Thursday, 18 October 2007
I thank the Acting Chairman for allowing me to raise this issue. I also thank the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for being present. I understand the Minister is considering a request from the Ward Union hunt for a licence to hunt domesticated deer with packs of hounds. I have a number of concerns which I hope the Minister will consider when making his decision.
I am aware the Attorney General has given the view that because section 26(1) of the Wildlife Act 1976 refers to a licence to hunt deer, this reference alone makes it irrelevant whether the deer are wild or domesticated. However, I wish to draw the Minister's attention to the alternative view that the Wildlife Act 1976 in its entirety, in particular the part which contains section 26, deals exclusively with wild animals and the reference to "deer" is of course intended to refer to wild deer, not farmed, domesticated deer. It is, after all, a Wildlife Act, a point I hope the Minister will accept.
I draw attention to the report of the then Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry's veterinary inspector, Mr. K. W. S. Kane, originally obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, of which I then placed a copy in the Oireachtas Library. Mr. Kane's report states: "As the Red Deer at Green Park are obviously not wild animals it is equally hard to see how they fall into the ambit of the Wildlife Act, 1976 which specifically refers to 'Wildlife' defined therein as meaning 'fauna and flora', the word 'fauna' being further defined as meaning 'wild animals'." The Department inspector, an expert in his field, also states: "As the Red Deer herd ... [has been] maintained in captivity [by the Ward Union hunt] for something in the region of 150 years and is augmented regularly by stock from captive herds farmed solely for venison production, it is hard to see how they avoid falling into the category of 'domestic animal' for the purposes of the Protection of Animals Acts, 1911 and 1965." The inspector's conclusion is as follows: "It could be argued ... that the stags are domestic animals and do not fall within the ambit of the Wildlife Act, 1976 and thus that the hunts contravene the Protection of Animals Acts, 1911 and 1965."
It was for the same reason that in the same year, 1997, the department of agriculture in the North, having taken legal and veterinary advice, decided to regard such deer as domestic animals and hunting them as an act of cruelty. It proceeded to outlaw the practice in the North.
In a Dáil reply to me yesterday, the Minister stated the Department has never granted a wildlife dealer's licence to the Ward Union hunt, despite the fact it maintains a large herd of red deer. Surely this is further evidence that we are not dealing with wild animals but farmed, domestic, tame animals. If so, let us examine what happens to them during the hunt. For the sake of accuracy, I will quote directly from the Department inspector's report, where he refers to stags being terrified, apparently distressed and exhausted, and concludes the hunt "must be terrifying and stressful to the animal". My case is that there must be, at the very least, a serious concern that the hunting with packs of hounds of these tame, domesticated deer causes unnecessary suffering to the animals and must therefore be in breach of the Protection of Animals Act 1911.
I have been present to monitor the activities of the Ward Union Hunt and witnessed Mr. Bailey, Mr. Ronan and others like them at their entertainment. In terror of the hounds, the deer frantically tries to stay in front of them but, being in unfamiliar territory, the route is hazardous and it crashes through hedges, jumps over walls and ditches, crosses busy roads and even runs down busy streets. It is a gruelling ordeal which can last for up to three hours and result in tears, bruises, bites, lameness and exhaustion.
Veterinary documents obtained by the Irish Council Against Blood Sports under the Freedom of Information Act have exposed some of the fatalities arising from the Ward Union Hunt's activities, including a deer which died as a result of fractured ribs, two deer which died from ruptured aortic aneurysms, a deer which drowned in a quarry and a deer which collapsed and died after desperately trying to escape over an 8 ft. high wall. When the animal becomes so depleted it can no longer run, hunt members move in to tackle it violently to the ground.
I hope the Minister will consider the issues I have raised, as he must clearly recognise that this activity involves terrifying an animal unnecessarily, which is in breach of the Protection of Animals Act.
I thank Deputy Gregory for raising this matter. Section 26(1) of the Wildlife Act 1976, as amended, provides that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government may grant to the master or other person in charge of a pack of stag hounds a licence authorising the hunting of deer by that pack during such period as specified in the licence. I know there are different views as to whether activities of the Ward Union Hunt are licensable, given that the deer owned by the hunt are considered domesticated animals. Accordingly, my Department obtained legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General which confirms the previous interpretation of section 26, to the effect that this section provides for the licensing of carted deer hunting irrespective of the status of the deer, wild or captive.
The Ward Union Hunt made an application to my Department in August 2007 for a licence under section 26 for the coming season. My Department wrote to the hunt on 10 September advising that I was considering not granting a licence to the hunt due to serious concerns relating to conservation and the protection of stags generally and failure to comply with previous licence conditions. I am aware that Deputy Gregory has attended hunt meetings as an observer. Officials of my Department then met with representatives of the Ward Union Hunt on 18 September and strong concerns put to the hunt representatives were discussed. Subsequently, the Ward Union Hunt responded by letter of 28 September.
I wish to see a number of issues clarified with the Ward Union Hunt and my Department will write to the hunt shortly. Following a further response from the hunt on these issues, I will be in a position to make a decision on the licence application.
Animal welfare and legal protection of animals from cruelty are the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The programme for Government includes a commitment to introduce a comprehensive animal welfare Bill, which will update existing legislation to ensure the welfare of animals is properly protected and penalties for offenders are increased significantly.