Thursday, 9 May 2019

Questions (12)

Maureen O'Sullivan


12. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the way in which he can address concerns of residents close to fox hunting events regarding encroachments into residential areas; and the measures taken to address this reality to date. [20110/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

My question relates to fox hunting and how to address the concerns of those residents who live close to fox hunting events regarding encroachments into residential areas and the measures being taken to address this to date.

As the Deputy will be aware, detailed debate was held around the issue of hunting during the passage of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 and the Dáil voted overwhelmingly to allow the continuation of fox hunting in accordance with an appropriate code of conduct. The Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 specifically prohibits the hunting of animals which have been released in an injured, mutilated or exhausted condition. Section 25 of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 also allows for the establishment of codes of practice and for the adoption of codes published by other persons for the purposes of providing practical guidance relating to any aspect of the Act, including fox hunting. Voluntary codes of practice have been established by the Hunting Association of Ireland, HAI, which detail the conduct to be adhered to in respect of the hunting of foxes and the treatment of the animal during the hunt. The code prohibits the hunting of foxes where the animal is injured and advocates the humane disposal of a fox when captured. The code also takes into account local concerns and the concerns of the landowners on whose land hunting takes place.

In light of the concerns raised by residents regarding encroachments into residential areas, officials of my Department met the Hunting Association of Ireland to discuss several such incidents. My officials underlined the need for those involved in hunting to take greater action to avoid such incidents. The association committed to avoiding any recurrence of incidents such as this. In light of this, it is noteworthy that there do not seem to have been any recent reports of such incidents in the media. The need to strengthen the existing code of practice to avoid such incidents where hounds entered housing estates was discussed. The association undertook to review the existing code of practice.

I am fully committed to promoting good practices that respect the welfare of animals, and my Department devotes considerable resources to protecting animal welfare and in dealing with breaches of animal welfare legislation. Under the Act, on summary conviction, a person can receive a fine of up to €10,000 and, on indictment, €250,000 and-or imprisonment up to five years. There are fixed penalty payments for lesser offences. The Act provides the framework within which the welfare of animals can be safeguarded, and I am hopeful that the substantial and significantly increased levels of penalties for offences of animal cruelty provided for under the Act will act as a deterrent to animal welfare abuses.

The Minister’s reply is very much like a previous one he gave me. The codes of practice for the Hunting Association of Ireland are voluntary. Therefore it does not have to abide by them. The Minister says the Department has been in contact with the association, which said it would review and update this area, but we have not seen any real changes to date. I accept that there does not appear to have been any encroachment recently, as the Minister said.

For hunts to take place in an area, they rely on the "express or implied" permission to be on land. I understand that the Minister was going to approach the association to remove the word "implied" so that hunts will need express permission to be on somebody's land. Hunts are encroaching on land whose owners do not want them. That is not to mention encroachment on housing estates where, as the Minister knows, a dog was killed by the hunt in a collision and somebody's pet was also killed.

As the Minister said, the Act also prohibits the pursuit of animals "released in an injured, mutilated or exhausted condition". When the hunt comes out and the dogs are in a frenzy to get after the fox, they do not know if that fox has been injured or mutilated. It is a very loose area. The Minister spoke about the fine but the one fine in Macroom of €1,000 between more ten people was like a slap on the wrist.

I met one of my constituents who had this experience and I accept that it was a traumatic incident. On foot of that and indeed other incidents which had a media profile and perhaps others that did not have the same profile but occurred, we engaged with the HAI to ensure that this never happens again. I was satisfied from the engagement that there was a commitment that steps would be taken in the association's code of practice. Compliance with its own code is important, and in so far as the code omitted to refer to issues in housing estates, that would be addressed. My information is that the written code has not changed yet but that there has been communication with hunts. I will ask officials in the Department to engage again with the express view of updating the code to reflect the concerns that arose in those incidents.

That is far too loose. There are three areas of concern, one of which is the dogs being used. I do not think there is any inspection of the way the dogs are kept. There are alarming reports from people involved in animal welfare of the conditions in which the dogs are kept. There is also a report from one group of a particular huntsperson who exceeds the number of breeding bitches allowed under the Dog Breeding Establishments Act 2010. Who is following up on this?

Just before Christmas the Cork Dog Action Welfare Group had to close because it could not take in any more dogs. It had in excess of 70 dogs in its care, and 30 of those were hunting dogs. Is the HAI really taking responsibility for its own dogs as well as for what it does with fox hunting? Fox hunting is a relic of our colonial past when we were oppressed by a colonial power. While that same colonial power has banned fox hunting, we still see it as a worthwhile practice in rural Ireland. That beggars belief.

Anybody who breaks the law should face the rigours of the law. Our 2013 legislation is considered to be best practice. The Deputy refers to another jurisdiction that has travelled a different road. It is considering our legislation. The current minister responsible there referred to his proposal to update that jurisdiction's legislation, which I believe was the same as the legislation that existed here prior to 2013, going back to prior to the foundation of the State. Ours is considered to be fit for purpose, although – and we would not agree on this – there are carve-outs in respect of coursing, fishing and hunting.

The Deputy refers to people breaching the welfare regulations in respect of breeding bitches in kennels. Anybody who does that will find no comfort. They should be reported and action should be taken. The responsibility for that legislation does not rest with the Department but with local authorities. Those issues should be brought to the attention of the relevant local authorities and action taken if people are found to be in breach.