Arts Minister Josepha Madigan has been forced to conduct a high-security study of hares after a heated meeting of Fine Gael ministers and TDs over a ban on coursing.
The Government is now going to catch up to 500 hares and keep them in secure paddocks, monitored by CCTV, with biosecurity measures to assess the spread of a virus affecting rabbits and hares.
Coursing is currently banned due to an outbreak of Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease, RHD2, described as ‘rabbit foot and mouth’.
The start of the coursing season has been delayed due to the threat of the disease, which is not harmful to humans.
Ms Madigan has now put together a “road map on greater understanding of impacts of RHD2 on the Irish Hare”.
The study will involve the capture of 100 wild hares at five locations around the country.
Each hare will be microchipped under veterinary supervision and have swabs taken before release into a “hare park”.
Ms Madigan’s department is in charge of wildlife and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NWPS).
The Arts Minister and Agriculture Minister Michael Creed held a meeting of Fine Gael Oireachtas members on Wednesday afternoon attended by about 30 ministers, TDs and Senators, including eight junior ministers.
Ms Madigan is said to have been left under no illusion this was a big problem in rural Ireland.
“She is under an awful lot of pressure. I’d say she got a bit of a land. The Taoiseach even mentioned the meeting at the parliamentary party meeting,” a TD present said.
Dublin Bay South Kate O’Connell was described as speaking “the most vociferously and cogently on the topic, remarkably for a Dublin TD”.
Ms Madigan and her officials were pressed on the rationale behind the ban.
“I haven’t seen the likes of it for years. The minister was warned there was a fair amount of heat. I don’t think this will be enough for the coursing club. The temperature was high. She said she wants to find a resolution to this issue,” a TD said.
“It was hot and heavy. Some of the officials in the room were questioned hard. The points from the coursing club were put to them. It was a good listening process.”
In a memo to Fine Gael TDs, the minister said the NWPS and the Department of Agriculture will conduct a series of “controlled science-based field tests” for three to four 4 weeks.
“Hare paddocks shall be secured, be monitored by CCTV and nominated identified personnel so that the behaviour of the hares can be observed and recorded at all times.
“Appropriate and agreed biosecurity measures shall be put in place beforehand and maintained throughout,” the minister’s memo to TD says.
In a letter to Fine Gael TDs, the minister said hare carcasses found in Wexford and Dublin have tested positive for the disease.
“We are finalising a roadmap which would allow for the collection of hares in a number of locations to assist the study of RHD2 in Irish hares. Working with the Irish Coursing Club, this will inform the possibility of limited licensing during the coursing season,” she wrote.
Clubs need a licence to catch hares for coursing meets.
Without any hares being netted and collected, there can be no coursing.
The ban on coursing licences follows the suspension of the promotion of greyhound racing in tourism marketing due to animal welfare concerns.
Last Sunday night, a rally of over 600 greyhound industry supporters, addressed by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Independent TDs, demanded the lifting of the ban on catching hares.
But campaigners say there is research showing hares do not transmit the disease.