Thursday, 6 December 2018

Ceisteanna (12)

Maureen O'Sullivan


12. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on the inherent cruelty involved in live hare coursing; and his views on whether Ireland’s reputation is being damaged by allowing this blood sport to continue in the face of international bans on the activity. [51049/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Agriculture)

My question is on live hare coursing. What are the Minister's views on the inherent cruelty in this activity? Is our reputation being damaged by allowing this blood sport to continue in the face of international bans on live hare coursing.

I note the major improvements in animal welfare that have taken place in recent years. The Deputy will recall that my colleague and predecessor, Deputy Simon Coveney, brought forward major legislative reform in the form of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013, which replaced legislation dating back over 100 years. The Act enshrined the "five freedoms" concept and introduced mandatory standards to provide for positive welfare for animals. I launched myself a new draft strategy on animal welfare in September. The strategy has recently undergone a public consultation process and the responses, which are currently being examined, have been very positive. As the Deputy will be aware, detailed debate was held around the issue of coursing during the passage of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 and the Dáil voted overwhelmingly to allow the continuation of hare coursing in accordance with the legislation which specifies that the hare must have a reasonable chance of escape. I am fully committed to promoting good practices that respect the welfare of all animals and my Department devotes considerable resources to protect animal welfare and deal with breaches of animal welfare legislation. Under the 2013 Act, a person can receive a fine on summary conviction of up to €10,000 and on conviction on indictment of €250,000 and-or imprisonment up to five years. The Act provides for 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 level of penalties for offences of animal cruelty provided for under the Act will act as a deterrent to animal welfare abuses.

Coursing is regulated under the Greyhound Industry Act 1958 by the Irish Coursing Club, subject to the general control of Bord na gCon. The Irish Coursing Club is committed to maintaining high standards in the sport of coursing and it actively promotes the protection and conservation of the Irish hare. Coursing operates in a highly regulated environment coupled with a comprehensive set of rules directly applied by the club. Hares are sourced under licences from the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht which are issued annually and subject to a total of 26 conditions. These measures include a requirement that a qualified veterinarian attend at all coursing meetings to report on the health of hares, a prohibition on the coursing of hares more than once in the same day, a prohibition on the coursing of sick or pregnant hares and a requirement that hares be released back into the wild during daylight hours.

I am tired of being told about the wonderful legislation. While it is wonderful in theory, there are many examples in which it does not work. I need only mention puppy farms, the fox incident about which the Minister knows well as it took place in Cork, badger issues, live hare coursing and fur farming. Hurling, camogie, basketball, rugby and soccer are sports. There is no glossing over the cruelty involved in live hare coursing, which cannot be called a sport. Evidence of that cruelty exists where hares are used as live bait for dogs to chase. People who attend coursing meetings see hares being terrorised as they run frantically around a field. They are hit hard by the dogs and sent tumbling through the air. The hares run in circles and sometimes leap over the dogs to try and escape. On current numbers, there is evidence that hares are endangered. Are we going to wait until the situation is as it is with the curlew and the corncrake and the hare is at risk of extinction? I note also the injuries to the dogs involved. I would love to know how many greyhounds are put down every year for failing to make the cut. Of course, we have an industry which exports greyhounds to countries in which there are no animal welfare provisions, including a recent report of two greyhounds being sent to Pakistan.

The Deputy will recall that the House voted overwhelmingly in 2013 to allow for the legal holding of hare coursing events, subject to certain conditions and restrictions. Our obligation is to ensure those regulations are complied with fully. Compliance with licences is a shared responsibility of my Department through veterinarian attendance and of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which issues the said licences. The Deputy digressed into a host of other issues, including badgers. She will be aware that my Department is moving to a vaccination programme for badgers rather than one of culling. While culling will continue to be an element of management in certain areas, there is a movement towards vaccination and I consider it to be progressive. Hare coursing is highly regulated and much changed since the position a number of years ago. Greyhounds are muzzled now so that there is no slaughter of hares as may have previously been the case. It is highly regulated and it has the overwhelming support of the House.

If there were a free vote on banning live hare coursing, there would be a different attitude. After my Bill was sadly defeated, members of the parties that voted against it told me they would have voted in favour of it if there had been a free vote.

Unauthorised photography is forbidden at coursing meetings so people who attempt to video the meetings do so with great difficulty. Nevertheless, there is video evidence, with the most recent from the Ardpatrick and Kilfinane coursing in Limerick. Muzzling and other rules do not adequately protect the hare and the footage shows signs of great cruelty. The hare is struck by the dogs, and that is without mentioning the hare's suffering during the capture and confinement period, which is totally against the animal's nature.

While I am proud of Ireland's uniqueness in certain areas, I am not proud that we are unique in this area. We are only one of three countries where live hare coursing continues. The practice is banned everywhere else. There is an alternative. Drag hare coursing works in other countries. If we will not even consider it here, I can only conclude that it is the cruelty in the sport that attracts people. It is time that we look at this when survey after survey has shown that people do not want this activity.

That is an unfortunate slur on people who support and attend hare coursing and I certainly would not concur with the Deputy. Many people involved in organising coursing do much that is positive in breeding hares and protecting the species. Hare coursing is highly regulated and stringent conditions apply, as is right and proper. It is also right and proper that these events are policed, with breaches punished as provided by law.

Question No. 13 replied to with Written Answers.