This Bill is in many ways a monumental piece of legislation in the field of preservation and conservation of wildlife. It is clearly a Bill—and this has been acknowledged by many speakers already —for which there is a need and also for which there has been a demand. I believe the Minister is quite right when he said in his opening statement that the success of the Bill depends on the volume of public sympathy and support which it can attract.
This Bill is a courageous Bill. I say that because as a person who is interested to some extent personally in game shooting, having read this Bill and heard the Minister's speech, I think there are provisions in the Bill which are nearly bound to cause resentment—I was about to say "ruffle the feathers of some shooters" but I would be accused of a pun if I said that. The Minister and his Department have shown responsiveness to the needs that exist in this field and they have shown considerable courage in the manner in which they propose tackling the problems as indicated in the provisions of this Bill.
The Minister has made it clear in his opening statement that the general approach has been on the basis that there is no such thing, as he put it, as free shooting. While I would hesitate to adopt that as a general principle, I understand what the Minister means and it is particularly in this context that I admire his courage in the manner in which he is tackling the problem.
The Minister went on to indicate his view that anyone who shoots for game over somebody else's land without permission is a poacher and I think very few will disagree with that. Taking the poacher in that sense, although most people who take part in the activity of shooting game regard a poacher in a somewhat different sense—they regard a poacher as a person who seeks to take or capture game by unfair or unlawful methods—the person who goes out shooting with a gun on somebody else's land without actually taking permission may be regarded as a tresspasser but from the point of view of the ordinary games man I do not think he is regarded as a poacher in the other sense. I understand and sympathise with the point of view of the Minister in this connection. It might be said that it is no concern of the Government, the Department or the Minister whether an individual is trespassing on another individual's land and that whatever remedies are sought or should be sought for that situation should be sought by the owner of the land.
That is a fairly valid point but the machinery which the Minister is establishing is not primarily designed, as I see it, for the purpose of protecting any one against trespassers. It is for the purpose of tightening the law in the interest of game and wildlife preservation. That is the Minister's interest in the particular machinery which is being established. It still will remain the right of a person whose land has been trespassed against by someone shooting over it without permission to take whatever action he may see fit.
It is at this point that I can see the possibility of some misunderstanding and resentment being caused. Most of us who are interested in game shooting will be familiar with areas in the country where there have been what might be regarded as traditional rights of free shooting, where traditionally over the years it has been the practice to allow all and sundry to go in and shoot without objection. Most of us who go around the country on holidays, duck shooting or pheasant shooting, no matter what area we go into there will always be local people, perhaps someone in charge of the hotel, who will be able to say: "Of course you can shoot on such and such a mountain. You can shoot on such and such a bog. No one has any objection." I can see that people who have been accustomed to getting that kind of hospitable reception in local areas may feel aggrieved at the steps the Minister is taking in the Bill to put a curb on what he has described as poaching. At the same time, while I understand that resentment, I find it difficult to be convinced that the steps the Minister is taking are not the correct ones. They are the only steps open to him and he is not taking them in the interests of trying to curb people's freedom or trying to prevent people from trespassing as such; he is taking these steps in the interests of protection and conservation of wildfowl.
There are various other measures set out in the Bill towards achieving the same objective—the possibility, for example, of a bag limit; the possibility in certain circumstances of curtailing the open season or extending the closed season; various sections which deal with unfair methods of taking game, hunting at night, and so on. All these are steps which are open to the Minister and he is taking them. Some of these steps will be bound to create a certain amount of criticism and cause a certain amount of concern among people who have been accustomed to a much more free-and-easy approach to the question of game shooting.
The provisions which are contained in the Bill and which the Minister obviously hopes will assist in the cause of preservation and the protection of game life are principally those contained in sections 28 and 29. My only doubt about the provisions of these sections is as to whether or not they will be entirely workable without a very great increase in the staff of the Minister's Department or activity by the Garda. The provision in section 28 is to impose a prohibition on game shooting except by qualified persons. The qualifications required are, first, that the person must be 16 years of age or more, secondly, he must have sporting rights or be a guest or invitee of someone with sporting rights or shooting with the written authority of the owner with sporting rights; or, thirdly, he must be a member of a body, presumably a body such as a gun club which has sporting rights; or fourthly, he must belong to a category which is declared as qualified by the Minister.
Senator Cáit Uí Eachthéirn, referring to this question, spoke of two gun licences, the ordinary gun licence and the game licence. I think the Minister spelled out in his introductory speech that the question of two gun licences for the ordinary game shooter would not arise; that there would be an endorsement placed on the ordinary gun licence which would enable the person to use his gun for game. In order to get that the applicant must be in a position to make a declaration to show that he is eligible under the category of qualified persons.
My doubt as regards the workabilty of this section relates to the question: how does one prevent a person who has a gun licence from using it for game? I know that in section 74 there are fairly stiff financial penalties for offences committed under the Bill, but it would take an army of gardaí to enforce the section. That fact emphasises the correctness of the Minister both in his approach to and reading of the situation, when in his opening statement he referred to the success of the Bill depending on the volume of sympathy and support which it might attract.
When the Minister referred to poachers—the person I call the trespasser-poacher—it occurred to me, and I am sure to anyone else who is interested in game shooting, that there is another type of poacher who is much more objectionable and more of a danger to conservation and preservation of game birds: that is the person who goes out a week or a couple of weeks before the shooting season opens, gets the first run-through a shoot and kills off, say, pheasants before the season opens. I regard a person who deliberately acts in that way as a cheat. To the extent that the provisions of this Bill may stamp that kind of action out, it will be a more valuable step towards preservation and protection than the prohibition which might be put on the person who is technically a trespasser. Very often people who trespass know that the area on which they are shooting is one where there is no objection by the owner or group of owners to visitors or others going in to shoot. However the person who deliberately goes out before the season opens and tries to cheat his own colleagues, who have shotgun licences in a particular area, is, in my opinion, much more a poacher of the objectionable sort.
