I will first deal with some of the broader issues. In that context, I will read into the record the briefing material that has been provided and also some additional information on approved traps, snares and nets which emanates from the Wildlife Acts. I am of the view that it would be interesting for people to know the legal position in respect of the latter. When I have read all the information into the record, perhaps we might then discuss the amendments individually and I will indicate why I can or cannot accept them.
The first matter with which I will deal is badgers. This is an extremely controversial issue in the UK and also for some people in Ireland. A considerable amount of research, conducted over a period by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and other entities, has shown that the eradication of TB in cattle is not a practicable proposition in the short to medium term because of the reservoir of infection in wildlife, particularly badgers. In view of this research and to limit the spread of TB from badgers to cattle, the bovine TB eradication programme implemented by the Department contains a wildlife strategy involving the removal of badgers by culling when an epidemiological investigation associates a TB herd breakdown with the presence of badgers. In other words, this is a targeted programme and we are not concerned here with a widespread culling of badgers. I will provide the actual numbers involved towards the end of my contribution.
The Department continually monitors damage and injury to badgers captured under the badger removal programme to ensure the programme is as humane as possible. Badgers are captured by trained farm relief service contractors who use a particular restraint. Those contractors are monitored and supervised by my Department. The restraints used in the capture of badgers are constructed and approved to comply with the Wildlife Act 1976 and the 2003 regulations made thereunder. They are specifically designed to include a "stop" in order that they will not tighten beyond a predetermined point and will not, therefore, cause death by strangulation. All restraints are monitored daily and badgers are removed within a maximum of 24 hours of capture. A condition of the licence is that restraints are checked before noon the next day. Capturing of badgers is not permitted during the months of January to March, inclusive, in new capture areas. Research undertaken by Denise Murphy at the centre for veterinary epidemiology and risk analysis, CVERA, in UCD in 2009 has shown that damage or injury to captured badgers is none or minimal while they are in stopped restraints.
The Department is satisfied that the badger culling strategy has contributed to a significant reduction in the incidence of TB in recent years. TB reactor numbers have fallen significantly in the past three years, and it is anticipated that numbers for 2012 will be similar to those for 2011, when there were 18,500 reactors. The latter is the lowest recorded number in any year since the commencement of the eradication programme in the 1950s. The number of badgers captured in recent years is less than half the number captured in 2000. In other words, we are making significant progress. If members consider the position in the UK and Northern Ireland, they will discover that such progress is not being made in the context of reducing TB reactor numbers. In my opinion, this is partly because they do not have a badger removal programme such as that which obtains in this jurisdiction. If we are serious about eradicating TB over time, then I am strongly of the view that it is impossible to avoid the issue of badgers.
It is the Department's intention to replace badger culling with a vaccination programme as soon as research demonstrates that vaccination of badgers is proven to be as effective as the current wildlife programme. I am very anxious that we should move to a vaccination programme as soon as possible. Nobody likes killing animals. I certainly do not like killing them. If we can establish a link between TB outbreaks and the presence of badgers and move from culling to a targeted vaccination programme, that will be a very good development for badgers.
If we can continue the progress with our broader TB objectives to try to eradicate this disease that we have had for 70 years, we will do that. The eradication of TB must be my first priority for many reasons, including animal welfare. That is the reason we are doing what is necessary and we are trying to put parameters around how we do that to minimise the suffering of animals and to reduce the number of animals we have to cull in the first place by being as targeted as we can be. We will move to a vaccination programme when it is appropriate to do that and hopefully that time is not too far away.
With regard to fur farming, the farming of mink in Ireland is currently regulated by the Musk Rats Act 1933. Section 9 of that Act prohibits the keeping of musk rats in Ireland unless the keeper is licensed by the Minister. It also provides that the animals must be kept at the premises specified in the licence and that the keeper must comply with conditions attached to such a licence. The Act empowers the Minister to attach any conditions as he or she may think proper to a licence and, in particular, conditions regarding (a) the nature of the premises where the animals are kept, (b) the manner in which they are to be kept, (c) the precautions to be taken to prevent their escape, (d) the duration of the licence and (e) returns to be made by the licensee.
The methods authorised for slaughtering fur animals on fur farms are set out in the European Communities (Welfare of Farmed Animals ) Regulations 2010 and it is detailed how that can be done to ensure there is consistency with the provisions of the regulations.
Methods outlined in the Council regulation, the number of which is outlined in the briefing material, on the protection of animals at the time of killing, which comes into effect on 1 January next year, and which is a new regulation, will be based on scientific references and the EU Commission has performed very detailed research on all the scientific literature on the subject. This new legislation will require any person involved in the killing of animals to take the necessary measures to avoid pain and minimise the distress and suffering of animals during the killing process, taking into account best practices in the field and the methods permitted under the regulation. The new regulation will also require people supervising the seasonal killing of fur animals to have a certificate of competence relevant to the operations they perform. This new EU regulation driven by the Commission will come into effect to deal with welfare issues around the killing of animals generally and also in regard to fur farming.
