Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 17 December 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Irish Greyhound Industry: Irish Coursing Club
I remind members, witnesses and those in the Public Gallery to ensure sure that their mobile phones are switched off completely. This is the first session of today's two session programme. We will hear an update from the Irish Coursing Club about its plans to improve health and welfare for greyhounds. I welcome Mr. Histon from the Irish Coursing Club and thank him for coming before the committee to provide an update on the issue we discussed previously.
Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Mr. D.J. Histon:
I thank the Chairman and committee for inviting me here today on behalf of the Irish Coursing Club as a follow-up to a presentation delivered on 9 July on issues concerning the greyhound industry in Ireland. I propose to deal with traceability, prohibited substances testing, and illegal hunting as part of the follow-up as requested.
On the traceability model, the committee is aware that the Irish Greyhound Board, IGB, has commenced a tender process to secure a full IT-supported traceability system with a closing date of 18 December. The Irish Coursing Club, ICC, met the IGB since our attendance before the committee last July and attended the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's traceability facility in Clonakilty to receive a comprehensive review of that system. There are differences between the objectives and requirements of both the cattle and greyhound systems, but there are lessons that can be applied from the former. The cattle tracking system was developed with disease prevention and management as the main driver with limited movement of animals during its life cycle. The greyhound system is concerned with full knowledge as to location and status of any individual greyhound in an environment where there is significant movement during its life cycle.
The specification of the traceability model is all-encompassing and robust in tracking every life event of a greyhound and will require significant input from participants and management from regulators. The ICC is committed to supporting the IGB traceability model and has significant capability to offer to ensure the industry as a whole provides an appropriate solution to the knowledge gap that prevails, which must be remedied. As the committee is aware, the ICC operates the Irish greyhound stud book on an all-Ireland basis and has developed strong information links with the Greyhound Board of Great Britain, which will assist in supporting the traceability model.
The ICC stud book records pedigrees, matings and transfer of ownership and has never purported to be a traceability system. The ICC has significant information available to it as it records all matings, births, namings, transfers of ownership and issues identity cards for all thoroughbred greyhounds on the island of Ireland. Currently, all litters are inspected, tattooed and microchipped via ICC control stewards who also act as authorised welfare officers under the Welfare of Greyhounds Act 2011. The ICC issues greyhound breeding establishment licences as per the Welfare of Greyhounds Act 2011. The information required for a functioning traceability system is paramount, and as the tender process concludes, the ICC will provide support and expertise to ensure the systems are effective in delivering the desired outcomes. The ICC considers the inclusion of Northern Ireland as necessary for traceability, given movement of greyhounds between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and this comes under our remit.
The ICC has enhanced its prohibited substance testing regime over recent years following a complete review of all processes, sanctions and scope. The cases are pleaded before an independent hearing committee and adjudicated upon by an administrative body that is subject to judicial review. While not a court of law it is required to act lawfully. Its members include a solicitor, veterinary surgeon and one other and all decisions are subject to appeal. The sanctions available to the independent hearing committee include financial penalties with a maximum permissible fine of €13,000 and exclusion orders. In the 2018 to 2019 season, a total of 149 tests took place and 98% reported negative. Of the three cases that proved positive, the greyhounds were suspended in each case for a period of six months during a coursing season and fines of €4,000 were levied on responsible persons, with one outstanding case due to be heard in January 2020. The purpose of testing and the associated penalties is to protect the welfare of the greyhound, to protect the integrity of coursing, to maintain public confidence in coursing, to maintain proper standards for all coursing participants, and to bring about a positive behavioural change. A sanction may be accompanied by an advisory notice to point out what changes in behaviour or attitude are required. The ICC operates a code of practice for the hare and the greyhound, and this is supported by the code of practice that operates under the Welfare of Greyhounds Act 2011. As with any code, it is the heightened standard the industry expects of participants while observing the legal statutory provisions as per the Welfare of Greyhounds Act 2011, the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 and the rules of the ICC.
