First, I would like to recall the major improvements in animal welfare that have taken place in recent years. You will recall that my colleague Simon Coveney brought forward major legislative reform in the form of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2103, replacing legislation going back over a hundred years. This legislation enshrined the Five Freedoms concept and introduced mandatory standards to provide for positive welfare for animals. I myself launched a new draft strategy on animal welfare in September. The strategy has recently undergone a public consultation and the responses which are currently being examined have been very positive.
As the Deputy will also be aware, Coursing is regulated under the Greyhound Industry Act, 1958 chiefly by the Irish Coursing Club (ICC), subject to the general control of Bord na gCon.
The ICC is committed to maintaining high standards in the sport of coursing, and it actively promotes the protection and conservation of the Irish hare. The ICC has assured my Department that it has extensive systems and practices in place to underpin the welfare of hares and greyhounds involved in coursing and also that it goes to great lengths to ensure the highest standards of welfare are adhered to.
Coursing operates in a highly regulated environment coupled with a comprehensive set of rules directly applied by the ICC. It operates under a licence from the Minister of Culture, Heritage & the Gaeltacht, issued annually with a total of 25 conditions. These include a variety of measures, including a requirement that a qualified veterinarian attends at all coursing meetings to report on the health of the 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.
The ICC undertakes a range of actions to address issues related to health and welfare. Coursing clubs are required to comply fully with directives, instructions and guidance notes issued by the ICC in all matters relating to the capture, keeping in captivity, tagging, marking, coursing and release of hares, and the muzzling of greyhounds.
A monitoring committee on coursing is in place, comprising officials from my Department, the ICC and the National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS), to monitor developments in coursing and in that regard the situation is kept under constant review to ensure that coursing is run in a well controlled and responsible manner in the interests of both hares and greyhounds.
The committee meets after each coursing season to review the outcome of all coursing meetings, having particular regard to hare and greyhound welfare.
I believe that it is critically important that those involved in coursing operate in accordance with the regulatory framework and that the welfare of both hares and greyhounds is at the forefront at all times.
I have no plans at present to alter this arrangement.