Thursday, 23 June 2016
Animal Protection (in relation to hares) Bill 2015: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Once again the Dáil has an opportunity to put an end to the cruel practice of live hare coursing. There is no doubt that it is cruel and it is animal abuse. I am struck by a number of contradictions. We live in a country of great natural beauty and yet we treat animals like hares appallingly. The contradiction and irony, which I have mentioned already, is that we have the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht issuing licences to capture and net hares. How is it part of the artistic and cultural agenda of the country to net hares, keep them in captivity for several weeks before releasing them into a field to be chased and hunted by the greyhound?
There is also the contradiction of calling this a sport because sport is about fairness, skill, talent and matching people or teams of pretty similar ability or standard of play. When I look at coursing, I look at a small, slight animal versus a much bigger and stronger animal - the average weight of the hare is about 6 lbs while the average weight of a greyhound is more than 60 lbs. I have used the analogy of it being like asking Katie Taylor to get into the ring with a Mike Tyson figure or a sumo wrestler.
There is also the contradiction that the hare is a protected species under the Wildlife Act and yet we allow wanton cruelty to it. There is a contradiction that we have an Animal Health and Welfare Act, the ethos of which is to prevent cruelty and unnecessary suffering to animals and yet it exempts hares.
I will put the other contradiction in the form of a question. There are owners of greyhounds who dislike coursing and yet in order to register their greyhounds for racing, they have to do so with the Irish Coursing Club. Even though they object to their money being used for coursing, they have to support that organisation financially.
The other contradiction is that we pride ourselves on our uniqueness. We are unique in many ways, we are special and there is a special sense of Irishness but there is another way in which we are unique, which is most certainly not special. We are one of only three countries in Europe that have live hare coursing. We are the only country in these isles with live hare coursing because it is banned in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
We should look at the facts that are documented year after year. We get these facts from various sources, including rangers from the National Parks and Wildlife services, who do not have enough rangers to cover all of the coursing meetings, from vets and from coursers. It is not a surprise that there are discrepancies in the reports from rangers and coursers even though they are describing the same meeting. These facts are sourced through freedom of information with great difficulty. I have to ask why it is so difficult to get the facts. At one meeting, the ranger reported that 14 hares were hit, six badly, with one dying of injuries and three put down. At the same meeting, the coursers reported 12 hares "requiring assistance", which is a euphemism for hares being hit and mauled. At another coursing event, the ranger's report said there were five hares struck by dogs but the courser's report said there were two hares requiring assistance. If the coursers are prepared to minimise the number of incidents when they know the ranger is there, how can they be depended on to report accurately when the ranger is not there?
In December 2015, there were many meetings from which we have reports. I will only give a sense of them. In one, there were seven hares struck, three dying of injuries. In another one, there were three hares stuck, with two being put down. In another, six hares were mauled, three were put down and five needed treatment by the vet. There are similar figures every single year and they are examples of wanton cruelty. When people who have concerns about animal welfare try to enter the meetings to film them, they are subject to harassment and intimidation but nevertheless they persist. There is very significant video footage of hares being mauled in which we can hear the screeches of pain from them. It is available on social media to be seen or heard. Coursing clubs are known to make the work of the rangers difficult, which is to ensure that rules and regulations as per the licence are applied. I acknowledge the work that the Irish Council Against Blood Sports, ICABS, has done. At a particular coursing meeting, people from the ICABS managed to film it but ended up being assaulted by a courser and having the camera taken from them. When the camera was returned by the gardaí, the memory card was missing. At that meeting, the hares were having trouble accessing escape and were pursued by the greyhounds for considerable lengths of time. There were no dates for hare captures at that particular meeting, which is required, so it is not known how long the coursers had those hares in their possession. There is also evidence of the inspectors being impeded in their work by the coursers. The cruelty does not just begin at the coursing meeting but much sooner when the licence to net hares is granted by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
In spite of the reports of the injuries and deaths of hares at coursing meetings and the extensive opposition to live hare coursing in this country and abroad, the licences continue to be issued and hares are snatched from their natural habitat. Even though there have been breaches of the Wildlife Act regarding the netting and the licences, which I have brought to the attention of the Minister, she continues to issue licences. If a night club or pub breached the terms of its licence, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for it to have its licences renewed but this is not the case when it comes to coursing. Our Minister does not appear to have any qualms and the attitude is to carry on regardless. Why would people stick to the terms of the licence when they know they can get away with doing what they like, when they like, which is exactly what they do?
I am also getting very disturbing information from concerned people in rural Ireland about the use of technology, of lasers and smoke bombs being used to capture hares. I am told there is an extremely lucrative hare trade.
While the greyhounds cannot bite the hares, they have very sharp, long nails. One should imagine those nails eating into one's skin and body. Serious injuries also occur through collision and through the tossing of the hares. I am not making this up - we have video and photographic evidence of all of this. Less apparent are the effects of stress myopathy, which is a life threatening condition for the hare during captivity. It is the vets who give me the information on this.
After netting and during and after the chase, and for those fortunate enough to escape, the vet for the Irish Coursing Club stated, "it is impossible to completely avoid stress in hares once you manhandle them and take them out of their natural environment." The stress starts, he explains, from the minute one takes the hare out of its form until it is landed in the net. That is followed by rough handling, boxing and transporting - all alien to a small creature used to the freedom of the fields. Another vet made the point that, "under the influence of stress, the hare's immune system is compromised. Hares are significantly stressed when corralled and coursed, and this combination of circumstances has resulted in the deaths of hares."
There are landowners and farmers who are against netting who are against having their farms and their lands invaded by those out to net and trap the hares, but there is no protection for them as they object to the netting. We have confirmation, for example, in one year, when two golf clubs, one semi-State body, a caravan park and a monastic centre had hares netted and trapped on their lands without their permission and nothing was done about that. There was no recourse for them.
I stress there is an alternative to live hare coursing and we see that in Australia and in the United States with very successful rag coursing.
In the context of all that suffering for the hares, injuries to the greyhounds and opposition and criticism from landowners and farmers to the invasion of their lands, we still persist in this extremely inhumane practice. I read with incredulity the statements from some political parties, but I acknowledge I had written to all the Whips and three of them got back to me. One party is opposed to the infliction of cruelty to animals, especially for purposes of entertainment, but yet it will not support my Bill to ban live hare coursing. It believes that Ireland has coursing practices that are regulated to minimise unnecessary suffering to the animal. Another political party told me that there is an existing strict regulatory framework which ensures the highest animal welfare standards. My answer is, tell that to the hare. Tell the hare that the greyhound is muzzled and cannot kill it, that it can only toss it in the air and break its bones.
I am told there is enforcement of existing regulations and hares can only be collected for coursing by ICC affiliated clubs in accordance with the terms of the licence. I pointed out we have evidence that is not happening and it is all the more reason to stop this cruel practice.
Coursing is also allowed during adverse weather conditions. It was with great difficulty that we got a coursing meeting postponed because of adverse weather conditions. I would like to see stated in the licence, if we still have this, that coursing be suspended automatically during spells of freezing weather, hailstorms and heavy winds in the interest of the welfare of both the greyhound and the hare.
Two years ago, there were six greyhounds in the national hare coursing festival which tested positive for banned substances. Reading that, there is a really sinister dimension to hare coursing. There is no testing for illegal substances at the smaller coursing events. If there were, I wonder what would be found. So much for the animal-loving greyhound owners when they are using performance enhancing drugs for the greyhounds. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine should demand more testing or more regulation on this.
There are injuries to the greyhounds as well. We have a dreadful attitude towards greyhounds in this country also, and I will mention that. We had the recent debacle of greyhounds being shipped off to Macau where there are no animal welfare considerations whatsoever. I have met loads of greyhounds on these protests and they also are the most gentle of creatures. They, too, are being put in to an environment were they are expected to hunt and this is something that does not sit easy.
I ask those who go coursing what they do at the coursing meeting when the greyhound has raced and chased around the field after the hare and then finally catches it and tosses it into the air and then the hare falls. Is that when the cheering and the clapping starts? Is that when you collect your money from the betting that goes on?
Who is responsible for the injury and death of a protected species because the hare is protected under the Wildlife Act? Who is responsible when the hare is injured or when the hare dies from a greyhound? Is it the greyhound's owner? Is it the licensee of the event? Is it the landowner where the event is taking place? Is it the local authority? Is it the Department? Is it the Minister who signed the licence? We are coming to the point where somebody will take a case when hares are injured and killed, which is totally contrary to the Wildlife Act. Is cleachtadh cruálach é cúrsáil giorriacha agus tá sé dochreidte go bhfuil an cleachtadh seo ag leanúint ar aghaidh inniu. Nach bhfuil meas againn ar ár ndúlra agus ar ár n-oidhreacht?