On illegal hunting, at the previous committee meeting of 9 July, there was Whiddy Island footage portrayed as illegal on the "Prime Time" programme and coloured with footage from some third-party event. This matter is the subject of legal correspondence and therefore I do not propose to comment on it today. Illegal hunting is ongoing throughout the country and is very easily identifiable from a layman's perspective. The perpetrators typically travel in gangs with unmuzzled dogs. They enter lands uninsured without landowner permission, with the intent of killing the hare or multiple hares at any time of the year. They use this opportunity to conduct criminal acts such as theft, trespass and assault. The Garda, National Parks and Wildlife Service, and interested parties such as the IFA and the ICC are working diligently on this issue. Coursing clubs provide support with intelligence and monitoring of hare habitat. There have been a number of convictions recently by the authorities.
On rehoming, the ICC provides administrative support to the Irish Retired Greyhound Trust, IRGT, and other homing agencies by way of transfer of ownerships and microchip cert reissuance free of charge. We deal with numerous queries relating to rehoming and ensure all matters are dealt with in a professional manner. The Irish Retired Greyhound Trust has homed coursing greyhounds and the ICC met the committee of the IRGT recently to discuss how the ICC can contribute on a more formal basis by identifying new homing opportunities and providing financial support. It is unrealistic and inefficient to establish a separate trust and structure to home coursing greyhounds versus track greyhounds solely given the high level of crossover of people who partake in both codes. A new feature will be to note when a greyhound is homed on the registration system, so it will be evident when a greyhound is homed. The ICC has established a sub-committee to progress welfare and proposes funding measures to include prize money deductions, fundraising events, sponsorship and legacies to assist the IRGT in its work. All the foregoing is to be further agreed with the IRGT. Given the staggered start and restricted meetings this season due to rabbit haemorrhagic disease, RHD2, virus surveillance and monitoring, it was not possible to introduce the prize money deduction initiative this season, but a fundraiser will take place at the national meeting in 2020 to support homing initiatives, and such events will become an annual feature.
The ICC recognises the importance of a working traceability system with all responsible parties playing their part to ensure the industry can withstand scrutiny from any quarter regardless of agenda. The IGB has released the Indecon report, which has had significant implications for the overall industry, in particular the proposed closure of four tracks. These changes will contract both the number of participants and breeders overall in the industry, and the long-term implications of this strategy require comprehensive analysis by both codes and stakeholders when settling the detail of an overall industry welfare strategy. The ICC will always do what is required to ensure the future of the industry, although we do not have a statutory role per seor receive State funding.
I thank Mr. Histon for his progress report. There is a line about maintaining public confidence in coursing. That is the job that the ICC has to do. I see that 98% of the tests were negative but 2% were positive. There is a substantial fine, considering that the prize money for coursing is at a low level. I suggest that when people who definitely transgress and then have a second transgression for doping, the trainer or owner of the dog in question should also be suspended. There is no mention of that happening in Mr. Histon's report. At the end of the day, the person responsible for the dog has doped it. There can be no tolerance of that in the industry going forward. I fully respect that the ICC is very serious about doping and ensuring that no doping is happening in the industry. If doping is found to have happened, both the dog and the person responsible for it should receive a suspension.
On revenue for the rehoming of dogs, the IGB was here a couple of weeks ago. It was taking a percentage of gate receipts, of the tote takings and from the restaurant. I fully accept that coursing is a completely different industry, held in the open. There are definitely no restaurants in coursing fields. Mr. Histon said that because of the delay in the start this year, there is no deduction from the prize money.
I see the ICC is proposing a collection at the national coursing meeting. I respectfully suggest that the national coursing meeting is extremely well attended and there are extremely large crowds, so it would definitely be worthwhile putting a surcharge on the admission. When coursing was under threat this year due to the virus that was present in the rabbit population, the worth of the meeting to the town of Clonmel was well quoted. It is worth €12 million to €15 million to Clonmel. I propose placing a surcharge on admissions to the national coursing meeting so that a reasonable amount of money could be contributed by the ICC to the IGB's efforts for the rehoming of dogs. I accept that there is duplication and while duplication of rehoming of dogs is definitely not the way to go, looking after dogs after their racing lives is expensive. The ICC has to show that it is contributing as much as it can to ensure that we can show the public at large that greyhounds are being looked after throughout their lives when they are finished racing.
