Táim buíoch don deis atá agam labhairt ar an ábhar seo agus go bhfuil an tAire i láthair. There has been clear expert advice from scientists at the National Parks and Wildlife Service that the RHD2 virus could potentially wipe out the entire hare population. The hare is iconic in our culture. The virus is highly contagious and we have the facts in that regard. It was first reported in China, where it killed millions of animals within the first year of its discovery. In 2010 a virulent strain emerged in France, similar to the one in Spain. Within a few days of infection what was seen was partial paralysis, bleeding from the eyes and mouth, convulsions and fits, with the animal then dying. Distress among hares and rabbits has also been witnessed in Ireland where the RHD2 virus has appeared I think animals have tested positive in eight counties. On 24 September the Minister's own words were:
Based on what we have been able to establish over the last 7 weeks, [the virus] appears to be widespread in Ireland ... It is known to be highly contagious and easily spread and environmental contamination presents significant difficulties in terms of any biosecurity responses ... Netting and collecting hares for coursing meetings has been identified as a significant risk factor in spreading the disease.
We know that rabbits and hares are vital to the wild ecosystem. The National Parks and Wildlife Service has stated, "Should this disease [be] as infectious and lethal here as it has [been] in Europe, the impact on the [Irish] hare could be catastrophic." On 10 October the Minister's words were that "the catching of hares in nets, their transportation in boxes and the collection and holding of hares in confined areas [will] increase the risk," all very clear signs that the right decision was made when she suspended the hare netting licence. In spite of this and other outbreaks, she lifted the suspension. It was obvious there had been lobbying by Deputies in her party, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the rural alliance. I know that we are talking about a few Deputies in each group because when we debated my Bill to ban live hare coursing, I had Deputies from all parties come to tell me that they wanted to support the Bill but that, because of the Whip, they were not able to do so.
I ask the Minister to imagine a greyhound owner finding a sick or infected hare captured for coursing. Does she think the greyhound owner will contact the National Parks and Wildlife Service? It would not be in his or her interests to do so, even though it is a condition of the licence, because coursing would be stopped. I ask that all live hare coursing meetings, including those involving hares in captivity at compounds, be monitored closely.
In a reply to former Deputy Clare Daly, the Minister said she would re-evaluate open coursing. Her understanding was that in open coursing hares "are not captured" but just happened to be there when the owners and the greyhounds arrived. There is video footage evidence of 19 hares who just happened to be in an area when the greyhounds arrived with their owners. Have open coursing meetings ever been monitored? I ask that the open coursing meetings on the 2019-20 fixtures list be closely monitored by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
"Reckless" is the word I would use to describe the Minister's U-turn on the decision to issue licences. We are now into the 16-week coursing season, which allows courses to capture hares in the so-called unaffected areas. Is the Minister 100% confident that all other counties, apart from the eight where rabbits and hares have tested positive, are clear of the disease? The hare is normally a solitary animal. Netted for coursing and kept in a confined space, it is in ideal conditions to spread the virus, something the Minister is now allowing to happen. There is an alternative to live hare coursing, namely, drag coursing. A recent RED C poll found that 77% of Irish people agreed that live hare coursing should be banned, with 9% disagreeing and 14% stating they did not know.