We were told coming in to this Dáil that we would have a new politics and we would see many more free votes. This is an ideal opportunity to give free votes because there are Members who are against live hare coursing. I am aware there are Members who are for it but I believe in democracy. If we had a free vote, I believe it would be much fairer to this Bill I am proposing. I do not know what we are afraid of by giving a free vote on this issue. The sky will not fall if there is a ban on live hare coursing. Life will go on but it will be a much, much better life for both the hares and the greyhounds.
I am pleased to respond to the Deputy's Bill. For the record, I am the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht until an order is made to change the name and heritage has been part of my Department's remit for the past five years. In saying that the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has responsibility for hare coursing, there are other responsibilities within my Department and they have been there for some time.
First, I will set out for the House the legislative framework under which hare coursing operates. 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. Hare coursing is administered by the Irish Coursing Club, which is a body set up under the Greyhound Industry Act 1958. Hares are a protected species under the Wildlife Acts and may only be hunted by certain methods and during certain time periods as regulated under the open seasons order. The hunting methods allowed are shooting with firearms, coursing at regulated coursing matches and hunting with packs of beagles and harriers. Under this legislation hare coursing meetings are allowed between 26 September and the end of February of the following year. Licences are issued by my Department on an annual basis under the Wildlife Acts to the Irish Coursing Club, on behalf of their affiliated clubs, to facilitate the tagging and capturing of hares for the purpose of hare coursing during a given coursing season. The licences granted to the Irish Coursing Club include strict conditions which have been developed and refined over the years. My primary responsibility under the Wildlife Acts relates to the conservation of hares and that is why it falls under the heritage section of my Department.
In regard conservation, there is no current evidence that coursing has a significant effect on hare populations and the decision to issue licences has taken into consideration the final report of the status of hares in Ireland — Hare Survey of Ireland 2006/07, which estimated that the population of hares in Ireland was in the region of 535,000 in 2007.
In recent years, in considering licence applications from the Irish Coursing Club, my Department has taken account of the most recent conservation assessment in 2013 which was submitted to the European Commission on habitats and species. This report indicated that the Irish hare was considered widespread and common in Ireland and also stated that none of the threats, such as changing agricultural practices, are considered likely to impact on its conservation status in the foreseeable future.
Officials of the National Parks and Wildlife Service of my Department monitor coursing meetings, as resources allow, to ensure that the various conditions of the licences are adhered to. Veterinary officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine also attend some coursing meetings. In addition, the Irish Coursing Club ensures there is a veterinary and control steward present at all coursing meetings.
I should point out that since I took over responsibility for this area I have been active in ensuring that the conditions of the licences are enforced. For example, following the 2013-14 season, I threatened sanctions against two coursing clubs, Mallow and Liscannor, relating to non-co-operation with officials of my Department.
There have since been improvements in both clubs and this reflects the success in the monitoring regime in operation by my Department. In addition, I took further sanctions against two further clubs, Thurles and Doon, on foot of lack of co-operation with departmental officials during the 2014 and 2015 season. Subsequently, following a court conviction involving some Doon members, I was considering further sanctions against Doon when the Irish Coursing Club, ICC, cancelled the Doon meeting scheduled for last November. I welcome this decision by the ICC as it an indication of the seriousness with which it views the issue.
Those sanctions also highlight just how tightly controlled and regulated hare coursing is in Ireland. I remind the Deputies calling for an outright ban of the potential dangers of such action; it could drive coursing underground and the very real danger is that would result in unregulated coursing meetings, which would represent far greater dangers for the safety of hares. I know concerns have been raised that this has been the consequence of the ban in Northern Ireland. The Irish Coursing Club has applied for licences to capture and tag hares for the forthcoming 2016 and 2017 coursing season and these are under consideration. I am aware officials of my Department have raised a number of issues with the Irish Coursing Club following monitoring reports on meetings held during the 2015 and 2016 season. These matters will be further discussed at a meeting between officials of my Department and the Irish Coursing Club in the next few weeks. I do not rule out further sanctions against individual coursing clubs if it is warranted.
The Deputy's Bill is primarily aimed at the welfare of the hare. I assure the House that although my Department's primary responsibility relates to the conservation status of the Irish hare, many of the conditions attached to the licences issued by my Department to the ICC relate to the welfare of the hare. These strict conditions cover a range of areas on hare welfare and include providing data on hare captures and releases, having a veterinary surgeon in attendance at a coursing meeting, not coursing hares more than once per day, not coursing sick or injured hares, having adequate escapes for hares during coursing and releasing hares in daylight the day after the coursing meeting with the agreement of my officials.
The Irish Coursing Club also has extensive systems and practices in place to underpin the welfare of hares and greyhounds involved in coursing and it goes to great lengths to ensure the highest standards of welfare are adhered to. A monitoring committee on coursing is in place, comprising officials from my Department, the ICC and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to monitor developments in coursing and in that regard, this issue is kept under constant review to ensure that coursing is run in a well-controlled and responsible manner in the interests of both hares and greyhounds. With respect to the muzzling of greyhounds, although it is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, it is my understanding that the Irish Coursing Club has had mandatory muzzling of greyhounds at regulated coursing meetings since the early 1990s. The muzzling of greyhounds clearly assists in reducing the number of hare injuries.
Since my reappointment to Cabinet, the remit of my Department has been expanded to include both rural affairs and regional development. Members of the House will be aware that hare coursing is mainly a rural activity. There are between 70 and 80 meetings held around the country and in some cases, they attract thousands of people to rural towns. In many parts of the country, especially in Munster, it is an integral part of the sporting year. For example, the national hare coursing meeting in Clonmel attracts approximately 10,000 visitors and is estimated to be worth approximately €6 million to the local economy. Any proposal to ban live coursing would have a serious economic impact on such towns.
Our discussion is largely based around regulated coursing but in terms of conservation of the hare, there is a much greater issue to be considered, the practice of hare lurching, which appears to be on the increase in certain parts of the country. This illegal practice of hunting hares usually involves people entering farmland and bogs without permission, with one or more lurcher-type dogs. The number of people involved in the group can vary but usually groups of two to eight individuals are involved. The dogs are kept on leads and only released when a hare is flushed, whereupon the dogs chase and catch the hare, generally resulting in the death of the animal. The activity mostly occurs during daylight hours but may also take place at night. In many cases, it appears there are organised gangs involved in this illegal activity and many of them have no hesitation in using social media to display pictures of dead hares.
There have been a number of prosecutions in recent years taken by my Department and recently both my Department and an Garda Síochána have engaged in joint operations to apprehend individuals engaged in hare lurching and bring them to court. I understand that in some instances, it can be difficult to take prosecutions as some landowners may be reluctant to give evidence of illegal hunting on their lands due to intimidation or fear of reprisals. I do not have figures on the number of hares killed by illegal hare lurching but indications are that it could run into hundreds. I reiterate that it is this type of illegal activity that is far more harmful to hares than regulated coursing meetings.
I appreciate many individuals are opposed to hare coursing but, equally, for many rural communities, the activity is an integral part of their heritage. It is my job to find a balance. I have mentioned the muzzling of greyhounds as well as the conditions which my Department attaches to licences, all of which have demonstrated very positive outcomes for hares. My Department's responsibilities under the wildlife Acts relate to the conservation of the Irish hare and, as I have already stated, this is not under threat. The fact remains that due to the strict regulations in place, more than 99% of hares used in coursing are released back into the wild. I assure the House that my Department will continue to work with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the ICC to ensure the welfare of the hare is paramount during coursing meetings. I, therefore, recommend to the House that this Bill be rejected.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me the opportunity to say a few words on tonight's Private Members' business. I will not be supporting the Bill proposed, which would in effect ban hare coursing. My reason for this is a matter of conscience but it also comes after consultation with many of my constituents. This consultation has not occurred just over the past 48 to 72 hours but rather over a number of years, with the aim of promoting the safe practice of hare coursing. I also reject this Bill as there is already a strict regulatory framework in place that ensures the highest animal welfare standards and protections are in place in carrying out this sport.
The rural activity of government-regulated hare coursing has been persistently condemned in an attempt to ban regulated coursing. The groups doing this are small and are in the minority but they are visible. They have relied on exaggeration, misinformation and fabrication in order to gain attention from the media and appeal to politicians. My party and I take very seriously the issue of animal health and welfare. As someone who has dealt daily with animals, I strongly support any improvements in animal welfare and I have always been proud of the fact that Fianna Fáil made significant improvements in animal welfare when last in government. It continues to be at the forefront when it comes to improvements on issues regarding animal welfare.
