I thank Senator O'Sullivan for raising this matter. I heard an interview this morning on "Morning Ireland" and it gave me some background knowledge on this debate in the House. I propose to address the points raised under the headings of measures in place to monitor tourist shooters and conservation of migratory game species.
Section 24 of the Wildlife Act, 1976, provides for the making of open seasons orders permitting the hunting of otherwise protected specified game species, including migratory species such as snipe, woodcock, widgeon and teal, either throughout the State or in specified areas. Species are only included in the order when it is considered that their conservation status is satisfactory.
Any person, whether native or foreigner, who holds a valid firearms certificate and hunting licence may hunt over any land in the State, provided he or she has the permission of the landowner or of the holder of the shooting rights. There are approximately 77,000 native hunters in the State and approximately 4,000 out-of-State hunters are granted licences annually. These are the people to whom Senator O'Sullivan referred.
No studies have been carried out, and it would be extremely difficult to do so, which would gauge the impact of each of the two groups, that is, native and foreign hunters, hunting over the same areas and to separate these effects from local variances in the natural population numbers, climatic factors, habitat effects and disturbance. Therefore, it is not feasible to separately assess the impact of visitor hunters on individual species. In making the open seasons order, it is the overall status of the species which is considered rather than the category of hunter.
Foreign hunters are required to state on the application form for a firearms certificate and hunting licence the lands over which they have received permission to shoot and the landowners' or occupiers' name and address or, if they intend to shoot with a tourist shoot promoter or gun club holding permissions from a number of landowners, the name and address of same. A signed and witnessed declaration to the above effect is required and the penalty for making a false statement is clearly stated on the application form.
Enclosed with the firearms certificates and hunting licenses issued to foreign hunters is a copy of the current open seasons orders and a notice drawing attention to the general Irish hunting situation and the penalties applicable for contravention of the Wildlife Act.
Tourist shoot promoters are required to furnish to the National Parks and Wildlife Service details of the lands over which they either hold the shooting rights or in respect of which they have received for the use of their clients the permission of the landowner or holder of the shooting rights. Evidence of permissions is required. The gun-day capacities of the lands are then assessed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and applications for hunting licences from foreign hunters, shooting with tourist shoot promoters, are granted or refused by reference to those assessments. This is an important procedure in the efforts to ensure the wise use of game resources by commercial enterprises.
Most of the tourists shoot promoters are now members of the Association of Game Shoot Operators who are willing to co-operate with the National Parks and Wildlife Service in the regulation and orderly development of tourist game shooting in Ireland. The association has developed a code of practice for its members and their clients. Realistically, it would not be in the long term commercial interest of tourist shoot promoters to overshoot lands, some of which are leased, when their aim is to build up a regular clientele for the coming years. I take the point that that is all very well but when they get into the shooting spirit good intentions might be put to one side.
Tourist shoot promoters were requested for the 1992-93 season to co-operate with the National Parks and Wildlife Service in the making of bag returns at the end of the season, such returns to be signed by both the hunter and the promoter.
The corps of wilife rangers attached to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, who constitute the majority of the authorised persons under the Wildlife Act, 1976, are under instruction as far as resources permit to check shooting parties and to inspect game bags both in the field and at hotels to ensure that the provisions of the Wildlife Act are observed and to take action towards prosecution if the provisions are contravened. Only species allowed to be hunted were found in bag checks carried out last season.
Bord Fáilte states that it does not actively promote shooting in Ireland and that its role is one of servicing visitor inquiries. It has also stated that it is encouraging tourist shoot promoters to join the Association of Game Shoot Operators, believing that it is best to channel business into an area where controls can be exercised. Bord Fáilte has maintained that it has no major plans for extending the promotion of tourist shooting into Ireland.
Complainants should report any alleged breaches of the Wildlife Act, 1976 immediately to the Garda or to an authorised officer under that Act. Persons convicted may have their firearms and ammunition seized and can be fined up to £500 under the Wildlife Act, 1976. It is proposed to introduce additional measures under amending legislation, including the increase of penalties imposed. Presumably, since the £500 penalty was provided for under the Wildlife Act, 1976 it would clearly fall due to be increased.
I will now deal with the issue of the conservation of migratory species. The open seasons orders for wildbirds are reviewed annually and decisions are made according to the conservation status of each of the species. Over the years some species have been removed and some reinstated. Species such as snipe and woodcock are included having regard to available knowledge as to their conservation status. The National Parks and Wildlife Service is satisfied that the conservation status of the migratory species is at a satisfactory level for hunting to be allowed.
Section 27 of the Wildlife Act provides for the suspension of a declared open season for up to two months for any specified reason, for example, disease or severe weather conditions. The suspension can apply to the country as a whole or to any particular areas and may relate to any species. This section has been invoked several times due to climatic conditions.
It is an offence to hunt game species outside the period prescribed in the open seasons order. Hunting is only permitted my means of firearm and only by persons in possession of a valid firearms certificate and hunting licence. It is considered that the length of the hunting season in Ireland is conservative by reference to those which the Wildlife Service believe pertain in certain other European countries.
A variety of statutory powers is available in other areas. To date, 68 wildlife sanctuaries have been established under the Wildlife Act. These "no shooting" areas under section 24 of the Act give protection mainly to migratory waterfowl. To date also 71 nature reserves have been established under the Act, shooting is not permitted in 65 of these. There have been five refuges for fauna established under the Wildlife Act and shooting is not permitted an any of them. Neither is shooting permited normally in our national parks.
Hunting on the State foreshore and other accretions belonging to the State is regulated by means of a foreshore permit. Much of these foreshore areas are important wildlife habitat and high densities of migratory species can occur in those areas. Few permits have been issued to out of State shooters to date.
Senator O'Sullivan will understand that this is not my area of responsibility but I am glad to respond to her concerns this evening. I have some knowledge of the matter, in a relatively uninformed way, but I know there is an increase in shooters from countries in Europe and, in particular, from Italy and there may be an over-exuberance or an excess of enthusiasm in some areas. The Senator has done a service in bringing the matter to the attention of the Seanad and, I hope, to wider attention, and I know the relevant Department will take note of her concerns. A climate of strong surveillance should ensue as we all share her concern that there would not be overshooting from the point of view of preservation and in order that there should not be exploitation or over-enthusiasm in these areas. I am glad the matter has been brought to the attention of the House.