The report on fur farming undertaken by my Department in 2012, which is available on the Department's website for anyone who might want to read it, made a number of recommendations regarding fur farming. They include recognising that fur farming is a lawful farming activity undertaken in many areas of the world, including in a number of EU member states, and having considered all the submissions made, the legislative controls that currently exist and having evaluated the data assembled, the review group, on balance, did not find the arguments in favour of banning the farming of fur animals in Ireland compelling. For this reason the group recommended that fur farming be allowed to continue under licence and subject to enhanced official controls. The group recommended that all fur farming should be subject to licence by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and it is noted that there are extensive powers available to the Minister in legislation to enable him to revoke licences where welfare standards are not met. It further recommended that the new Animal Health and Welfare Bill should include a provision requiring new entrants to fur farming to hold a licence, as well as existing licence holders. It recommended that the Department's veterinary and agricultural inspections should be doubled from the current level to allow for enhanced controls in order that additional confidence can be gained in respect of compliance with animal health, animal welfare, environmental requirements, greater security on the farms and contingency planning. Veterinary controls should include a review of the checks carried out by the private veterinary practitioner engaged by the licence holders. The Department's programme of inspections should also include some unannounced inspections. The group also recommended that in order to ensure that the health and welfare of the animals is protected, licences should require increased direct engagement of private veterinary practitioners on the part of fur farmers to provide professional input into operational practices. Private veterinary practitioners engaged by fur farmers should be requested to provide written verification of the effectiveness of the operational systems in this regard. The group recommended that operators should adopt best practice and embrace developments with respect to improved methods and systems for the killing of mink. It also recommended that codes of practice should be established to promote sound welfare and management practices for the care of fur animals.
It is proposed to repeal the Musk Rats Act 1933 under the Animal Health and Welfare Bill. The new Animal Health and Welfare Bill should include a provision requiring new entrants to fur farming to hold a licence as well as existing licence holders. It is not proposed to ban fur farming under the Bill. What is proposed is that we would examine both regulation and codes of practice in this respect in order that we can stand over everything that is taking place on fur farms and that we would significantly increase the levels of inspections taking place.
With regard to hare coursing, under the provisions of the Greyhound Industry Act 1958, the regulation of coursing is chiefly a matter for the Irish Coursing Club, ICC, subject to the general control and direction of Bord na gCon, which is the statutory body with responsibility for the improvement and development of the greyhound industry, greyhound racing and coursing. Coursing meetings can only take place during the open season, namely, between 26 September and 28 February of the following year.
The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has responsibility under national and EU wildlife legislation to ensure the conservation of the populations of certain species, including the hare. In December 2007, Ireland submitted the first baseline assessments, under the habitats directive, to the European Commission, on the conservation status for all 59 habitats and some 100 species that occur in Ireland. It was reported at that time that the range and future prospects of the hare were considered favourable. The hare is not regarded as an endangered species. The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, under section 34 of the Wildlife Act 1976, has responsibility for the issue of an annual licence to the Irish Coursing Club and its affiliated clubs to capture live hares in accordance with the conditions of the licence granted. The licence conditions are set out in the briefing material and there are some 26, which I do not need to read out as the members have them set out in front of them.
With regard to hare numbers, the coursing clubs affiliated to the Irish Coursing Club catch in the region of 5,500 hares each coursing season. To put these numbers in some context, the report, Status of Hares in Ireland - Hare Survey of Ireland 2006/07, estimates that the population of Irish hares in the Republic of Ireland was approximately 233,000 hares in early 2006 and 535,000 in early 2007. Therefore, hare population is significantly increasing. It should be stated that an extremely high proportion of the hares captured for hare coursing are returned to the wild each year; an average of 98% of the hares used at hare coursing meetings have been returned to the wild over the past four coursing seasons. There is no current evidence that hare coursing has a significant adverse effect on total hare populations. I know people's objections to hare coursing are different from being merely about the hare population and I will hear those shortly but it is important to read these figures into the record.
With regard to the monitoring of hare coursing, a monitoring committee on coursing was established in 1993-94 comprising officials from the Department and representatives from both the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the ICC to monitor developments in coursing.
The position in that regard is kept under constant review to ensure coursing is run in a well controlled and responsible manner in the interests of both animal welfare and standards. Veterinary inspectors from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will attend and monitor a minimum of eight coursing events in 2013.
Anything done in the ordinary course of hunting does not fall within the remit of the Animal Health and Welfare Bill. If, however, a hunted animal is released in an injured, mutilated or exhausted condition, that is an offence under section 12(3) of the proposed legislation. In order to properly regulate hunting, there will be a strict application of codes of practice which will be established under section 25. Again, the approach I am taking is not to ban this activity but to ensure that when hunting, hare coursing or fur farming, which is a separate category, takes place, we have standards that are imposed in terms of codes of conduct that can be implemented and enforced. The purpose of amendment No. 26 is to ensure we have a political discussion as there is some legal difficulty with elements of it.
Section 34 of the Wildlife Act is the primary source of legislation applicable to the use of traps, snares and nets. Among other things, this section of the Act gives the Minister the power to make regulations to declare traps, snares and nets to be approved under section 34(4). The Minister has done this and the resulting regulations are SI 620 of the Wildlife Act 1976 (Approved Traps, Snares and Nets). One of the key components of the regulations is Regulation 3 which describes the types of traps, snares and nets that are legally approved. It goes through them in some detail. The priority is to try to reduce, minimise or eliminate unnecessary suffering when one is capturing an animal for the purposes of either pest control, disease control or other purpose.
It is unusual for me to read a long dissertation on anything, but it important that people understand that on this issue we are not proceeding in the way we always have on blood sports, fur farming or hare coursing. Codes of practice are being implemented. If we need to add to them by introducing new codes of conduct and make them mandatory, or even if we need to consider introducing regulations under the Bill, I am willing to do this, but what I am not willing to do is to introduce legislation to ban activities that provide many people across the country with a livelihood, and also are traditional in rural areas and have been for generations. I will not wipe them out with the stroke of a pen, but I will insist on standards being imposed and we will act when people behave in a totally irresponsible way in regard to these standards. We will ensure we have the power under the legislation to act. That is a balanced approach in dealing with these issues. I am happy to speak to people who are involved in hunting or coursing and have already done so, as well as people who have concerns about these issues. I will endeavour to accommodate their concerns as best I can, but, ultimately, we will have a difference of opinion on what we should do with the legislation. It is important people understand the perspective from which I am coming.