Saturday 17 March 2018

The demise of the Bull Island hares

There are no longer any Irish mountain hares running free on the North Bull Island Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
There are no longer any Irish mountain hares running free on the North Bull Island Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Joe Kennedy

The hare coursing political lobby has succeeded again in killing a parliamentary Bill to ban the organised activity.

Just 20 TDs voted in favour, 114 against, in the Dail. Coursing is illegal in Northern Ireland, and the rest of the UK. Independent deputy Maureen O'Sullivan had brought the Bill but a free vote was refused by Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, which made its passing impossible, though many deputies are opposed to coursing.

There are no longer any Irish mountain hares (lepus timidus hibernicus) running free on that great green lung on the edge of Dublin, North Bull Island.

Greyhounds being slipped by the hands of humans in a chase for gain are not responsible this time but rather any old breed of family pet wandering at large or released for exercise has done its dirty work. Harassment by family dogs is the principal reason for the extinction of the island's current population of the timid creatures. Officially, there are now no hares left on the Bull.

I asked Dublin City Council's parks department for an update last week. A spokesman reported that during a hare survey on the North Bull last spring, no animals were seen either during the day or at night. Now the council, along with the National Parks and wildlife Service, "and other stakeholders, will further monitor the island to determine what means will be required to facilitate a sustainable hare population."

The hares of Bull Island are recalled for those iconic newspaper and magazine photographs of the animals taken especially during major golfing events in years past. The population gradually fell to a mere handful on this windswept island of sand dunes and marram grass, unique to the capital.

Some years ago there was re-stocking from a colony at Mosney, Co Meath. This handful grew to about 30 animals but not many of the original travellers survived because of what is called capture myopathy, a combination of fear and anxiety caused by handling. But their offspring did - for a time.

The regular presence of family dogs was not fully realised, though warning signage was erected to keep animals on the leash. This was generally ignored. I saw visitors park cars to read and listen to the radio and release their pets to run about. These dogs did not kill any hares, or birds, though. But chasing and disturbance leads to death from stress and trauma.

This is what Dr Donald Bloom, a Cambridge professor of animal welfare, had to say: "When a hare is chased by a predator (a dog) it will show physiological changes associated with extreme fear - greatly elevated heart rate and high level of emergency adrenal hormone production."

"Such responses can result in reduced life expectancy and risk of cardiovascular breakdown. Whether the hare is caught or not (in coursing) its welfare will be very poor afterwards."

One official suggestion is that with another re-stocking programme, all dogs will be banned from the North Bull. The threat of fines would alert and embarrass the careless visitor. This would require wardening, at least in the early stages so that the re-introduced hares would be left in peace and does would not be forced to give birth at the soft margins of the island where, in the past, leverets have been swept away by the incoming tides.

Sunday Independent

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