I mentioned the trespasser-poacher, and many of these may feel aggrieved by this legislation, but there is another side to the picture, somewhat different from the general question of conservation, looking at it from the point of view of individuals who have gone to the trouble of restocking gun clubs under the supervision or encouragement of regional game councils. Very often people invest quite an amount of money and a good deal of time and expertise in restocking areas. It is only right and fair that people who involve themselves in that trouble and undertake that kind of expense should be entitled to expect that others will not simply go in and reap the harvest of their labours. That side of the picture should not be overlooked.
Senator Kilbride, I think, was right in talking as he did with regard to the scourge of myxomatosis in rabbits. Senator McGlinchey and some others referred to the days when there were large estates which were well stocked and well preserved. That situation obtained here. The reduction in game stock generally—I am talking of the most common types of game birds like partridge, which used be common, grouse and pheasant—was due to a number of factors, one being the breakup of the large estates. I think valuable work, such as work in bogs, drainage and land reclamation, also had its effect but the breaking-up of the big estates had a very definite effect. The second most serious effect was the introduction of myxomatosis into the country some decades ago.
I hold no brief for rabbits as such. I used enjoy eating a rabbit occasionally. I agree with Senator Kilbride's description of it. Many people regarded it as a delicacy. Many others regarded it and relied on it as what used be referred to as the poor man's chicken. I appreciate the point of view of a farmer who found that his corn crop, in particular, was being badly damaged by rabbits and that rabbits were increasing. I understand all that. At the same time when myxomatosis was introduced it had a savage effect. Most Senators from rural areas have seen rabbits afflicted by myxomatosis, seen the blindness occurring and seen them reeling around with sores on their heads—a disgusting sight, quite apart from the feeling of pity one had for the obvious suffering of the animals.
It had a secondary affect on game birds in this way, that up to the time of the introduction of myxomatosis, when there was a large rabbit population in the country, by and large the fox population fed on the rabbits. When myxomatosis wiped out the rabbits foxes turned their attention from fur to feather and the result was a fairly dramatic reduction in the stock of game birds in the country. That is still continuing. Where there are foxes in large numbers—and obviously there are foxes in large numbers throughout the country—they are forced to prey on birds rather than rabbits. My personal view is that they probably acquired a taste for birds and that, even if rabbits were back as they were before, possibly foxes would continue to prey on young birds.
A further effect followed the introduction of myxomatosis and the wiping out of the rabbit population. When rabbits were plentiful it was comparatively easy and comparatively cheap for either a landowner or a gun club or a syndicate that got together for purposes of taking care of a shoot and enjoying it to make proper arrangements for a gamekeeper to look after the shoot or the land. In addition to being paid what would probably have been quite an insignificant cash wage the gamekeeper was only too glad to be given trapping rights for rabbits in which he was primarily interested. He was able to make quite a good living out of trapping rabbits and selling them and their furs. When the rabbits went, that particular occupation also went. Many people just were not able to afford what it would then have taken to pay and maintain a full-time steward or gamekeeper to look after the shoot, as regards preservation, restocking and so on. Therefore, the introduction of myxomatosis, I think, had a very drastic affect on bird numbers in the country. That seems to be recurring. In many areas, certainly in my own area, rabbits are back in good numbers, but I understand that even when they are young and up to the time they are graziers they still become afflicted with myxomatosis. Whether it could ever be eradicated once it is introduced, I do not know.
I know that a not inconsiderable number of people are against all types of hunting, whether it be what is normally referred to as a blood sport or shooting. While I do not necessarily share it I can certainly appreciate that point of view. A personal friend of mine is a crackshot with a shotgun but he will not shoot birds or rabbits or hares. He contents himself as long as I have known him, with clay pigeon shooting. He simply would not use his gun to kill a live animal or a live bird. There are people who feel like that and I respect their point of view, their feelings and their principles. At the same time, it is absolutely true to say that hunting has been there from time immemorial, hunting of one type or another, and certainly hunting for the pot. Essentially, even though people who go out with a shot gun might not admit it, that is game shooting: they are shooting for the pot: they are not shooting simply to kill a bird and leave it there to rot. They are shooting in the same way as the angler goes out with his rod and his creel, to bring back something for the pot. I can see a distinction, of course, between hunting of that sort and what might be called hunting for entertainment. But in one shape or another hunting has been there from time immemorial.
There is just one other thought I want to leave with Senators, particularly those who feel strongly about fox hunting. I am going to leave myself open to a broadside from someone when I say this. I have not particularly strong views about this. That is probably my own fault; I never really got down to thinking about it. I am not a hunting man in the sense of hunting a fox from horseback. Last time I was on a horse was some years ago; we parted company and I have not been on horseback since. I would not really be fit to partake in the exercise of fox hunting. I understand that it is exhilarating. But leaving all that aside, the thought which I would like to leave with people is this. Particularly in the west of the country I could say—Senator Michael D. Higgins will correct me if I am wrong in this—a considerable asset to our economy has developed in the breeding of hunters or halfbreeds. They contribute greatly to the economy of a number of farmers. They are not big breeders but small or medium-sized farmers who have a good mare and produce the goodclass of half-breed that is used for hunting.