to ensure that rules and regulations as per the licence are applied. I acknowledge the work that the Irish Council Against Blood Sports, ICABS, has done. At a particular coursing meeting, people from the ICABS managed to film it but ended up being assaulted by a courser and having the camera taken from them. When the camera was returned by the gardaí, the memory card was missing. At that meeting, the hares were having trouble accessing escape and were pursued by the greyhounds for considerable lengths of time. There were no dates for hare captures at that particular meeting, which is required, so it is not known how long the coursers had those hares in their possession. There is also evidence of the inspectors being impeded in their work by the coursers. The cruelty does not just begin at the coursing meeting but much sooner when the licence to net hares is granted by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
In spite of the reports of the injuries and deaths of hares at coursing meetings and the extensive opposition to live hare coursing in this country and abroad, the licences continue to be issued and hares are snatched from their natural habitat. Even though there have been breaches of the Wildlife Act regarding the netting and the licences, which I have brought to the attention of the Minister, she continues to issue licences. If a night club or pub breached the terms of its licence, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for it to have its licence renewed but this is not the case when it comes to coursing. Our Minister does not appear to have any qualms and the attitude is to carry on regardless. Why would people stick to the terms of the licence when they know they can get away with doing what they like, when they like, which is exactly what they do?
I am also getting very disturbing information from concerned people in rural Ireland about the use of technology, of lasers and smoke bombs being used to capture hares. I am told there is an extremely lucrative hare trade.
While the greyhounds cannot bite the hares, they have very sharp, long nails. One should imagine those nails eating into one's skin and body. Serious injuries also occur through collision and through the tossing of the hares. I am not making this up - we have video and photographic evidence of all of this. Less apparent are the effects of stress myopathy, which is a life threatening condition for the hare during captivity. It is the vets who give me the information on this.
After netting and during and after the chase, and for those fortunate enough to escape, the vet for the Irish Coursing Club stated, "it is impossible to completely avoid stress in hares once you manhandle them and take them out of their natural environment." The stress starts, he explains, from the minute one takes the hare out of its form until it is landed in the net. That is followed by rough handling, boxing and transporting - all alien to a small creature used to the freedom of the fields. Another vet made the point that, "under the influence of stress, the hare's immune system is compromised. Hares are significantly stressed when corralled and coursed, and this combination of circumstances has resulted in the deaths of hares."
There are landowners and farmers who are against netting and against having their farms and their lands invaded by those out to net and trap the hares, but there is no protection for them as they object to the netting. We have confirmation, for example, in one year, when two golf clubs, one semi-State body, a caravan park and a monastic centre had hares netted and trapped on their lands without their permission and nothing was done about that. There was no recourse for them.
I stress there is an alternative to live hare coursing and we see that in Australia and in the United States with very successful rag coursing.
In the context of all that suffering for the hares, injuries to the greyhounds and opposition and criticism from landowners and farmers to the invasion of their lands, we still persist in this extremely inhumane practice. I read with incredulity the statements from some political parties, but I acknowledge I had written to all the Whips and three of them got back to me. One party is opposed to the infliction of cruelty on animals, especially for purposes of entertainment, but yet it will not support my Bill to ban live hare coursing. It believes that Ireland has coursing practices that are regulated to minimise unnecessary suffering to the animal. Another political party told me that there is an existing strict regulatory framework that ensures the highest animal welfare standards. My answer is, tell that to the hare. Tell the hare that the greyhound is muzzled and cannot kill it, that it can only toss it in the air and break its bones.
I am told there is enforcement of existing regulations and hares can only be collected for coursing by ICC affiliated clubs in accordance with the terms of the licence. I pointed out we have evidence that is not happening and it is all the more reason to stop this cruel practice.
Coursing is also allowed during adverse weather conditions. It was with great difficulty that we got a coursing meeting postponed because of adverse weather conditions. I would like to see stated in the licence, if we still have this, that coursing be suspended automatically during spells of freezing weather, hailstorms and heavy winds in the interest of the welfare of both the greyhound and the hare.
Two years ago, there were six greyhounds in the national hare coursing festival that tested positive for banned substances. Reading that, there is a really sinister dimension to hare coursing. There is no testing for illegal substances at the smaller coursing events. If there were, I wonder what would be found. So much for the animal-loving greyhound owners when they are using performance enhancing drugs for the greyhounds. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine should demand more testing or more regulation on this.
There are injuries to the greyhounds as well. We have a dreadful attitude towards greyhounds in this country also, and I will mention that. We had the recent debacle of greyhounds being shipped off to Macau where there are no animal welfare considerations whatsoever. I have met loads of greyhounds on these protests and they also are the most gentle of creatures. They, too, are being put into an environment where they are expected to hunt and this is something that does not sit easy.
I ask those who go coursing what they do at the coursing meeting when the greyhound has raced and chased around the field after the hare, then finally catches it and tosses it into the air and then the hare falls. Is that when the cheering and the clapping starts? Is that when you collect your money from the betting that goes on?
Who is responsible for the injury and death of a protected species because the hare is protected under the Wildlife Act? Who is responsible when the hare is injured or when the hare dies from a greyhound? Is it the greyhound's owner? Is it the licensee of the event? Is it the landowner where the event is taking place? Is it the local authority? Is it the Department? Is it the Minister who signed the licence? We are coming to the point where somebody will take a case when hares are injured and killed, which is totally contrary to the Wildlife Act. Is cleachtadh cruálach é cúrsáil giorriacha agus tá sé dochreidte go bhfuil an cleachtadh seo ag leanúint ar aghaidh inniu. Nach bhfuil meas againn ar ár ndúlra agus ar ár n-oidhreacht?
We were told coming in to this Dáil that we would have a new politics and we would see many more free votes. This is an ideal opportunity to give free votes because there are Members who are against live hare coursing. I am aware there are Members who are for it but I believe in democracy. If we had a free vote, I believe it would be much fairer to this Bill I am proposing. I do not know what we are afraid of by giving a free vote on this issue. The sky will not fall if there is a ban on live hare coursing. Life will go on but it will be a much, much better life for both the hares and the greyhounds.