Illegal hunting is a serious problem in my part of the country. While I know there are some prosecutions under way, it is not nearly enough. The hare population is being threatened by it. We see pictures of ten and 12 hares being held up after being killed on a single day with these lurchers hunting across the countryside. It is a problem given the closure of Garda stations, although we are not going start arguing about that here. The fact is that it happens in rural areas and the nearest squad car can be a long way away when people report that there is a gang in their locality. Even aside from the number of hares that are being killed, people feel very vulnerable with these gangs roaming the countryside. There definitely has to be a lot more focus on it. Garda resources are an issue and there are even problems in that the gardaí cannot seize the dogs. They have to have a dog warden with them to seize the dogs if they catch them, so it needs to be co-ordinated. We have looked for the Department to come in to us on animal welfare. This issue has to be stamped out. Everyone likes to have the hare in its natural environment in the countryside but if a gang comes in with eight or ten lurchers, the hares have no chance. That illegal hunting is intolerable. We have to put more resources into ensuring that it is stamped out completely.
I welcome the progress report and fully accept that the ICC recognises that we have to restore public confidence in the sport. Getting financial resources behind welfare is key. There is a captive crowd in Clonmel and I would respectfully suggest that use should be made of it to ensure that there is a reasonable fund to achieve our objectives as regards welfare.
On traceability, in the presentation it was stated that the ICC considered inclusion of the North of Ireland as necessary given the movement of greyhounds between this State and the Six Counties and that this comes under its remit. Could Mr. Histon explain what way that works at the moment, what is in place and what the ICC intends doing? I can see the logic in it and that a traceability regime would not work if it simply stopped at a stream, bridge or ditch.
If I could comment on the seizure of the 12 greyhounds at Dublin Port, they were all registered with the Irish Greyhound Stud and apparently some of them had been racing. Obviously that is of great concern. While there may be issues in terms of the programme that was shown on RTÉ some months ago, nobody would dispute that there are serious animal welfare issues in the industry. Coursing is fairly strong in my part of the country, and I hope that the coursing clubs would be vigilant and play their part in turning things around for the welfare of dogs and animals.
We had the IGB here a couple of weeks ago. Figures were provided at that meeting on the number of dogs that died at IGB events. Does Mr. Histon have figures on the number of dogs dying at coursing events? Does that happen? I note there is some correspondence between the ICC and the Department on hares that died through the coursing events. Are there any figures on deaths of dogs?
Going back to traceability, which I know is in its infancy and has not even come into being yet, given that the IGB will be running the model but the ICC runs the stud book, can we have more detail on how the two organisations will go about correlating the stud book and the new system of traceability?
Mr. D.J. Histon:
The first issue Deputy Cahill raised was testing. He indicated he would like to see greater sanctions against the owner, trainer or responsible person. As I intimated in my submission, it is an independent committee that delivers the sanctions. A wide array of sanctions is available to the committee, including exclusion orders against the individuals in question. Where we differ from other jurisdictions is that we suspend the greyhound immediately once the dog has tested positive. Pending a hearing, we suspend the dog immediately with a maximum period of six months in a coursing season. We have recently changed the rule for this season that in the event of a greyhound being found in breach of rule 88, it is not entitled to run in any further classic event. This limits the dog's competing ability so it is a fairly serious sanction. For a repeat offender, the fines are automatically ramped up and exclusion orders are available for the committee to invoke. We are independent of that so we do not issue the sanctions. We will certainly take on board the Deputy's point. I agree that we do not want people in the industry who are going to breach the rules and bring the sport into disrepute.
In terms of revenue and support to the retired greyhound trust, IRGT, as I said we currently provide a significant amount of administrative work which is quite time consuming. It is all very necessary and we are very happy to do it. As the Deputy said, we do not have the luxury of restaurants or other such facilities, unfortunately. From the prize money end, on a rough count it would come to about €900,000 in the round each year for all coursing meetings and all events at every coursing meeting. We would be looking at a 5% contribution from that. The Deputy is correct that the national meeting is certainly a good vehicle for fundraising given the large numbers who attend. We will certainly take on board his suggestion about a levy on the admission charge or some other way that would make a meaningful contribution to the IRGT, which does great work. I was involved with many of the welfare bodies in my previous role and have a good relationship with them.
There is no point in us all trying to fight for the same space. We should work together to increase the number of homes available for all greyhounds, be they coursing or track dogs.
