The hare is protected in Ireland under the Wildlife Acts and is included on Annex V of the EU Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC) although there is a short Open Season when hunting is permitted and the capture of hares for coursing is permitted under license.
Article 17 of the Habitats Directive requires Ireland to make a detailed report every six years on the conservation status of all listed species, including the hare. Ireland’s most recent report in 2019 included a comprehensive assessment of the range, population status, habitat and threats for the Irish hare. The report can be downloaded at https://www.npws.ie/publications/article-17-reports/article-17-reports-2019.
The 2019 Article 17 report states that the hare is found throughout the country from coastal habitats to upland heath and bog. The hare is widespread and common in Ireland with a broad habitat niche and its overall conservation status at that time was assessed as favourable.
In addition, my Department also commissioned a new survey of the status of hare’s population in Ireland which took place using camera traps, over the winter of 2018/2019. It is intended that this survey report will published shortly.
The RHD2 virus was discovered in a number of rabbits and hares in the wild around the country during the summer and appears to be widespread in Ireland. The virus is known to be highly contagious and easily spread and environmental contamination presents significant difficulties in terms of any biosecurity responses.
The scientific advice available to me at that time indicated that the catching of hares in nets, their transportation in boxes and their keeping in confined areas like coursing hare parks can all be considered to increase the risk of disease spread. In these circumstances, given my responsibility in relation to the conservation status of the Irish hare, I decided to suspend the licences issued to the Irish Coursing Club on 9 August to capture and tag hares for the 2019/20 hare coursing- until a clearer understanding of the extent, spread and implications of the RHD2 virus emerges.
Since these initial incidents, a request for public involvement has led to more than 75 reports of dead rabbits and hares across the country. Each report has been followed up vigilantly by the local National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) rangers. RHD2 has been confirmed in five hares found in Dublin and Wexford and 29 rabbits found in counties Carlow, Clare, Cork, Dublin, Kildare, Kerry, Leitrim, Meath, Offaly, Tipperary, Wexford and Wicklow. Since the suspension of Irish Coursing Club licences on 9 August, discussions have been ongoing between the NPWS of my Department, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Irish Coursing Club on the impact of this virus.
I recently issued revised licences last month to allow the netting and tagging of hares but there are specific restrictions and conditions explicitly attached to the issue of those licences. The capturing of hares and coursing activity is prohibited in areas within a 25-kilometre radius of where wild rabbits or hares have tested positive for the virus. New zones will be added on an ongoing basis if further positive tests arise and, in these new zones, the capturing of hares will have to cease immediately and coursing will only be possible with already captured hares, where the hares are certified in writing by a veterinary surgeon as being healthy, as such hares will only be released on foot of such certification. This has already impacted on some coursing events. In tandem with the granting of revised licences I have required a number of field studies to be undertaken at some coursing clubs, which will involve veterinary and virology expertise and input.
These studies, which are currently underway, are being carried out to supplement existing knowledge of the prevalence and nature of RHD2, are undertaken with co-operation between the NPWS of my Department, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) and the Irish Coursing Club. The field studies involve the microchipping and swabbing of all captured hares and the testing of swabs in DAFM laboratories for RHD2. My decisions in this regard were taken following extensive liaison with DAFM officials and officials of my Department.