Regulated coursing is, and has been, managed under the Irish Coursing Club, which was established in 1916. It is the central authority for more than 80 coursing clubs and they hold meetings once annually, typically over two days. Coursing is supervised by the National Parks and Wildlife Service under the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. This is all strictly monitored by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
I am of the firm belief that many people fail to differentiate between coursing and illegal hunting, referred to by the Minister as hare lurching. These are worlds apart in practice. Although it is not uncommon for many to mistake one as the other, it is important to clarify to the public the very real and important differences between regulated coursing and illegal hunting. As I have already stated, coursing is regulated fully by a number of bodies. Illegal hunting is completely unregulated and involves packs of unmuzzled dogs chasing any wildlife - sometimes livestock - for unlimited hours with the aim of killing it. Numerous Irish and EU wildlife laws are broken, including the killing of protected species, when illegal hunting is carried out. Coursing is all about the hare, which is a remarkable work of nature that has thrived for thousands of years on our island and will continue to flourish only with the assistance of coursing clubs and with the duty of care they provide for the hare.
It is the concern coursing clubs show for hare conservation that makes the sport so indispensable and unique. Without the efforts of coursing clubs and their members, the hare population would be without the significant layer of protection it currently enjoys from husbandry initiatives afforded by coursing clubs on a yearly basis. Without regulated coursing, there would be an increase in unregulated illegal hunting taking place throughout the year, with no organisation taking responsibility or interest in the overall well-being of the hare. Reports published on wildlife crime in the UK, where coursing has been outlawed, point to how the banning of regulated coursing in 2005 coincided with a dramatic increase in poaching by non-coursing people from criminal backgrounds.
In 2013, the Animal Health and Welfare Bill, which was enacted by the former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, was instrumental in overhauling the archaic animal protection laws that previously existed. This ensures that the welfare of all animals, including non-farm animals, is properly protected and penalties for offenders are increased significantly. It also copperfastened advances in how we treat our animals and tackled the threat of epidemics devastating our livestock. I believe from this that there is a sufficiently robust regulatory framework in place to ensure the highest animal welfare standards are maintained with respect to hare coursing.
Clubs affiliated to the Irish Coursing Club catches approximately 5,500 hares each coursing season, which is roughly 1% of the national hare population. More than 95% of the hares caught for hare coursing are returned to the wild each year. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has previously said that independent scientific studies have estimated that hare mortality during captivity and coursing in Ireland is equivalent to less than 0.1% of the total adult hare population annually. The sponsors of this Bill need to review the facts. There is no hard data or scientific evidence to prove the hare is an endangered species as a result of hare coursing. From speaking to people who have devoted their lives to coursing, they have all spoken about the resilience of the hare. It is equipped genetically to accommodate the chase. Regulated coursing presents the hare with no situation with which it is either unfamiliar or unequipped to deal. Coursing clubs have been, and will continue to be, deeply immersed in the conservation of the Irish hare population, always seeking new ways to improve conservation in the face of loss of habitat due to the advances of our modern world. This is despite the uninformed and unproven efforts to try and ban it when no proven alternative conservation programmes are in place for the hare.
The purpose of this Bill is to show Ireland's commitment to the rights of animals and that we are a country that follows the example of other civilised countries. We have always been world leaders when it comes to this issue. We have always worked in collaboration with the EU when it came to the conservation of natural habitats and continue to do so. We have always worked together with member states to form the same strong legislative framework in order to protect the most vulnerable species and habitat types across our continent. We continue to review the current animal welfare framework and we always seek ways, as a Parliament, to improve it. This is something that we have almost always had cross-party consensus on in this House.
Due to the Irish hare listing, the Department of Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht is obliged to take an assessment of animal conservation status every six years. Following the most recent assessment in 2013, the overall assessment with regard to the hare was that it was widespread and common in Ireland, with a broad habitat niche. There were no identified threats considered likely to impact on its conservation status. I am fully confident that the next review, which is due to be carried out in 2019, will show the population status of the Irish hare to be unchanged. This will in part be down to the work of the Irish Coursing Club and its member clubs in the work they carry out in preserving the hare.
I have the utmost respect for Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan who is sponsoring this Bill, although I am dumbfounded by many of those who are in favour of it. They have made the thousands of people who are supporters and fanatics of hare coursing out to be bloodthirsty people who get some sort of a kick out of blood sports. This is an unfair judgement on those who partake in hare coursing. At each coursing meeting, there is a vet present on the day to advise and administer care when required. Wildlife rangers are often in attendance to ensure that the 26 conditions of the licence are complied with. On conclusion of any given coursing meeting, all hares are released back into the wild under the supervision of the control steward. Each meeting is assessed by the general purpose meeting of the ICC, which determines whether any improvement action is required and also imposes sanctions if it feels they are necessary, as has already been indicated by the Minister. These are the actions of people who realise the duty of care and responsibility they have in preserving the hare. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan did not take into account the full facts before she rashly sponsored this Bill. The history of coursing in this country dates back many centuries. It is the bedrock of many small rural communities.The Deputy did not take this into account before she sponsored the Bill. She has listened to the views of one side but has failed to listen to those of the other.
Those who partake in coursing respect and love nature. They would not do anything that would harm it in any way. In many ways, they are more respectful of nature and endangered species than those who claim to be against blood sports, of which coursing is not one. Those who love coursing and love nature back up their words with actions. They go above and beyond the call of nature to ensure that no species is endangered. Coursing is so much to so many. It has been in families for generations. The traditions that coursing entails have been passed down from one generation to the next and I hope they will continue to do so for many years to come. If one attends any coursing meeting in this country like I do, one will see it is a sport that incorporates all ages. It is a sport that brings communities, families and friends together. The Irish Coursing Club has clear guidelines, ethics and regulations. It takes any threat to these as an attack on coursing itself. Coursing is important to the economies of many small towns and villages where yearly meetings are held. It brings people from far and wide together and it is an important source of income to local economies at a time when this is hard to come by.
The proposed amendments to the Wildlife Act are short-sighted and irresponsible and will have far-reaching repercussion that have not yet been considered by those proposing the ban. Those who support this Bill are unable to provide a viable alternative conservation strategy. These groups are also completely unconcerned about the issue of the illegal hunting of the Irish hare. We have debated this issue before in the Dáil, yet illegal hunting has never been brought up in this House by the sponsor of the Bill. I have grave concerns over the extent to which anti-coursing groups and their selected Deputies are sufficiently informed and there may be a rural-urban divide when it comes to the issue. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan has taken no notice of the vast improvements made in regulated coursing and has no interest in the Irish Coursing Club goal of ensuring the overall longevity of the species through its own conservation contributions and by assisting the Garda and the National Parks and Wildlife Service in combating the practice of illegal hunting. If coursing is outlawed in this country, the hare will no longer be a protected species and it will become a forgotten one. All proposals to ban hare coursing are poorly researched and are based on exaggerated facts and hysteria. I remind Deputies that there is still a week to go before we vote on this Bill. I encourage all Deputies to check the facts and properly inform themselves of the issues and then make a judgment call, rather making than a spur-of-the-moment decision based on emotion that is influenced by others and not themselves.
I see I have ten minutes, but I will not need that amount of time. While respecting the heartfelt views of the proposer, Sinn Féin does not support this Bill, which sets out to amend the Wildlife Act by proposing to ban hare coursing completely. A ban on hare coursing is not compatible with Sinn Féin policy. Our policy on this and all matters is based on motions decided at our Ard-Fheis. This issue was dealt with by a motion that was passed at our party's Ard-Fheis in 2010, after a passionate debate during which strong opinions were expressed on both sides of the argument, both for and against hare coursing.
Some rural practices may be distasteful to certain people and are often presented as cruel or abusive, as is the case here, as we have two opposing views on hare coursing. We believe Irish hare coursing practices should be properly regulated to ensure sustainable wildlife management and to minimise unnecessary suffering to all the animals involved. These regulated coursing meetings occur across the country in the winter months and are a part of rural life for the many who participate in these events. At a regulated hare coursing event, each chase is over a short distance, where two muzzled greyhounds are released to chase a hare until the hare reaches the specially constructed escape hatch. In all, it lasts about 20 to 25 seconds. Killing or mauling the hare is not the purpose of regulated hare coursing.
The banning of hare coursing would drive it underground, as has happened in many other countries, and would remove current regulations and restrictions, which are essential to protect the animals involved. Therefore, we oppose such an outright ban. Hunting, fishing and hare coursing should continue to be regulated in the interests of sustainable wildlife management. This is not like blood sports by which I mean, dog fighting, badger baiting or cock fighting, which we all continue to oppose.
While opposing this Bill to ban hare coursing we are committed to ensuring the proper regulation and management of the practice is maintained and believe the banning of hare coursing would drive it underground and remove current regulations, which are essential to the protection of all the animals involved. That is the real issue. Therefore, Sinn Féin will oppose such an outright ban.
