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Country matters: Terror trials of timid hares


Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Aideen Yourell, of the Irish Council Against Blood Sports (ICABS), in a press release, says intimidating language was used to her colleagues during recent filming of hare coursing at Millstreet, Co Cork.

ICABS monitors were there recording "terrified hares running for their lives". Last weekend there were three days of "live hare baiting", as ICABS terms it, at a national event at Powerstown Park, Clonmel, where "timid animals, snatched from the wild, were forced to run before greyhounds".

Hare coursing is contentious. It has been long outlawed in Britain and in recent years the North followed suit. But in the Republic, when the new Animal Welfare Act became law in 2012, coursing was exempted. Political lobbying continues to maintain what supporters contend is a traditional field sport. One wonders how Simon Coveney and Heather Humphreys can feel comfortable about this cruel activity. Is it not past time that greyhound folk who live to run their dogs find other outlets for their enthusiasm? I was once such a soldier, I confess. But many years back I ceased killing wild creatures, left my gun club, stopped fishing. I kept my springer spaniel and its Jack Russell pal which still set to flight rabbits and pheasants as they ran in the snipe grass, but nothing was killed.

In boyhood I had followed open coursing, tramped fields with a butter box for a bookie to stand on, for two shillings for the day. All changed when one evening I heard a shot hare's eerie scream that sounded like a child's. William Blake, in his magnificent litany, 'Auguries of Innocence', was blunt: "Each outcry of the hunted hare / A fibre from the brain does tear." Robert Burns, on seeing a wounded animal limp by him, was incensed: "Inhuman man! Curse on they barb'rous art / And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye."

The Irish mountain hare (lepus timidus hibernicus), a living link with the Ice Age fauna of 10,000 years ago, is in decline. As well as coursing's toll there are beagling clubs, licensed by the Parks and Wildlife Service, to hunt and kill with dogs, a weekend activity whose participants might say they only tramp the countryside for exercise.

Let the hare sit is an old exhortation to leave well enough alone. When a hare sits up in a field it is a signal to a snooping fox that he has lost the element of surprise. He knows he will be outrun by the hare so he gives up. But greyhounds are not natural predators of hares and when a hare sits up in a coursing paddock they will pursue. The hare will run in panic, more terror added to the earlier shock when it was netted and enclosed. These elements contribute to a fatal condition called stress myopathy for which later death by "natural causes," rather than being struck by muzzled dogs, is often a euphemism.

Dr Donald Broom, a Cambridge animal welfare scientist, says the hunted hare will show physiological changes associated with extreme fear which will reduce its life expectancy, whether it is injured or not.

Farmers will point out there are fewer hares now in the countryside than in the past because of changed farming practices. Vast monocultural tracts of grass provide little cover for the animals; they might as well be in a desert and may no longer easily "lick the dewfall from the barley's head".

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