Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Ceisteanna (38)

Maureen O'Sullivan

Ceist:

38. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if her attention has been drawn to the very serious concerns of animal welfare groups in relation to the so-called coursing trials; and if she will reconsider the issuing of licences. [1695/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Culture)

My question to the Minister is if her attention has been drawn to the very serious concerns of animal welfare groups in relation to the so-called coursing trials and if she will reconsider the issuing of licences.

I thank the Deputy for her question. My Department issued the Irish Coursing Club, ICC, with licences in August 2018 on behalf of its affiliated clubs to capture and tag hares for the 2018-2019 coursing season. These licences included conditions relating to the reporting of coursing trials. Until recently the organisation and monitoring of these trials has not been included in the licences issued by my Department to the ICC and its affiliated clubs. However, in the light of concerns expressed, a revised licence was issued to the ICC in October 2017 for the 2017-2018 season with additional conditions to strengthen the regulation of trials. These conditions for trials are also included in the licence issued to the ICC for the current coursing season. It is now a condition that only one dog, as opposed to two, can be used in trials and vets are required to be present.

In addition, my Department is to be notified in advance, which was not done previously, and reports of all trials are to be submitted to my Department. Those reports and any monitoring undertaken by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, will also be taken into account in the consideration of the renewal of licences. Where resources allow, local NPWS conservation rangers and other staff attend coursing meetings to conduct on-the-spot checks and to monitor compliance with the licences issued to the Irish Coursing Club and its affiliated clubs. My Department monitored six of these trials during the 2017-2018 season given that these trials had not been monitored previously and these reports are available on the website of the National Parks and Wildlife Service of my Department.

For the current coursing season, and taking account of staffing constraints within my Department, my Department has concentrated its efforts on monitoring regular coursing meetings and to date has monitored some 32 coursing meetings compared to a total of 35 coursing events during the 2017-2018 season. I would intend that some trials will be monitored before the end of the current coursing season at the end of February.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

My Department will be appointing additional conservation rangers during 2019 and it would be my intention that more coursing meetings and trials would be monitored during the next coursing season. If I can in any way improve the welfare of the hare in the context of coursing activities, then I will endeavour to do so. I must say, in fairness to the Irish Coursing Club, that it has worked with my officials in making these very important changes to the licensing, reporting and monitoring regime. I would point out, as I did in response to written questions in this House yesterday, that I have no role in relation to the payment of any fees relating to these trials. That is a matter entirely for the ICC and its affiliated clubs. I would stress, however, that trials are trials and I would certainly not understand them to be revenue raising opportunities.

I thank the Minister. There were some positive aspects to her reply. I want to stress the term "so-called trials" in my initial question because condition 23 of the licence is that it gives an opportunity to familiarise hares with the most direct route for escape and that there would not be more than one dog at any particular trial run. Somebody who rang up to book their dog in for one of these trial runs was told that the hares had been well trained. That indicates that any of the hares that had escaped are being kept in captivity to be used again. I stress that these trials are not for the benefit of the hare and to give it a more level playing field, as it were, when it comes to escaping, but rather for the benefit of the greyhounds so they will better be able to chase the hare. The Minister gave the report about how the coursing clubs and events are monitored but this just shows that this industry cannot be regulated. There is growing opposition to coursing and it is time for a ban. I do not believe the Minister supports activities where animals are badly treated and tortured.

I certainly do not support any type of sport or hobby that would in any way prejudice the welfare of an animal. The concerns of the animal welfare groups relate to the fact that they do not consider that trials are organised to familiarise hares with the most direct route to the escape, as the Deputy said, as per condition 23. The Department understands that in order to familiarise hares with the layout of the coursing field and the location of the escape in advance of coursing meetings, hares in the hare park, the enclosure in which they are kept prior to the start of the coursing meeting, will have access for some time to the coursing field. The specific inclusion by the Department of trials in the licence issued to the Irish Coursing Club since the 2017-2018 season made it a condition that the primary purpose of trials was to train hares for the regular coursing meetings. Given staffing constraints within the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Department has concentrated its efforts on monitoring regular coursing meetings and we have managed 32 to date.

I will go back to the monitoring of the coursing events. Through a freedom of information request, it has been found that there were some conflicts between the evidence given by the vets who were hired by the Irish Coursing Club and the rangers from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The divergence in the evidence is being used by the Irish Coursing Club as a reason to ignore the ranger reports and not make the ranger reports available. Surely it is instead grounds for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to have its vets at these meetings so that the evidence can be collected there. I know that is not the Minister's Department but part of the problem when it comes to animal welfare issues is that it falls between several Departments and there could be a conversation between the Minister and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine about the use of vets from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and there would be no conflict of interest there if, as I have pointed out, the reports from the National Parks and Wildlife Service rangers are going to be ignored.

I appreciate the point the Deputy has raised. We can certainly have a conversation with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in relation to any vets that it can provide. It is of paramount importance that we keep the welfare of the hares as our primary concern, and indeed the dogs as well. It is important to say that the EU Habitats Directive has found that the Irish hare is widespread and common, which is good to report, and none of the identified threats, such as the changing practices, is considered likely to impact on its conservation status in the foreseeable future. The future prospects of the hare were deemed favourable and that can only be a good thing. It is important that we monitor the trials. The number of rangers dropped to 60 from 72 at the end of 2018 owing to some retirements, promotions and exits, but the monitoring of these meetings allows the National Parks and Wildlife Service to be present for the release of hares after coursing, which would not have been the case with trials, and it is also important to note that 99.3% of hares are put back into the wild after coursing events, which is quite a high percentage.