I salute Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan. I am sure it is poignant for her that she is following in the footsteps of Tony Gregory, who moved a similar Bill a shocking 23 years ago. When we assembled at the press conference the other day there were pictures of Mary Robinson and Michael D. Higgins which date from 40 years ago, including their contributions to the debate on the original Bill in which they call for urgency in dealing with this issue, which Deputy O'Sullivan is now proposing to amend.
There is no difference of opinion. Hare coursing is a brutal, barbarous, wanton cruelty and has no part in a modern society. I call this a "fact" and I can back this up. In the last Dáil we brought in legislation on animal health and welfare. Guidelines were put in place which did not go far enough but, in fairness to the then Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, they went dramatically further than anything we had before. We specifically put in an exclusion for hare coursing, acknowledging that the activity was cruel but removing the hare from the protection of that Act, showing that the House accepted its cruelty but was prepared to let it go on. That is not good enough.
I found the contribution of the Fianna Fáil Deputy astounding. He repeated generalities but there is no hysteria on this side. We are responding to facts and to information given, not by a third party, but by people who attend coursing meetings, including vets, National Parks and Wildlife Service officers and some of the people who are in the Visitors Gallery and who regularly monitor the activities.
What goes on at these events? There is a little hare, weighing six to eight pounds. The first step on his journey is to be netted in a process where club members go out in the countryside, set up nets, and scream and frighten the hares to put them into the nets, from where they are taken and put into a box. They are solitary, quiet, timid creatures but they are kept in captivity and they are not used to that. The stress they feel has been scientifically evaluated by vets. They are trained to run from dogs, released onto the course and yelled at by club members. I challenge anybody to look at the pictures of a greyhound, with his muscles clenched, ten or 20 times the size of a hare, going for that hare. When this was debated in the House 23 years ago my former constituency colleague, Trevor Sargent, played a tape recording of a hare screaming and crying and I was going to do the same today but could not because it was horrendous.
This is not ignorance, it is an absolute fact. The people who assemble in a field for this are generally men but their numbers are dwindling. People can cod themselves all they like that this is a natural, rustic pursuit in which mammy, daddy, Ben and Jane go out together on a Sunday afternoon but they do not. It is generally supported by males and it is abhorrent that people stand around and cheer the massacre of another creature. They may not be caught by the teeth of a greyhound but they can be with claws and when in a state of fear and so on.
A sport is a challenge of equals and willing participants but we cannot call this a sport. It is ridiculous that this is under the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Do people think that those who filled the Visitors Gallery yesterday fighting for the arts would think it is a good idea that hare coursing is covered by the same Minister? It is ridiculous.
Other Deputies said we needed to do this because the hares would run riot all around the country if we did not control them but that is also absolute rubbish. In the UK and Northern Ireland, when this barbarism was banned, it was made clear there was no need to control numbers. Hares are a biodiversity action plan species in Northern Ireland and the UK, which means they are among the most threatened mammals and require conservation action in Ireland. Habitat loss, human expansion, land management changes and persecution have resulted in the Irish hare population being in serious decline across the country and there are no hares left on our own doorstep on Dublin's North Bull Island. It is not true to say the population is multiplying.
Let us be clear: this is not a tradition. At least, it is certainly not an Irish tradition. This barbaric pursuit was planted here by the English aristocracy, something with which I would have thought the great nationalists in Fianna Fáil might have had a problem. It is a cruel spectacle for their lordships, the first rules of which were drawn up under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I by the Duke of Norfolk. Even if it was an Irish tradition, it used to be an Italian tradition to go down to the Colosseum on a Friday night to watch people being eaten by lions. It used to be a tradition to display people in freak shows but society moves on and civilisation takes note of what needs to be done. It is not acceptable to cling to outdated ideology in order to support what is recognised as cruelty.
A report commissioned by the British Government shortly before it voted to ban hunting stated that they were satisfied that being pursued, caught and killed by dogs in coursing seriously compromises the welfare of hares. The so-called regulations and measures to protect the hare are just not good enough. Freedom of information documents clinically reveal the abuses that take place in our coursing season each year. In Clonmel, over three days of coursing, it was claimed that of 188 hares in captivity, not one hare was struck. This is simply not the case as it could not possibly be true. Over 7,000 hares were taken last year but only 17 of the 75 official events were monitored. People cannot say with great authority that everything is great because their officers have not been at events to monitor what has been going on. I do not have time to read other testimonies from east Donegal and my own constituency where, sadly, Balbriggan is the only place in Dublin where there are coursing events. There were reports of two hares requiring assistance, with one dying, but veterinary reports stated something different and that experience is repeated across different counties. The post-mortems carried out on those hares show clear evidence of cruelty and trauma.
Why do we have to do this? What is to be gained from it? There are humane alternatives to live coursing. Drag coursing, using a mechanical lure, would eliminate this cruelty once and for all. As Deputy O'Sullivan said, there would no longer be a need to muzzle the greyhounds, which is itself cruel. There would no longer be a need to take hares from their natural environment to be terrorised and baited. Wildlife rangers would no longer be obliged to attend meetings and keep an eye on the behaviour of coursing clubs so they might now have time to deal with activities such as hare lurching.
Somebody said there was a spike in criminals bagging hares in England after it was banned. Do people think the hare cares whether he is taken up by a lord in a pair of jodhpurs or a young fellow from a council estate? It does not make any difference - cruelty is cruelty. If we prohibited this activity officers would have time to do the job they are supposed to do and there would no longer be a conflict between the clubs and animal welfare activists. A switch to drag coursing could actually give a dramatic boost to coursing clubs as those who consciously stay away on account of the barbarism might actually decide to go along for a day out. This is a very viable alternative.
This is not a rural-urban divide. There are many people all over rural communities who find this utterly abhorrent. The idea that dealing with this now will drive it underground is laughable. There are many activities that went on years ago but are now banned and they do not take place nowadays. Other people say there will be an impact on local economies but all the sponsors have withdrawn from these activities. If there was money to be made and this was still popular they would not have done that. Numbers are dwindling and crowds are down.
This is a relic of a barbarous type of activity in which most people in Ireland, no matter where they live, want no part but yet again the political establishment lags behind the consciousness of people. We have a chance to deal with this next Thursday and I urge Deputies to break the Whip and do so.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan's Bill. Hare coursing is a huge part of the tradition and social fabric of rural Ireland. The breeding of greyhounds for greyhound racing and coursing is a significant sporting interest and a significant source of income for dog breeders and small farmers in rural Ireland. It is particularly prevalent in Munster and in my county of County Clare. In west Clare, every second farmer is involved in greyhound breeding and coursing. It is part of the fabric of rural society and many of my constituents are involved in this sport. It has been a traditional pastime for decades and longer but it was unregulated.
In recent years, hare coursing has been modified substantially with a view to the protection of the hare in capture, including regulation concerning its welfare before coursing meetings, the muzzling of dogs, the alteration of the course for the safety of the hare and the release of the hare following the coursing meeting. The purpose of coursing is not to kill or harm the hare but to turn the hare. If hare coursing were to be banned, it would go underground and become unregulated, which would lead to the loss of the protection these regulations confer on the hare.
Rural people are custodians of their environment. They know their environment and see how nature works. Hares are natural prey for many wild animals and this is part of nature. The number of hares killed on our roads every day is substantial and far outweighs any number inadvertently injured during a coursing meeting. I will be opposing the Bill.
I commend Deputy O'Sullivan for bringing this Bill to the House and look forward to a time when these barbaric practices are outlawed in Ireland. The Green Party has always been opposed to all blood sports and remains resolutely so. Needless to say the Green Party will be supporting this Bill. I ask Members tonight to consider the words of Abraham Lincoln, who said:
I am in favour of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.
Labhair me inné faoi thábhacht chosaint agus cothú bhua an ealaíontóra. Sa leabhar Dúille Liam Ó Flaithearta feictear an bua sin in a chur síos ar iontas an dúlra agus ríocht na n-ainmhithe. Is tír muid le háiseanna nádúrtha den scoth timpeall orainn, ach ní féidir leis na hainmhithe seo maireachtáil le cur isteach agus slad an duine daonna. An bhfuil sé ceart cur isteach ar an giorria atá anseo leis na céadta bliain? Is cuid dár n-oidhreacht é an créatur seo. Níl guth aige, ach tá guth agamsa. Tá guth againne, mar pholaiteoirí, agus táimid freagrach as tuairimí an phobail a thabhairt os comhair an Ti uasal seo. Ni féidir linn leanúint leis an nós barbartha seo. 'Sé sin dul sa tóir ar ainmhí leochaileach gan chosaint.
