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Henry McKean: Banning bloodsports here is no simple matter. This I've learned

AFTER a bitter vote last year, John Gormley's now nearly defunct Green Party managed to ban the Ward Union Stag Hunt in Co Meath. Fine Gael now plan to reverse the ban, but their Coalition partners Labour hope to keep it.

Rural Ireland was upset with the Fianna Fail/Green stag hunting ban and the parties took a hammering in many areas.

Before I joined a TV3 crew to make The Truth About Irish Bloodsports, I imagined hunting to be a cruel sport for West Brits. I was to change my mind.

At Laois hunt in Abbeyleix, families from all walks of life took part. Despite the rain a big turn out showed up for the opening meet of the season. I met Dick Power, general secretary of the Hunting Association of Ireland, who said: "It's for people at every level of society. Of course there are posh people involved, but there are many who aren't."

Fox hunting has been popular in Ireland for centuries and is part of the fabric of Irish country life. I visited the Laois Hunt kennels and saw hounds with a direct blood line back to England for 400 years.

During filming, my producer Philip Gallagher and I visited a hare coursing meet in Edenderry, Co Offaly, where were given a rude welcome. They wouldn't let us in to film so we stood outside behind big hedges and blacked out gates.

But then, at a Hare Coursing event at Ballyduff in North Kerry I bumped into Bill Cullen's sidekick and TV3 Apprentice judge Brian Purcell. Here we received a much warmer reception and got to experience hare coursing with openness and warmth from the people of Kerry.

It is a well-regulated sport, with hares being checked by vets and tagged. Brian Purcell said: "Since 1993, greyhounds have been muzzled so the hare gets away. The hare has more stamina than a greyhound.

"I've been helping my dad since I was four years of age and have owned greyhounds ever since. Unfortunately in this country there's a big divide between city and rural life. If the Government is looking towards future employment and wealth, they should look at rural economies. There's a lot of money to be made from greyhounds. Over 11,000 people are employed in it."

What emerged to me is that the issue is not black and white. Clearly, tradition such as this cannot be given up over night. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said recently that the Hunting Bill was one of the measures he most regretted.

Blair said: "If I'd proposed solving the pension problem by compulsory euthanasia for every fifth pensioner I'd have got less trouble for it. By the end, I felt like the damn fox."

Me? I think in Ireland hunting will probably never be banned because there isn't enough will at political level to do anything about it. It is such a part of Irish culture.

All politics is local and after what happened to the Green Party in the countryside, no one will take on the hunting lobby and expect to win easily.

I don't like to see any animal suffer. I love animals and to watch a fox or hare in pain and worried for its life is not nice. But we have to weigh up tradition and way of life against a backdrop of hardline vegetarians, many having their own agenda.

Believe it or not, I was sitting on the fence but after making this documentary, I find myself falling off on the side of the hunters.

Are we right to end a centuries-old tradition, just to keep a fox alive which a farmer might shoot anyway? The fox is the Lion King of the farmland, ruling over all other animals constantly out-foxing us.

According to Dick Power, general secretary of the Hunting Association of Ireland, the hunted fox is dead in seconds and feels very little pain. I met Ger Foley at the ploughing championships in Athy, Co Kildare, who said he had been involved in hunting for 50 years.

"The fox will last for 20 seconds if he's caught, there is more killed on the roads than we kill hunting, what about the poor hen when he catches her and carries her 10 miles along fields and she's alive for the length that he's carrying her?"

Henry McKean is a reporter on Newstalk 106-108. The Truth About Irish Bloodsports airs tonight at 10pm on TV3