Illegal hunting will always be an issue. It is very difficult to police because it can happen any time of the day or night anywhere in the country. As we know, the resources of the Garda and National Parks and Wildlife Service are limited. We held a joint meeting with the Irish Farmers Association, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the ISPCA, the PSNI and the NPWS. It was a very good meeting because we all set out our stalls with regard to how illegal hunting impacts on the various bodies and the best way to combat it. The PSNI gave an outline of Operation Lepus, which was how the authorities in the North tried to tackle illegal hunting. Good information was shared. The superintendent in Swords gave a good outline of how the Garda in the area has tackled the issue. The superintendent in Kildare is also very focused on this issue and has brought a number of prosecutions. The NPWS has established a memorandum of understanding with the ISPCA, as the Deputy mentioned. Seizing the dogs is a difficulty. The problem is that dogs that are seized must be held and the court case can take a long time. To all intents and purposes, the dogs would probably be given back to the owners after the court case but there is an expense involved in keeping and maintaining the dogs during that time. There is no easy solution to the problem.
Deputy Stanley asked how we include Northern Ireland. The stud book we operate includes Northern Ireland, so it includes all thoroughbred greyhounds on the island. We also regulate the greyhound tracks. There are two greyhound tracks in the North that sit outside the IGB remit. As a semi-State body, the IGB's reach does not go beyond the Border, as the Deputy said. From that perspective, all the greyhounds are in the same system. They are in the stud book and in the race management system operated by the IGB. If a dog races in Northern Ireland, it is automatically on the IGB system. At all times, therefore, information is available on dogs' performances. Typically, a greyhound that races in Drumbo Park near Belfast would also race in Dundalk or Shelbourne Park and a dog that races in Derry would race in Lifford or another track in the west on this side of the Border. That crossover occurs naturally in any case.
Mr. Histon stated that the Irish Coursing Club issues greyhound breeding establishment licences as per the Welfare of Greyhounds Act 2011 and referred to a functioning traceability system. Will he elaborate on how that operates?
Mr. D.J. Histon:
Greyhound breeding establishments are covered by the Welfare of Greyhounds Act 2011. If a person holds four or more brood bitches, he or she must hold a greyhound breeding establishment licence. We issue that licence.
I was also asked about the seizure of 12 greyhounds over the weekend by Revenue's customs officials. The controls in place worked because the shipment or transport did not take place and was caught where it should be caught, namely, at the port. The case is being investigated by the IGB and, I am sure, the Department. A number of issues arise related to the transport authorisation that is required under the EU transport regulations and the requirement to have Balai certificates and pet passports. There may also be issues under the Animal Health and Welfare Act and the Welfare of Greyhounds Act. There are a number of Acts in play that may or may not impact on this particular transport.
There is a concern that large numbers of greyhounds are being bred that are surplus to requirements. Some of the 12 greyhounds in the recent case had been used in racing. If the industry is well regulated, it is a matter of concern that some of the people involved in the sector, be it in coursing or track racing, which falls under the remit of the Irish Greyhound Board, decided to move these dogs outside the country or on to a third party to have them moved out of the country. What can the ICC do to curtail or stop this practice?
Mr. D.J. Histon:
Ireland has always been a breeding nation. We do not know the full detail of this case involving 12 greyhounds. We do not know what the owner's intentions were so I cannot comment on the case.
With regard to what the ICC and the industry can do about the issue, we could look to Australia for example. Greyhounds Australasia covers all greyhound territories in Australia and New Zealand. The organisation set up an export passport programme, which does not have statutory effect in that it is not federal law in Australia. It obligates an owner to complete a greyhound export form that outlines where the dog is to be sent, where it will reside and the purpose of the sale. Greyhounds Australasia did a review of every country to which Australian greyhounds were being exported and examined the welfare in each of those countries using certain criteria. These countries were then ranked and greyhound passports were no longer issued for export to countries that did not meet the export criteria. The owner, however, could still send the dog to these countries under federal law. The same applies here in respect of EU law and world trade law. This process added another layer of bureaucracy and put greater focus on exporting dogs to countries that may not necessarily have the appropriate welfare standards. The World Greyhound Racing Federation operated until some years ago and all the regulated greyhound racing jurisdictions were members. The organisation has waned in the past seven or eight years. There should be an appetite to reinvent it, harmonise welfare in all the member countries and agree what is and is not good practice in exporting to countries that may not necessarily have proper regulatory regimes or welfare regulations. That matter was discussed recently at a meeting in London with the Greyhound Board of Great Britain. I believe it also takes the view that it would be good to re-establish that organisation to get all those learnings into one place. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. If Australia has done something, for example, let us try to utilise its experience and apply it in each jurisdiction for the betterment of the industry in each area.