To be absolutely clear, hare coursing is a brutal ordeal. Before the hares experience this ordeal, they are trapped and trained which is cruel enough. They are solitary creatures and keep to themselves in the wild, so keeping them in an enclosure causes significant stress and fear. Hare coursing involves the terrorising of one animal by another animal as a so-called sport, all the while being watched as entertainment. Not only are these timid and delicate creatures terrified and brutalised in this practice, they often suffer severe injuries and death. The hare is a brittle-boned creature and its internal injuries cannot heal. Injured hares have to be put down.
The last Private Members' Bill to ban coursing was taken more than 20 years ago and, unfortunately, was defeated. The solution on that occasion was to call on coursing clubs to muzzle the hounds. Muzzling the dogs is not an answer nor is it any less barbaric. Many hares die from stress and exhaustion and hares continue to be mauled and struck by the greyhounds resulting in their death. Since the introduction of muzzling for greyhounds in 1993, deaths remain at approximately 200 hares per year. Hares are still dying either through contact injury, fear or capture myopathy. Up to 40 hares have died at any one event with vets blaming the significant stress of captivity and coursing.
The hare is a protected species under the 2013 Habitats Directive. This document notes the significant fluctuations in population numbers. We cannot be certain they are well preserved as a species. Many members of this House, past and present, from across the entire political spectrum have, over the past 20 years, spoken out against this cruel, barbaric practice but when it comes down to it - when it comes to the vote - they choose to toe the party line rather than do the right thing.
An mbeidh Teachtaí Dála sa Phairlimint seo sona sasta filleadh abhaile an Déardaoin seo chugainn agus a rá lena gclann go raibh eagla orthu an rud ceart a dhéanamh agus nach raibh siad cróga go leor an fód a sheasamh agus tacaíocht a thabhairt do Bhille na mná misniúla, an Teachta Maureen O' Sullivan. Carpe diem. Bígí láidir. Léirigí misneach agus tuiscint.
Why are we only one of three countries still allowing this practice? Why can we not reach a consensus in this House and get hare coursing banned once and for all? Let us take this opportunity presented by Deputy O'Sullivan to say that this practice clearly belongs in the past and is no longer acceptable to the vast majority of Irish people. Independent surveys carried out over the years have shown that approximately 75% or more people would like to see a ban in place and this is not just urban dwellers. The majority of those in rural areas are also opposed to this so-called sport. Let us follow our nearest neighbours in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and let us ban this barbaric activity which sometimes trades under the name of being a sport. It is not a sport. Describing it as a sport does a gross disservice to what true sport involves. We only have to think of last night in Lille as an example of one of so many true sports. It was full of honest and brave endeavour and unpredictability. We had 11 players against 11 players - a fair battle. Hare coursing is anything but fair. It is cruel and barbaric and I believe that if not next Thurday, our generation will once and for all end this cowardly cruelty. I hope it happens sooner rather than later.
I conclude with the words of a former Member of this House, the former Green Party leader, Trevor Sargent, who said, "I feel we have reached a point in our history where almost unanimous agreement has been reached in rejecting political violence and, to ensure that society develops respecting life in general, it is important I believe to reject violence in the name of 'sport' also."
I welcome the opportunity to speak in opposition to the Bill. The rural activity of government-regulated hare coursing and the Irish Coursing Club have been persistently condemned by the proposer of this legislation and by anti-coursing groups. The points made repeatedly by the anti-coursing lobby are based on misinformation and fabrication.
Regulated coursing is managed under the auspices of the Irish Coursing Club which is the central authority for more than 80 local coursing clubs throughout the State. In my County Clare there are six coursing meetings held by clubs in Liscannor, Ennis-Clarecastle, Miltown Malbay, Kilrush-Killimer, south Clare, Cooraclare and Tradree. These Clare clubs, together with the other 74 coursing clubs nationwide hold meetings on an annual basis, typically over a two day period. Coursing is supervised by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and is monitored by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It is regulated for under the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013, the Open Seasons Order 2015, the Wildlife Act 1976, the 26 conditions attached to the license issued annually by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and by the rules of the Irish Coursing Club.
Hares are caught in the wild several weeks ahead of a coursing event. During that time the hares live in purpose-built hare parks where they are fed and cared for. Contrary to what anti-coursing groups claim, hares that are pregnant, are nursing their young or are injured or sick are absolutely not used for coursing and this is made explicit in the license conditions set out by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Muzzles were introduced into coursing events in 1993. Regulated coursing events consist of two muzzled greyhounds released simultaneously to chase a hare for about 20 seconds until the hare reaches a deliberately designed escape hatch. Killing or mauling the hare is not the purpose of regulated coursing.
Hare coursing has changed positively over time and particularly so in recent years. One very good measure of these changes is the actual number of hares returned to the wild after coursing events. For the 2015 and 2016 coursing season, reports demonstrate that 99.33% of hares were returned to the wild after coursing. That number stood at 85% in 1992 which was prior to muzzling. This represents a significant improvement. This fact is backed up by the 2007 hare population survey commissioned by the then Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and conducted by Quercus, an independent environmental research unit based at Queen's University Belfast. The survey calculated the total hare population in the Republic of Ireland to be 565,000; the 5,348 hares netted for the 2015-16 season represent less than 1% of this total.
I have an interest in greyhound racing and coursing. My father continues to be involved in greyhounds having taken an interest in the sport from a young age and there is a strong tradition of greyhounds on my late mother's side of my family. One of my earliest memories as a young boy is of travelling to a trial in Miltown Malbay in the back of a car with two fawn greyhounds. County Clare and my own village of Clarecastle has a deep association with greyhound racing both on the track and field. The late Paddy Darcy of Ennis bred Bypass Byway the winner of the 2002 Irish Greyhound Derby. His training yard is a stone’s throw from my house. Jerry ‘The Stud’ Moloney from Ballyboy in Ennis bred Sidaz Jack the winner of the 2013 English Greyhound Derby. The Moloney family of Lissane in Clarecastle owned and trained the great Danagher’s Best which won the Coursing Derby in 2003. The year previous to that Murty’s Gang won the Coursing Derby for Clarecastle’s ATM syndicate with the dog being bred and reared by the Gallery family of Ennis.
Coursing people go through their lives hoping to have a runner at the national meeting in Clonmel. For some this dream comes true but unfortunately some people never get the opportunity to see their own dog going to the slips in Powerstown Park. Last year’s coursing season was very exciting for me. I attended a lot of meetings and had some success as part of the Déise-Banner syndicate. We won the Dungarvan bitch trial stake and qualified for the national meeting in Clonmel with our dark brindle bitch called Clodagh River. She was bred and reared by a great friend of mine, Shane O’Gorman from Portlaw in County Waterford who is also part of the syndicate as is Senator Paudie Coffey, my dad Donal Carey and my good friend from Newmarket on Fergus, Jody Halpin. Ultimately, Clodagh River was beaten in the third round by the brilliant Oaks winner Grace and Glamour. We have subsequently bred Clodagh River to last year’s derby winner Coolavanny Bingo and she has just had ten pups which are eight weeks old - five dogs and five bitches - that are wonderful, healthy, strong pups and please God they will make it to Powerstown Park in January 2018.
The national meeting is attended by more than 30,000 people each year, averaging 10,000 people per day. It is a wonderful showcase for coursing and offers enthusiasts a chance to meet up and catch up once a year. The national meeting gives a huge boost to economic life in Clonmel and it’s environs. The survival of coursing is absolutely dependent on the wellbeing of the hare population. Without the efforts of coursing clubs throughout the State the hare population would be without the significant layer of protection it currently enjoys from the hare husbandry initiatives afforded by coursing clubs on a 12 month basis. Quercus, which carried out the research for Queen's University, concluded that Irish hares are 18 times more abundant in areas managed by the Irish Coursing Club than at similar sites in the wider countryside.
A point that is never raised by the anti-coursing lobby is the whole area of unregulated, illegal hunting. This activity involves packs of unmuzzled dogs chasing any wildlife, and sometimes livestock, for unlimited hours with the aim of killing it. Numerous Irish and EU wildlife laws are broken, including the killing of protected species like the Irish hare. Illegal unregulated hunting is destructive to land and destructive to crops and livestock. In a well publicised case in April of last year, for example, four individuals were arrested in County Tipperary for poaching wildlife using particularly brutal practices. A similar type of case has been reported in west Wicklow. In general these brutal, cruel activities take place on private lands without the permission of landowners, with total disregard for all laws. Habitats are destroyed, gates are left open and there is no thought at all for the impact the illegal hunting has on the species. On a voluntary year round basis, local coursing clubs protect their hare preserves against illegal hunting, in conjunction with landowners, by carrying out surveillance of lands and reporting such illegal activities to the relevant authorities such as the local wildlife ranger and An Garda Síochána.
