Sunday 8 December 2019

If it's the risk of a hare's death that makes coursing a spectacle, how can it be a sport?

The semi-final of the 2012 National Hare Coursing Championship
The semi-final of the 2012 National Hare Coursing Championship
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

It is outlawed in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales - but in Ireland, people pack flasks and sandwiches and turn up to watch live hare coursing as entertainment.

Wild hares are netted by coursing clubs and held in pens for up to six weeks before a coursing fixture. Then, for the crowd's enjoyment and with the bookies offering odds, the hares are forced to run from greyhounds in fear of their lives.

Some hares - not many but some - die as a result. Coursing is regulated, the greyhounds are muzzled and vets are present, but death and injury are part of this so-called sport.

Mountain hares are a protected species under Irish law. Yet an exemption allows them to be trapped under licence for the coursing season, currently running until the end of February.

While 99pc of hares are returned to the wild after spectators have had their fun, a number are killed or mauled and must be put down. Twenty-nine hares died during the 2015-2016 season. Twenty-nine examples of a species listed as internationally important. And it happens in the name of sport, cultural heritage and the Irish way of life.

In all, 5,644 hares were captured for coursing last year, according to the Irish Coursing Club (ICC), which held its national meeting over three days in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, last weekend. Around 28,500 people attended, including from overseas - a boost for the local hospitality industry.

But that economic surge comes at a cost. Cruelty to animals is the price tag.

Supporters speak of their conservationist role, and warn that banning it will drive coursing underground. However, if you look at coursing footage - and there is plenty online - the conclusion becomes inescapable: this is a brutal spectacle.

A terrorised hare zigzags, pursued by a pair of greyhounds. Usually, the hare escapes injury because the dogs are muzzled - but occasionally you see hares tossed into the air, or cornered and attacked before handlers run to the creature's rescue.

No animal deserves to be forced to run for its life from predators, so that onlookers can cheer and lay bets. It happens naturally in the wild, but it is uncivilised to turn it into entertainment.

What's even less acceptable is for the Government to be party to this barbarity, via licences for hare trapping and regulation of the industry. Just three EU countries permit live hare coursing and Ireland is one of them. The others are Portugal and Spain, where bullfighting sets the bar low in relation to animal welfare.

Some 202 of these gentle, timid creatures were used in the Clonmel fixtures. In fairness, only two were injured. But for what? So that live lures would ramp up the excitement?

It is, of course, an industry - at least 30 bookies were doing business in Clonmel. In addition, spectators are charged an admission fee and greyhound owners pay to enter their dogs.

The ICC, which manages and regulates 89 clubs nationwide, insists it takes care and conservation seriously. Hares can be chased twice provided it happens on consecutive days. Afterwards, they are tagged and released, and cannot be trapped again for coursing. It says: "Without the efforts of our sport, the hare population would be without the significant layer of protection it presently enjoys from the hare husbandry initiatives afforded by coursing clubs on a 12-month basis."

These points, while valid, ignore the overriding question of how it can possibly be humane to trap hares in the first instance and impose the stress of captivity - never mind the outright terror that follows?

Coursing clubs do play an important role in reporting to the gardaí about gangs of men with packs of unmuzzled dogs chasing hares. Unless guards catch these groups at the kill it is very hard to secure convictions, however. We can safely assume that more hares are killed in this way than by regulated coursing. But any kind of coursing, whether regulated or unregulated, contains inbuilt cruelty.

And so to Rathdowney Coursing Club in Laois, investigated by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) following the mysterious disappearance of 40 hares held in a pen last November, prior to a fixture.

In the Dáil, TD Clare Daly said dogs had penetrated the enclosure and killed the hares. The club rejected this, saying they escaped through a hole in the wire.

An NPWS report found no evidence of dogs being responsible - although a site visit did not happen until some days later - but raised questions about the hares' fate. It pointed to a "lack of urgency" on the club's part to retrieve the missing hares, with an investigator saying "one would be forgiven for concluding that the club knew the hares were not there".

Clare Meade from the club told the Irish Independent that reports about what happened to the hares were wrong, but declined to set the record straight.

The ICC said the club was sanctioned. Its directive requires clubs to "take particular care" with hare stocks and clearly a failure took place. Rathdowney had its licence to net hares and hold coursing events rescinded until the close of the current season.

Overall, it is an odd episode, and raises questions about negligence towards hares captured for coursing, for all the conservation talk.

Irish politicians had an opportunity to ban coursing last June, when Independent TD Maureen O'Sullivan took a Private Member's Bill. But the party whip was applied and the bill fell, with Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Labour all voting en masse for hare coursing.

To their credit, ministers Shane Ross and Finian McGrath consulted their consciences and supported the bill.

However, Fine Gael's Heather Humphreys, minister responsible for issuing licences, advanced the view that coursing was an integral part of the rural community. Independent Mattie McGrath waxed lyrical about how "arts and heritage come together" at meetings and the interest is passed from father to son. Sinn Féin's Martin Kenny put forward the justification about a ban pushing it underground. Shame on every TD who ignored their conscience to follow the party line.

Compromise solutions to live coursing are available. For example, greyhound speed and dexterity can be demonstrated with drag coursing, with no live hares used as bait.

Unless it is the defenceless hare's fear and flight which lends a frisson to the spectacle? Which returns us to the issue of what's civilised behaviour - and what's not.

Irish Independent

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