Thursday, 11 March 2010
Field Sport Regulation.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me time to discuss this important matter, namely the need for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to reconsider the regulation of field sports including stag hunting. I am shocked to see on his website the no-holes-barred assertion that the Green Party intends to attack coursing and fox hunting and secure a legislative ban on all blood sports. Has he considered whether he can afford such misguided aspirations in the current economic climate? Can he survive the anger of those involved in the sector?
As in most things, we know there is no consensus with his party's partner in government, Fianna Fáil. Despite the additions to the forthcoming Animal Health and Welfare Bill, which include a commitment to ban stag hunting, Fianna Fáil Deputy Batt O'Keeffe said recently in an article in The Avondhu that there was no Government proposal or Bill to ban stag hunting.
I would be obliged if the Minister of State could clarify the Government's position on this very important issue for rural communities. I would be delighted if he could tell me that I have been misled and that there is no threat to field sports, including stag hunting.
Research indicates that hunting had an economic value of €111.6 million in 2007, broken down as follows: game shooting, €41.7 million; hunting with hounds, €34.2 million; coursing, €26.2 million; deer shooting, €8.9 million; and falconry, €0.6 million. I cannot emphasise strongly enough the devastation to the sporting, economic, leisure and tourism activities of any ban on field sports, hare coursing and stag hunting. Any such move would be detrimental to the country as a whole and the countryside in particular.
I can assure the Minister of State that any attempt to ban hunting, which is a strong tradition in rural Ireland going back centuries and many generations, would be a threat to the rural way of life and would be strongly resisted by rural people, and indeed people living in towns who participate in the sport. The voices of the 300,000 field sports members would be loud in opposition.
Deer and fox hunting have a long history in this country since the 19th century and earlier. The Ward Union Hunt, the only licensed stag hunt in the country, covers areas of north County Dublin, together with south and east Meath. The Ward Union Hunt maintains its own herd of 150 red deer. They hunt stags, which are not generally killed but are recaptured and returned to the herd. The stag is checked before and after the hunt and stress levels recorded. Each stag is hunted only once a year and is checked by Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government wildlife officers and veterinarians. The Ward Union Hunt has 200 members and contributes €1.4 million to the economy annually.
With 27,000 members of the National Association of Regional Game Councils in 926 clubs, the Minister can assess the impact of any attempt to curtail or prohibit field sports of this nature. In my constituency of Longford-Westmeath there are 2,000 members of the National Association of Regional Game Councils, with 800 affiliated to the Longford Shooting and Conservation Council, LSCC, and 1,200 affiliated to the Westmeath Regional Game Council.
Hunting creates a sense of community in rural areas. It joins farmers and sports people in the unity of a common recreational purpose and tradition.
The Fine Gael Party will strongly oppose any change to the existing licensing arrangements for stag and fox hunting. Any new regulations made by the Minister, or his Government, will be reversed.
Under the renewed programme for Government, which was published last October, the Government included a ban on stag and fox hunting in the forthcoming Animal Health and Welfare Bill. While the initial target is stag hunting, groups such as anglers see the ban as a prelude to a wider and more aggressive so-called green agenda in the future. This could be the end of country-side recreation as we know it and another blow to our already hard-hit tourism industry.
This is the second attack the Minister has made on field sports. The first one to restrict hare coursing was unsuccessful. The restrictions put in place on the carted stag hunt rendered hunting impossible.
It is ironic that a Minister with an avowed objective to ban hunting is in charge of the regulation of hunting. It is doubly ironic that such a Minister is a city dweller, with little feel for rural life.
I ask the Minister of State to reconsider the adverse implications of this ill-considered threat to field sports, hare coursing and the Ward Union carted stag hunt. I do not know what he hopes to gain from the interference in a well-regulated sporting activity. However, I am aware of the great losses that would be incurred by sporting organisations, tourists and our economy.
The Minister of State's Government has presided over the rape of the countryside. It has destroyed the farming sector and left rural areas without viable infrastructure, transport, health and educational facilities through lack of funding.
Tony Killeen (Minister of State with special responsibility for Forestry, Fisheries and the Marine, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Clare, Fianna Fail)
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The renewed programme for Government includes a commitment to ban the practice of stag hunting. I should explain that under existing wildlife legislation the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government can issue a licence for the hunting of deer by a pack of hounds. As the Deputy is no doubt aware, there is now only one hunt club in the State which continues to hunt deer using a pack of hounds and horses. The Minister issued a licence to this hunt club to hunt deer with a pack of hounds for the 2009-2010 season which will end on 31 March of this year.
The Government considers that this hunting practice should cease for animal welfare and public safety reasons. A large proportion of the Irish public consider such activity is no longer acceptable. The Deputy may recall an incident some years ago when a deer pursued by a pack of hounds entered a school yard during the school day. Since then, there have been other public safety incidents involving deer in flight leaping through hedges onto public roads during the hunt. On one occasion recently, towards the end of 2009, a stag had to be euthanised following a collision with a vehicle on a public road. Incidents like these are clearly a potential danger to the general public.
Last year, the Government approved the drafting of legislation to prohibit the hunting of deer by a pack of hounds. I want to make it clear that this legislation will not have any implications for other country pursuits such as fox-hunting, hare coursing or deer stalking. Hunting with harriers and beagles will still be permitted and therefore foxhound, harrier and beagle hunting associations in the State can continue to operate as before as this legislation will not impact on them.
The legislation will increase the maximum fines that could be imposed on a person following a conviction for an offence under the Wildlife Act. The penalties were last increased in 2000. For example, the current maximum fine of €500 will be increased to €1,000 while the €50,000 will increase to €100,000. It is the Minister's intention to publish the legislation very soon.