If this legislation before the House was to become law illegal hunting would thrive unchecked. This has been the case in Britain since coursing was banned there and is the case in this State wherever coursing clubs do not exist. I am opposed to this Bill and look forward to voting against it next week.
I meant half each which amounts to five minutes and five minutes. I thank the Ceann Comhairle.
I am pretty shocked by the response of the Government and the speech we have just heard. It was not the kind of balanced speech normally heard in the Chamber from the Government when it is defending something about which it feels shamefaced. What Deputies have just heard is an advert in our national Parliament for hare coursing, how great it is and how everybody should be involved in it. I am shocked that the Government has gone so far in defending hare coursing which is, I believe, an indefensible practice. It is an undeniably cruel and barbaric practice especially considering the fact that our near neighbours - Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England - have all moved to ban hare coursing. Ireland is one of three jurisdictions left that maintains it. To defend it and to advocate for it in such a positive fashion is shocking. I thank Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan for bringing the Bill forward. It is very good that we have it but obviously it is very disappointing that it looks like it may not pass. However, the Anti Austerity Alliance is very much in support of the Bill.
Deputies have already outlined how this is undoubtedly a cruel activity. The idea has been raised that this is part of nature. I do not understand how humans capturing hares, holding them in captivity, training them and releasing them to be chased by dogs is a natural activity. Undoubtedly, hares die in nature. That is a part of nature but humans intervene for their own amusement and profit and the result is, whether the Minister likes it or not, that killings and maulings of hares happen. Saying that killings or maulings are not the purpose of hare coursing is some sort of admission that killings or maulings would be a bad thing, but it is undeniable that killings and maulings happen as a result of hare coursing.
The Irish Council against Blood Sports’ coursing cruelty catalogue notes that in Tubbercurry last January 14 hares were hit, 12 were injured, six badly, one died of injuries and three more were put down. In Old Kilcullen in December 2015, seven hares were struck and three died of injuries; in Kerry, three hares were struck and two were put down; in Dundalk, three hares were struck and two died of injuries; in Macroom, six hares required assistance, a euphemism for being struck and mauled, and three were put down. The list goes on and on over pages. This happens and it is an unavoidable part of how hare coursing operates. Hares are going to be struck and mauled and it is an absolutely avoidable cruelty to animals. There is nothing natural about it.
This is an example of capitalism "red in tooth and claw" where animal welfare and wildlife conservation come a poor second place to profit. There is money to be made in hare coursing, including by big business. For example, BoyleSports sponsors hare coursing events and earns profits from gambling. Until recently, J. P. McManus sponsored hare coursing events. He withdrew his support because of the campaign work by organisations such as the Irish Council against Blood Sports, which has done sterling campaign work.
Hare coursing has a negative impact on this country’s wildlife. The Irish hare is one of our most longstanding native mammals, having survived the ice age, but there are now examples of local extinctions and a fragmented population across the country. The Irish hare as a species is under pressure from human activity, primarily farming, and the last thing it needs is to be captured and chased by greyhounds in enclosures for the enjoyment, dubious though it may be, and profit of a few. There is a relationship between hare coursing and the greyhound industry. People may be aware that controversy has boiled up recently about the scandalous practice of Irish greyhounds being exported to China. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has a duty to keep the House informed of developments in respect of that controversy. To that end, the Minister should confirm if an important meeting is to be held on 4 July, in London, I think, which will involve his Department, the Irish Greyhound Board, the Greyhound Board of Great Britain and some animal welfare groups to discuss the issue. The Minister should report to the House on the outcome of those discussions.
I thank the hundreds of people who e-mailed me and the other Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit Deputies, and presumably many other Deputies, on this matter. They gave us vital information and have shown that there is very vibrant campaigning on this issue. The political establishment is out of touch. A theme of the e-mails which is underlined by the debate this evening was people’s dismay at Sinn Féin’s action in not supporting this Bill. Sinn Féin had given the impression that it opposes blood sports but does not define hare coursing as a blood sport. It is difficult to see how blood sports can be defined when the fact that humans create a situation where hares are chased around by greyhounds does not qualify. We do not accept Sinn Féin’s argument that hare coursing must be maintained and regulated. The Irish Coursing Club does regulate the practice but that does not stop illegal coursing outside its remit. Even the events that fall within the regulations of the Irish Coursing Club involve the injury and death of hundreds of hares. It is absolutely unavoidable. I urge Sinn Féin to reconsider its position. I thank Deputy O’Sullivan for bringing this forward and congratulate all those who have campaigned on this issue over years and encourage them to keep it up. We will not win this vote on Thursday but ultimately if the campaign pressure is built we can win on this issue.
I have sensed a certain feeling around this issue that city people do not really understand country people when it comes to coursing and how nature works and so on. I was born on a small farm in Wexford and I do not think it is nice to see an animal suffer. In the natural cycle, animals die and big animals kill smaller animals, but that does not make an argument for humans organising it.
When humans do not care much about how other humans suffer, through actions they supported or did nothing about, there is a problem. Society breaks down when we do not care what happens to our neighbour, whether the neighbour is next door or in another country. There is a thing called empathy and when we see an animal suffer through organised work by people, the lack of empathy is worrying. Somebody said that if we stop coursing it would hit the economy. That is an interesting point because I got into an argument in a pub in Ennis - I think the Minister of State, Deputy Carey, is from Clare - when a fellow attacked me because of our protest at Shannon Airport. He said that he sold sandwiches to the American soldiers. The argument developed. Despite the fact that 2.1 million people who were not carrying guns had been killed by the US, British and French forces in Afghanistan and Iraq in 15 years, our lack of empathy and a desire to sell sandwiches make us think we can forget about what happens over there, about the homes the bombs fall on when people are asleep, and about the fact that most of those killed are women, children and old men because the young people are out working or fighting.
If I did not stretch it, I would be the only one in here who did not.
There has been talk of driving the sport underground. I remember when there was cock fighting and it was no problem to set up a cock fight around my area. It is banned now and I do not see it any more. It has not grown more popular. It has disappeared from where I live. On the question of driving things underground and making them unregulated, we argued two years ago for the legalisation of cannabis. The argument of the big parties was that could not possibly be done. We argued that because it is not regulated or legalised, people buy bad cannabis.
Last year, we brought the argument in here about sex workers who do not want the purchase of sex to be criminalised. They think that will make their lives and opportunity to make a living very dangerous.
The Government takes arguments as they suit. It might say that we all do that and it is human nature, but I find it hard to buy the argument that the unregulated nature of coursing might flourish and create even more problems.
I have not spent my life fighting for animal rights and have not been involved in the issue, as Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan would be well aware, but I have six cats at home. Sometimes they are chased by a dog. If I caught the dog I would like to give it a few clouts. If someone caught my cats, threw them into a cage and brought them off somewhere so he or she could let dogs loose after them, I will not say what I would do to him or her. I feel very attached to my cats. I would be alone in the house without them, despite what people might think.
Having a relationship with animals is good for people. It is great for children growing up to have a relationship with animals. It builds empathy and might help them not to support us supplying an airport for Americans to bomb the living daylights out of millions of people in other lands.
Regulated coursing is and has been managed under the auspices of the Irish Coursing Club, ICC, which was established in 1916. It is the central authority for more than 80 local coursing clubs. These clubs hold coursing meetings annually, typically over a two-day period. Coursing is supervised by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, under the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and monitored by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It is regulated under the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013, the open season order 2005, the Wildlife Act 1976, the 26 conditions attached to the licence issued annually by the Department and the rules of the ICC.
As a young boy I went hare coursing and learned a lot about nature, wildlife and life in general. Teams of men and youngsters hunted hares. Things have moved on since then and it has become a very humane activity. Hares are now muzzled and rightly so, and are under strict supervision. Licenses are in place.
It was interesting to hear the contribution of the Minister - I was not in the Chamber but I watched it on a monitor. Some clubs which acted out of order last year are under investigation. A small minority have been reprimanded. It is very important that the full rigours of the law are used to enforce the rules.
Today I spoke at length on the Summer Economic Statements. I welcome the free debate and compliment Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan for putting down this Bill. I know how passionately she feels about it, and I respect that. Jobs and supporting industries are important. Coursing is an industry in rural Ireland, one which is of the people and by the people and was developed by their own volition. The industry receives no State aid or IDA grants. Anyone who has a greyhound has to have a kennel, trailer, pay veterinarian fees and have leads. They care for their animals expertly.
