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'Once I tried it, I was hooked'

Joanne Quirke is a 30-year-old vegetarian from Skerries, Co Dublin. She is also a keen stag hunter and has been left reeling from the decision by the Dail to ban her beloved pastime.

A member of the Ward Union -- the country's only stag hunt -- she is anxious to quash misperceptions. "The stag is not killed," she says. "That is not the purpose of what we do. The stag is released and then it is chased and caught and brought back to the deer reservation. Sometimes, the stag escapes completely. I have only been on one hunt where the stag died and that was accidental."

Joanne, a business development manager at a Meath hotel, believes this week's vote could precipitate a change for traditional rural pursuits. "It could be the end of normal hunting, coursing. . . you name it," she says. "It's a worrying, uncertain time."

Her interest in horses dates back to her childhood when she joined the Ward Union Pony Club at 11. Stag hunting came a few years later. "Once I tried it, I was hooked. There's an incredible thrill when up to 50 of you are riding through beautiful countryside with hounds at your side. The Ward Union has been going for more than 150 years and it has a hugely positive impact on the economy. It upsets me to think that I may not be able to go stag hunting again."

She has got used to defending her love of stag hunting, especially to people who erroneously assume the deer are killed at the end of the hunt. And she insists that the stags -- which are farmed by the Ward Union -- enjoy a high standard of living. "They are so well looked after and there is always a vet present during the hunt. There are more deer killed by cars in the Phoenix Park every year than stags killed -- accidentally -- at hunts, but you don't hear anybody talk about that."

Despite its elitist past, she rejects the notion that hunts are peopled chiefly by the well-to-do. "I'm certainly not from that background and most of my friends who hunt aren't either, but it suits those who oppose hunting to put out that old notion."

--John Meagher

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