Deputy Pringle asked a question about the number of deaths. We have a clear record on the number of deaths of hares. We have very few fatalities. I do not have a number for the Deputy but it is extremely low because in coursing there are only two dogs at each course or event. In track racing, however, eight dogs will race in Australia and six dogs will race in Ireland. There are also different scenarios involved, with running on bends and so on whereas in coursing it is just a straight run up the field. The chances of injury are minimised for that reason alone.
Mr. D.J. Histon:
He asked how the ICC will marry in with the traceability system. Currently, we provide daily all details on ownership and breeding to the IGB so we feed information to it. We met the IGB recently. It will introduce a microchipping and testing IT solution for all its tracks, as it indicated previously to the committee. We are working with it to provide the information it needs to run that. This system will involve displaying the identity card of the greyhound on a screen. The microchip will then be scanned and the dog will be shown on the screen. I do not want to speak on behalf of the IGB but that is the gist of what the system will deliver.
We are more than willing to play our part. As I have said all along, we are part of the industry and we want to play our part. We will do anything we can do for the betterment of the industry and the decent owners out there who are willing to do it. We will not be found wanting in that regard.
Reference was made to the fact that illegal hunting activities are ongoing throughout the country and that it is very easily identifiable from a layman's perspective. As a layman, I do not know anything about coursing. How is it easily identifiable? If it is a coursing club event, then people from the ICC are present, but if I came across illegal hunting taking place, I would not want to confront them. How do I find out if the event is legal or not?
Mr. D.J. Histon:
Probably the simplest way to describe it is that the dogs of those engaged in illegal hunting do not wear muzzles and, typically, they are not greyhounds. They enter the lands without permission, they do have any insurance and they could allow anywhere between two and five dogs to go after one animal, or they may very well let two hounds off the leash and then after a period release two further dogs to pursue the same hare. The end result is the death of the hare. From that point of view, the muzzle alone is the first thing one would look for. I have never seen an illegal hunting event taking place where the dogs wore muzzles.
Mr. Histon outlined the measures in place in Australia concerning the export of greyhounds. He also made a comment on international trade and the laws in that regard. There has been a proposed Bill on the export of Irish greyhounds, which includes the establishment of a white list of countries to which it is in order to export greyhounds on the basis that they meet certain welfare standards. Given Mr. Histon's knowledge of the international legal backdrop, what is his assessment on how that measure would stand up and if it would be possible to introduce it here?
Mr. D.J. Histon:
A white list will not stack up in terms of EU regulation or world trade. That is where the issue arises. At the same time, I still see merit in going down that road in terms of at least educating the greyhound public that certain countries are on a white list, even though the measure might not necessarily have the full legal effect one might like it to have. I hark back to Australia in that regard as well. Even though it does not have the backing of federal law, they still go to the bother of making an owner get a greyhound passport and giving all the details. It is a case of putting it to the forefront. Equally, what is important as well is that there is an opportunity to try to bring the countries identified as not being on the white list into alignment with proper welfare standards. Australia has done that as well. It has engaged with the countries that have fallen short in respect of correct welfare standards to try to bring them up to the right level. It is up to the countries concerned to engage on the issue, but there is an opportunity to raise all boats, so to speak, in regard to exports. Rather than saying we do not want to know anything about the country, let us see if we can help in any way and come from a positive point of view rather than a negative one.
As there are no further questions, we will complete this section of the meeting. I thank Mr. Histon very much for coming before the committee today and for his co-operation during the year. We had a number of meetings during the year on a very difficult subject and he was available at short notice on a number of occasions. That was very much appreciated. We will suspend the meeting until the next group of witnesses come in for the next part of the meeting. I wish Mr. Histon all the best for Christmas and the New Year.