I heard Deputy Wallace refer to his cats. I do not know who minded them when he was at the soccer match, but I hope they were well looked after - I know they were. He would be lonely without them. I have a couple of sheepdogs which are used to herd sheep. Will that be stopped? Some animal rights activists have told me they want to stop sheep herding and horse racing. We must strike a balance and respect for people in communities who engage in the sport, tradition and heritage of hunts. Coursing is now very much regulated. It is a major industry.
There is an annual coursing festival in Clonmel, the vale of honey. I ask Deputies O'Sullivan, Daly and Wallace to come to Clonmel on the last day of January and we will bring them in. No one will stop them going to the meeting. They can see how it is run under the auspices of the ICC and Department and the activities that are taking place, and have a nice engagement with the people who enjoy the sport.
Men, women and children of all ages enjoy the sport. It is worth €6 million to Clonmel. We changed the festival to encompass weekends because of people's ability to get off work. People come from all over Europe to the festival. A significant number come from Northern Ireland. All are made welcome. It is part of our heritage and is the biggest thing we have had in Clonmel since we had the Fleadh Cheoil. There is greyhound racing and music, song and dance. People enjoy the hospitality and stay in houses within a 30-mile radius of Clonmel. Waterford, East Limerick and other areas benefit. People are made welcome.
I would not go to the constituency of Deputy O'Sullivan or Deputy Daly and try to close down industries. I would think twice about doing that because I would be interfering. We have our beliefs, but seeing is believing.
Some animal rights activists have done awful things in Clonmel. A long time ago they put broken glass on greyhound tracks. That would do horrific damage to the paws of greyhounds. They sent appalling letters to previous Members of the House and threatened them. We need to strike a balance. Going outside the gates of the Houses earlier was not a very pleasant. None of the people there had muzzles on them. Let us be fair. People can be very nasty, intimidating and threatening, and it is not good enough that we cannot go in and out of the Houses and go about our business without being intimidated and threatened. I have been a victim of that. I have to represent all of the views of the people. This is something I believe in passionately.
We must support the industry. As I said, the ICC was established in 1916, and the men who established it knew it was a natural pursuit. Animals are killed every day of the week. Hares are not caught and put into boxes. Rather, they are caught and put into carefully constructed preserves which are the result of major voluntary labour from clubs. They are allowed to roam wild over areas of up to 200 acres. A couple of years ago, animal-rights activists cut the wires on preserves before coursing was due to take place and allowed the house to run onto a motorway, where they were slaughtered by trucks. Cruelty is not one-sided. No one has a preserve on that.
If coursing goes underground we will have a major problem. I know Deputy O'Keeffe, who is from Limerick, has the same problem as I do in my constituency. Marauding gangs are going out with lurchers and greyhounds, which have been ill-treated and have no muzzles, and are trespassing on land. They are causing untold damage to animals and farm property, and are intimidating householders and farmers. People are terrified and will not make statements to gardaí because they have been threatened that if they do they will be burned out of their houses. That is terrorism.
People carrying out these attacks are killing the dogs. They are letting not just one but two, three, four or five dogs after innocent hares, allowing them to chase and kill them, and then, as the Minister said, are putting footage up on social media. That is despicable and barbaric. I do not know why the animal rights people and others do not address those issues.
Last year, for the first time in decades, the Sunday coursing open day was not held because we had no hares to hunt, despite the fact that all of the hares had been collected from the wild, treated, injected, fed, looked after and nurtured. They were killed by gangs of thugs and bullies with lurchers and greyhounds.
I heard an appalling case on Tipp FM recently, where terriers were seized from a house by thieves who cut the locks and used the handle of a shovel with nails in it to hunt the dogs. People are afraid for their lives. I compliment Superintendents William Leahy and Pat O'Connor and others in the Limerick region who have assisted in clamping down on this type of activity. This happens not alone during the day, but also at night. People are terrified.
Huge amounts of Garda time is taken up trying to monitor the situation and in preparing prosecutions under the Wildlife Act. Prosecutions have been made but while the gardaí were engaged in that respect people were being robbed elsewhere. A lot of people who are engaged in such activities are touting for robberies also. It is open season on the ordinary citizens I represent in their own homes and farms. Fences are being broken and livestock is being damaged and harried. Sheep are being attacked by the dogs and cattle are being frightened and are breaking out onto roads, which causes more accidents. All of that is going on. We are trying to ensure there is a controlled coursing industry, which is of the people and by the people who put their hands in their pockets, pay for their greyhounds and their veterinarian bills. Some people look after their greyhounds better than some of us look after ourselves they are so mad about the dogs. In the past, every small farmer in my constituency had greyhounds. It was a huge add-on industry. Agriculture is on its knees at the moment and we need such cottage industries and small ancillary industries to support the main farming income. Coursing should be promoted rather than restricted.
I issue again, mar focal scoir, a Cheann Comhairle, an invitation, a cuireadh, do na Teachtaí O'Sullivan, Daly agus Wallace teacht go dtí Cluain Meala to see it, because seeing is believing. They should not listen to the people who say they are not allowed in, that they are not allowed to bring in cameras and that they are bullied and intimidated. People are not bullied and intimidated. It is a very peaceful event and there is never any trouble at it. Thousands come to Clonmel. It is a lovely festival which everybody enjoys. I accept there is gambling but gambling goes on everywhere. I have never bet in my life but I attend coursing and meet people there every year. Beidh an-chraic agus spórt againn má bhíonn na Teachtaí ábalta teacht.
I am sorry I am late but the honourable Joe Biden, to whom Deputy Mick Wallace referred in the context of landing aeroplanes in Shannon, delayed me. There is a big palaver around St. Stephen's Green with dozens of stretch limousines. I do not know where he is gone for a pint but he is obviously gone somewhere local.
I support Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan's Bill as a small step towards a kinder and more humane society in all aspects, especially in terms of how we treat not just hares but all sentient beings. It gives us an opportunity to have a wider argument about our attitude in that regard. I welcome the initiative and thank Deputy O'Sullivan for bringing the Bill to the Dáil. The case has been made by many different groups here about the cruelty involved in hare coursing, which is undeniable and unbelievable. It is a very weak argument to claim that the animals do not suffer and that the tradition must be respected, and in most cases it is demonstrably false. There would be more honesty involved in this debate if those who oppose the banning of hare coursing would simply tell us lots of money can be made from it, both from the events they run and the gambling that takes place in the industry and, therefore, it is about putting the creation of profit or commerce ahead of other considerations and the terror and pain inflicted on defenceless animals.
In preparing for the debate I was struck by a number of things I had not realised. Most important, the wildlife expert, bird watcher and photographer, Eric Dempsey, with whom I did a class on bird watching in the People's College, pointed out that Irish hares are a unique race of mountain hares found nowhere else in the world. They are a protected species, yet the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, can issue licences to coursing clubs to hunt and net hares. The hare population is in serious decline across the country due to habitat decline and other issues in addition to coursing. Hares are among the longest established native mammals on this island and one of the last living links to the previous ice age. It is amazing to think about that and it would be a real shame to lose hares.
The naturalist, Eric Dempsey, also pointed out that we do not make much effort to protect our natural heritage as opposed to our national heritage. There is almost total silence when species such as the corn bunting becomes extinct or other species such as corncrakes, skylarks and yellowhammers go into serious decline. We must consider such issues because they contribute to the type of society in which we wish to live. I support the Bill which deals specifically with hares and also because it says something about the kind of society to which we should aspire. I was not born with a huge appreciation for animal rights but I have come to believe in our duties as humans to protect all living creatures, people as well as the other sentient beings that inhabit the planet. At all times we should act to minimise the infliction of unnecessary cruelty or pain on animals. That is not just the case with hare coursing but in terms of animal exports and the manner in which we produce animals in the agriculture sector and in poultry farms.
The ultimate source of such cruelty and of the degradation of animals is inherent in an economic system that prioritises profit and competition before people and the environment. It is an economic system that degrades the importance of human needs behind those of profit and does the same with animals. I say to those such as Deputy Mattie McGrath who support the rights of those involved in hare coursing that we stand with those who campaign for the rights of animals and against the cruelty and unnecessary suffering that is inflicted on animals. However, the ultimate cause of the suffering is not Deputy Mattie McGrath, the people of Tipperary or some kind of misguided element of society, rather it is an economic system that prioritises profits above all other considerations and relegates the needs of humans and other species.
We are now living in the midst of the Earth's sixth great extinction event, which is the reason biodiversity is crashing across the planet. The cruelty that this Bill highlights is a small example of the general coarsening. The more general cruelty and degradation of animals and the environment is inevitable in this economic system. It is wrong and we should oppose it. I endorse Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan's Bill and welcome the fact she has brought it to the House.
I have listened to the concerns raised during the course of the debate and I appreciate that this is a sensitive and emotive topic for many. People have sincerely held views on the matter and they are entitled to them.
