I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to introduce the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2010 and I look forward to an informed debate during its passage through the House. As the House is aware, the renewed programme for Government includes a commitment to introduce legislation to prohibit the practice of deer hunting with a pack of dogs. This short Bill provides for the banning of this particular hunting practice. In addition, I have taken the opportunity to increase the maximum fines for wildlife related offences, which were last increased in 2000.
I would like to put on the record of the House the fact that the decision to prohibit the hunting of deer with a pack of hounds was not taken lightly. Section 26(1) of the 1976 Act provides that I, as Minister, may grant to the master or other person in charge of a pack of stag hounds a licence authorising the hunting of deer by that pack during such period or periods as is or are specified in the licence. However, the Act does not provide criteria for awarding or refusing a licence.
As Deputies are aware, there is only one stag hound pack in the State, which operates in County Meath. When I became Minister in June 2007, I had concerns from an animal welfare and a public safety point of view relating to the operation of the hunt meetings operated by the hunt club in question. These concerns were shared by some of my predecessors.
The hunt club in question maintains a herd of domesticated red deer in purpose-built deer parks that adjoin its hunt kennels. Its hunting season normally runs from mid-October to the end of March. Approximately 50 meetings are held during this period. It is not acceptable to allow a hunt with hounds and horses of what is essentially a farm animal. We do not consider it acceptable to set dogs in pursuit of any other farmed animal. Furthermore, there are public safety issues, as it is simply not possible for the hunt to prevent deer in flight from leaping through hedges onto public roads. I recall an incident last December during one of their hunt meetings when a deer had to be put down after it had leapt onto a road and collided with a car. I find this incident totally unacceptable even though I understand that fortunately on that occasion there were no injuries to the occupants of the car. Many Deputies are aware of a previous serious incident when a deer being chased by the hounds leaped into a school yard just as the school day was finishing. At the time there was a great deal of disquiet about this type of hunting. I have been told about other incidents anecdotally, but from reliable sources, that suggest these are not isolated incidents.
The Government, therefore, decided the animal welfare and public safety concerns relating to stag hunting could only be addressed by banning this hunting practice. The Bill itself is short and simple. Section 2 provides for the deletion of the section in the 1976 Wildlife Act that allows me as Minister to grant a licence for the hunting of deer with pack of hounds.
Section 3 seeks to achieve a number of objectives. First, it redefines deer for the purposes of the legislation so that the term includes any deer that is not a wild animal. This expanded definition of "deer" has been incorporated into the Bill to ensure there is no argument that the hunting of captive deer might not require a licence under the Wildlife Acts.
Second, it makes it an offence to hunt deer with two or more dogs but it provides for a situation where it may be necessary to pursue deer with two or more dogs, if a person has received permission under section 42 of the Wildlife Acts. Section 42 offers a facility, outside the open season, whereby a person can obtain permission, on a case by case basis, to take action against a protected species, including deer, which can include the scaring, capturing or killing of the said species in a situation where serious damage is being caused to agricultural corps, forestry plantations, other fauna, etc. There may be occasions when it is necessary or useful to bring dogs to assist in moving deer from areas where they are causing serious damage, for example, in young forestry plantations. It is good practice to use dogs to assist in the recovery of fallen deer.
Since the Bill was published some groups representing deer stalkers have raised an issue with officials of my Department relating to section 3, which might inadvertently affect their legitimate hunting practices. It is not unusual for a deer stalker to bring a dog hunting deer. This is especially true in woodlands, where a dog can be used to retrieve fallen game that sometimes can be concealed in undergrowth. In cases where several hunters are stalking deer on a property and each had a dog, or if they were bringing two dogs for training purposes, it could be construed that they were breaking the law based on section 3. It was never my intention that the Bill should place any restriction on lawful deer stalking. Accordingly, in order to allay these fears, I will table an amendment on Committee Stage, such that it is not an offence for people stalking deer and with a deer licence to have more than two dogs.
I will table a further amendment to the Bill on Committee Stage to address a problem which has recently arisen in regard to licences to shoot game during the open seasons. The Wildlife Act requires a hunter to have a licence to hunt certain birds, such as wildfowl, and hares, and made provision that this would be obtained as an endorsement on the hunter's firearm certificate. Both the hunting licence and the firearm certificate were issued by An Garda Síochána in the form of a shotgun licence with the appropriate endorsement for hunting.
However, when new, computerised procedures were introduced in 2009 for issuing three-year firearms certificates, the facility for issuing the endorsement as a wildlife hunting licence was omitted. As a result, new firearms certificates do not provide for a hunting licence attachment and therefore do not meet the legal requirements of the existing Wildlife Acts. Consequently, hunters issued with new firearms certificates were not be able to hunt legally. I understand that by the time the oversight was identified, it was not practicable to recall the certificates issued nor to change the licensing process in train.
In order to address this problem, I will table an amendment on Committee Stage to amend the Wildlife Acts so that a firearms certificates issued for a shotgun, between 1 August 2009 and 1 August 2012, will be deemed to be a hunting licence for game species such as wildfowl and hares. In the interim, arrangements will be made between my Department and the Department of Justice and Law Reform to revert to a situation where the hunting licence is endorsed on the firearms certificate. This does not affect the current system of issuing licences for shooting deer.
I refer to the other part of the Bill relating to the increase in penalties for wildlife related crime. Section 4 of the Bill provides for increased penalties for offences under the Wildlife Acts. I have decided to increase these penalties, as they have not been increased since 2000. I am increasing maximum fines such that on summary conviction the maximum fine is increased to €1,000 from £500 for a first offence, to €2,000 from £1,000 for a second offence and to €5,000 from £1,500 for a third or subsequent offence. In addition, the maximum fine for conviction on indictment is increased to €100,000 from £50,000. There are no changes in maximum times of imprisonment terms.
I consider it vitally important that the State uses every means at its disposal to ensure our natural heritage is protected. This includes our wildlife and habitats. In this international year of biodiversity, we must continue to maintain and enhance our wildlife under the obligations of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. The new penalties proposed in the Bill are proportionate. I am sure the House will support the increased fines.
Turning to general reaction to the proposed legislation, I reject the notion that this Bill is an attack on country pursuits.