Thursday, 12 December 2019

Ceisteanna (5)

Maureen O'Sullivan


5. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if the practice of licensing live hare coursing will be reviewed in view of recent opinion polls (details supplied) and the fact that RHD2 disease is present here, which is a threat to the survival of the Irish hare; and if the views of many persons that live hare coursing has no place in modern civil society will be accepted. [52177/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (8 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Culture)

My question relates to hare coursing, the RHD2 virus and also the results of a recent opinion poll which relates to hare coursing having no place in a modern civil society. What are the Minister's views on the matter?

The control of live hare coursing, including the operation of individual coursing meetings and managing the use of hares for that activity, is carried out under the Greyhound Industry Act 1958, which is the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. My responsibility relates to the conservation status of the hare. While the regulation of hare coursing is not under my statutory control, licences are required by the Irish Coursing Club under the terms of the Wildlife Acts on behalf of its affiliated clubs to facilitate the netting and tagging of hares for closed park meetings. The annual licence to capture and tag hares for the 2019-20 coursing season was issued by my Department on 9 August this year. The licences granted by my Department in such instances include a range of conditions in relation to coursing hares which are designed to provide as much protection as possible to the conservation status of the hare.

The Deputy is aware that the RHD2 virus, which affects both rabbits and hares, was discovered in a number of rabbits and hares around the country during the summer. Based on these results RHD2 appeared at the time to be widespread in Ireland. The scientific advice available to me following the issuing of the annual licences indicated at that point that the virus was highly contagious and easily spread. In these circumstances, given my responsibility in relation to the conservation status of the Irish hare, I decided to suspend the licences issued to the Irish Coursing Club on 9 August until we had a clearer understanding of the extent, spread and implications of the RHD2 virus. In mid-October, I issued revised and restricted licences to the Irish Coursing Club last month to allow the netting and tagging of hares but there are specific limitations and strict conditions attached to the issue of those licences. The Deputy tabled a Topical Issue matter on this subject and in my response, I reiterated the details regarding those trials and how we are conducting them.

The Minister is correct that we have discussed this matter before. The RHD2 virus was not considered enough of a threat to ban live hare coursing, although it should have been, as should the well documented injuries to hares that occur before and during coursing.

The practice is banned in almost every advanced country in the world, with only three allowing it. All of that should have been enough to ensure a ban on live hare coursing, yet it continues to be permitted.

My question relates to the finding in a recent RED C poll that 77% of Irish citizens want to see an end to live hare coursing, with only 9% supporting its continuation. In addition, there has been extensive correspondence to the Minister's office, which was released via a freedom of information request, indicating overwhelming support for a ban on live hare coursing. Coursing involves the blooding of the greyhound. Otherwise, why would such a gentle animal chase a hare with such ferocity? There have been convictions for illegal hunting of hares, including two in Offaly some months ago, and we know what happened on Whiddy Island. It is time to stand up to the 9% minority on this matter. If no licences are issued by the Minister, then there can be no live hare coursing.

The Deputy referred to a RED C poll. My understanding was that the research was done by the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, ISPCA.

There were two polls.

The ISPCA has welcomed the introduction of a testing regime and field studies on hares and rabbits. We should bear in mind that polls commissioned by an organisation usually reflect the views of that organisation. I appreciate the Deputy's concerns. I must ensure that there is a balanced response from the Government to this issue, but the protection and conservation of the hare is my primary concern. The strict conditions we have set down should assuage the Deputy's concerns somewhat. The Irish Coursing Club vet has to certify in writing that all the captured hares are healthy. The number of courses will be reduced proportionately, as will the numbers of hares that can be coursed. The ongoing trials and field tests should give us a clearer picture as to the status and condition of hares and rabbits. It is important to note that no new hares have tested positive for RHD2 since the beginning of October.

Respect should be accorded to the findings of the RED C poll. We are told that live hare coursing is important for the rural economy, but I do not accept that. Before the American Civil War, the southern states argued that ending the slave trade would affect their rural economy. Banning live hare coursing will not damage the rural economy in this country because there is a viable alternative available in drag coursing. If the greyhounds will pursue a mechanical lure in racing, why cannot the same be tried in coursing, instead of causing pain and harm to timid wild hares? My late colleague, former Deputy Tony Gregory, observed in March 1996, "The only way to eliminate the cruelty is to have drag coursing where there is no live bait used." We must take a responsible attitude to the sensitivity of animals. This is a debate about cruelty versus compassion and I am asking the Minister to consider setting up a working group to look at the alternatives. Those alternatives are being used in other countries and are proving viable and lucrative for local economies.

I conveyed to my Department officials the information on drag coursing which the Deputy provided on a previous occasion. In addition to the 29 conditions that are associated with the licence in general terms, we now have the other conditions which I set out. Field tests are ongoing in Limerick, Tipperary, Cork and Cavan town and will take some ten weeks to conclude. It was important to have the involvement of the Irish Coursing Club and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in those trials. I am satisfied with the procedures for swabbing, tagging and microchipping and that the certification is done in writing. We are constantly monitoring the situation and my door is always open to people on both sides of the argument with a view to finding a solution.