Coursing is not a sport involving a hunt to kill. More than 99% of hares involved are released back into the wild. Last year, for example, 5,348 hares were used during coursing and 5,312 were released. Hares are not kept in boxes prior to meetings, they are kept in a fenced field where they are fed and watered. They have small enclosures in which to rest and sleep.
All meetings are attended by a veterinary surgeon and my officials attend coursing meetings as resources allow also to monitor compliance.
I understand the main reason for the decline in the number of hares on Bull Island has little to do with hare coursing and more to do with the fact that some dog owners allow their dogs to roam off the leash. That does not help to foster the hare population on the island. I also understand that the main landowner on Bull Island, Dublin City Council, is working proactively to raise awareness and to address the issue.
I heard some contributions which questioned my role as Minister in allowing the situation to continue. What they fail to recognise, or are unwilling to recognise, is that for many in rural communities coursing is an integral part of their heritage and tradition. Deputy Mattie McGrath outlined how arts and heritage come together at coursing meetings. In many cases the practice of hare coursing has crossed generations from father to son, as outlined by Deputy Joe Carey. As Minister with responsibility for both heritage and rural affairs it would be remiss of me if I did not try to find a balance. In that regard I am satisfied that the strict licensing conditions and monitoring currently in place finds that balance and allows coursing in a highly regulated environment where welfare of the hare is paramount. If clubs breach the conditions they are punished. I referred to some examples in that regard in my earlier remarks.
An outright ban on coursing, which is effectively what is proposed in the Bill, could drive the sport underground. I accept that would be an unintended consequence of Deputy O’Sullivan’s Bill but I am aware that has been an issue in both the United Kingdom and in Northern Ireland where bans have been introduced. If that were to happen here, coursing meetings would take place in unregulated environments with no controls in place. I alluded previously to the dangers of hare lurching, as did other speakers, and we do not wish to see an increase in that type of illegal activity.
As I have indicated, my responsibilities under the Wildlife Acts relate to the conservation of hares and I have no concerns regarding its conservation status, which is classified as being favourable. As regards welfare and as I have pointed out, my Department has, over the years, included conditions on the licences issued to the Irish Coursing Club. I will continue to work with my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and the Irish Coursing Club to ensure that coursing is undertaken to the highest standards for the benefit of the welfare of both hares and greyhounds. This is a highly regulated industry under licence and without licence, the industry would revert to operating without regulation. At present, we have a controlled environment and I suggest we should not allow it to go into an non-regulated space.
First, I thank all the Deputies who contributed to the debate. While I obviously did not agree with many of the arguments, I respect everybody's right to express his or her views as we live in a democracy. I am somewhat heartened by the fact that everybody is talking about the welfare of the hares. It is just that Members have different views on what precisely is the welfare of hares.
In 1993, the late Tony Gregory introduced a Private Members' Bill on wildlife to ban live hare coursing and I am doing the same today. After his death, I sat up there in the Visitors Gallery with families, friends and supporters and listened to quite a number of speeches about Tony, his political career, his integrity, his honesty, his commitment and his passion for justice. There were so many instances in which he was a voice for those who were voiceless. He was passionate about nature and a fervent animal lover, and he abhorred cruelty to animals. In his Bill, he spoke about the "welfare of the vulnerable and defenceless in nature's creation". It would be a fitting and lasting tribute to him were Members able to complete what he started in 1993.
It is known that the hare is a timid and delicate creature and it is cruel to treat an animal that is used to the freedom of nature in the way it is treated, with the snatching, the netting and the stressful transportation procedures. Then there is the so-called training of the hares for the better sport, where they are familiarised in the fields in order that when the coursing begins, they will run up the centre of the field. I have absolutely no doubt but that blooding of the greyhound is alive and well in rural Ireland because why would a greyhound run after a hare otherwise? Even though it is muzzled, the greyhounds can maul the hares, strike them and inflict agonising injuries with bones broken and bodies crushed as they are tossed into the air like rag dolls. Therefore, the muzzling does not prevent injuries and after years of such muzzling, the statistics are to hand in this regard. I already have mentioned the stress myopathy and I recently met a former ranger from the National Parks and Wildlife Service who was quite unequivocal in describing this as cruelty to animals.
As for some of the arguments that came up, one was that coursing is part of our traditions. It is neither traditional nor is it Irish. Coursing, as practised by the Irish Coursing Club, was introduced to Ireland by British Army officers at the Curragh in 1813. Another argument is that were live hare coursing to be banned, it would be driven underground and there would be illegal hare coursing. That really is stating that those who are into coursing are the sort of people who are prepared to break the law. As I am against live hare coursing, I am also asked whether I am opposed to horse racing. There is a big difference in that racehorses are not in a race in which they are being chased, mauled, tossed and terrorised by another animal ten times the size; there simply is no comparison. I am also asked, because I am a Dub, what do I know about rural Ireland. Yes, I am a Dub but I also am Irish and I love my country, both urban and rural. Moreover, with a name like O'Sullivan, I can assure Members of my rural connections. In my case, they are to counties Kerry and Meath and I have a long association with one of our islands, Oileán Chléire in west Cork.
Another argument is that this is an urban-rural divide but this absolutely is not the case because there are extensive objections in rural Ireland to this practice and regrettably and sadly, there are many examples of animal cruelty in urban centres and in Dublin. I simply find the entire practice to be deplorable and archaic. I will repeat Deputy Bríd Smith's comments because I have also been reading about the Irish hare being special and being a subspecies of the mountain hare. It is possibly Ireland's longest established native mammal, even present during the ice age, but at the rate we are going, it will not survive well into this century and will go the way of the corncrake and the curlew. There are considerable doubts about the report mentioned by the Minister, which has been sharply criticised in other quarters to the effect that its conclusions are not trustworthy. The Irish Wildlife Trust drew up a species action plan for the hare in which it stated the populations have undergone a substantial decline in the past 15 to 25 years. There also is the aspect that when hares are taken for coursing, the young hares, the leverets, are left to starve.
The Animal Health and Welfare Bill 2012 states: "A person shall not... do, or fail to do, anything or cause or permit anything to be done to an animal that causes injury (including disfigurement) or unnecessary suffering to, or endanger the health or welfare of, an animal." Are Members suggesting this constitutes necessary suffering? According to the official reports, at 20% of coursing meetings, hares are injured, hares are put down and greyhounds are injured. This is not necessary suffering and I believe it to be against the entire tenor, thrust and ethos of the Act. It is a national embarrassment that we persist in this cruel practice. I understand the numbers at coursing meetings are falling and no reputable company or organisation will sponsor a coursing meeting.
I have been critical of the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht on the licence issue and for allowing the hare trade, but I acknowledge her significant and laudable role in the numerous commemorative events to celebrate the 1916 Rising. Consequently, I wish to draw her attention to a letter brought to my attention that was written by Margaret Pearse, sister of Pádraig and Willie, in which she condemns hare coursing and states both her brothers would be "foremost in condemning coursing for the sadistic spectacle it is". She wrote they "would have been totally opposed to the inhuman treatment meted out to... Innocent little hares at ... Coursing". I note Members are conscious that they seek to have fitting tributes to the memories of those who died in 1916.
I also have been struck by the number of male clergy who are frequent attenders at coursing meetings and wonder how they reconcile this with one of the churches most loved saints, namely, St. Francis of Assisi, who is the patron saint of ecologists, a title that honours his boundless love for animals and nature. While I do not wish this to become a sexist issue, I understand the attendance at coursing meetings is predominantly male. Regrettably, the majority of women elected to this House will vote to continue this cruel practice. Perhaps the women in the political parties who share my views and do not like this wanton cruelty to defenceless animals will stand up to their male counterparts. I also know, because they have told me, that there are men in the various political parties who are against the practice of live hare coursing and they would like to see it banned. However, they will be subject to the Whip. I have asked for a free vote on this matter, part of the new politics, and I continue to live in hope that this time next week, I might get that free vote. I stress that there is an alternative. I believe that the rag coursing in Australia starts in May. Not a single hare will be snatched from its natural home in the countryside to serve as bait. Not a single hare will be obliged to endure the terror of the chase in a wire-enclosed field or endure being mauled, struck or pinned to the ground, as happens here. However, the fun can continue with the rag coursing. Were one to google hare coursing, everything that comes up is negative and were one to google images of hare coursing, one will see scenes of terrible cruelty. I cannot believe the Minister can talk about concerns for the welfare of the hare while statistics, evidence and figures showing the exact opposite, where there is wanton cruelty, is available. I refer to the line from Gandhi to the effect that first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win. Animal welfare people have been ignored, we have been laughed at, we have been fought with but we will win. We may not win next Thursday but we will win at some future date.