18 August 2005 Edition
Hare Coursing debate: For and Against
Hare coursing is a very popular pastime in many parts of rural Ireland. In recent years it has come in for increasing criticism and calls have been raised for the practice to be outlawed. This week An Phoblacht carries arguments from both sides of the divide. An Phoblacht columnist MATT TREACY says hare coursing should be left alone and suggests that the demand for it to be banned is but the thin end of a wedge which would also see horse racing and greyhound racing eventually banned. But AIDEEN YOURELL of Irish Council Against Blood Sports, says hare coursing is a cruel and unnecessary practice, satisfying a sadistic lust and demands that it be banned now.
A highly regulated sport
One of the most vocal opponents of hare coursing in Ireland over the past decades has been the dramatist Hugh Leonard. According to Leonard, supporters of the sport have descended the wrong side of the evolutionary tree. Mind you this is the same person who, when asked what he would do if told he had only a few days to live, said that he would kill Gerry Adams! Maybe that's an extreme example but I refuse to be lectured on the morality of greyhounds chasing a hare by someone who supported the British war in Ireland.
The first thing to be said about coursing is that not many people actually know what the sport is about. I have argued with opponents who think that the object is for the greyhounds to catch and kill the hare. There are others who believe that it is the same as track racing except that the hare is alive. There are also a considerable number who are not aware that since 1993 the dogs are muzzled.
As well then to begin with a description of what actually takes place at a coursing meeting. Two dogs are released by the 'slipper' when the hare enters the course and is well over 100 yards from the dogs. The dog that comes closest to the hare, causing it to 'turn', is awarded what in coursing parlance is called the 'buckle'. In other words it is a competition based on speed, not on the ability to catch the hare. The hare does sometimes get killed when hit by a dog but it is an extremely rare occurrence since the introduction of muzzling. Coursing takes place between October and February and is forbidden during the hare's breeding season.
It is a highly regulated sport, under the control of the Irish Coursing Club, and those involved in it are generally deeply knowledgeable about both the greyhounds and the hares and the countryside. Far more so than some of the hare's suburbanite champions who would be hard put to distinguish one from a small horse.
Personally speaking I prefer track racing but coursing is a great spectacle. It is a sport that has been popular in Ireland for over 200 years in an organised fashion but dates back far longer. Undoubtedly that is a reflection of the sport's origins in older hunting traditions with the element of the catching and killing of the prey taken out.
It's 'primitive' origins have been used as another argument against coursing. All sports have primitive origins, and the more popular they are the more primitive they probably are. Just look at the Olympics — track and field are by far the most popular and date back thousands of years to when people competed with one another in running, jumping and throwing as forms of amusement. Another popular Olympic sport is boxing.
The origins of sport are the same as the origins of all forms of human art and culture. Humans have always competed against one another with their bodies and brains and they always will. They have also used animals in many of those competitions, as they have for food, clothing and other purposes. Perhaps it is an atavistic instinct on the part of humans that most of us enjoy some sort of sport, be it 15 men playing football or hurling, horse racing, fishing, chess or coursing.
Perhaps, but I would suggest that until we find a way of eliminating real violence and real bloodshed from our own relations with other humans, that we leave sport — and that includes sport involving animals like horses, dogs and hares — alone. I would also suspect that if the proponents of a ban on coursing are successful that they will then attempt to ban greyhound track racing and horse racing. No doubt we can all amuse ourselves then by attending Mr Leonard's dull plays.
Hare coursing was introduced to this country from Britain, having been brought there by the Romans who were of course infamous for their circuses where humans and animals were slaughtered in barbaric and blood-curdling contests for the entertainment of the masses.
Every year, from September to February, compliments of our Environment Minister, up to 7,000 hares are snatched from the wild for hare coursing, despite the hare's "protected" status under the Wildlife Act and current concerns that its numbers may be in decline.
Once driven into nets, these timid and normally solitary animals are shoved into boxes and transported to coursing compounds. They are medicated, fed an unnatural diet and "trained" to run before the dogs towards an "escape area" which is really another enclosed compound. All of this constitutes gross interference and trauma for a wild animal, cruelly ripped out of its natural habitat.
On the day of coursing the hares must run for their lives before two greyhounds. The muzzles now worn by the hounds do not eliminate the cruelty. Hares can be struck, tossed into the air and mauled into the ground, and the Irish Council Against Blood Sports has video proof of this. This disturbing footage was secured with great difficulty as "unauthorised photography" is strictly forbidden at coursing meetings.
Prior to the introduction of muzzling in 1993, coursing chief, Gerry Desmond, was on public record as stating that muzzles caused damage to hares. Now he continually attempts to assert that the kill has "effectively" been taken out of coursing, despite evidence to the contrary. At the national finals in Clonmel last February, for example, the coursers told RTÉ News that there were no hares killed. Yet, according to documents obtained by ICABS under the Freedom of Information Act, the National Parks & Wildlife Service reported seven hares "hit" over a two day period, three killed and one put down because of its injuries.
In fact, out of the 34 coursing meetings monitored by NPWS Conservation Rangers in 2004-'05, 57 hares died from injuries sustained when mauled by coursing dogs, according to the official records. Other abuses noted were hares with serious injuries released into the wild, 20 hares which appeared to be suffering from malnutrition, dead hares found in boxes following a four-and-a-half hour road journey, and 16 young orphaned leverets found in a coursing compound which meant that pregnant hares had been taken from the wild and probably coursed.
Stress is a significant factor in hare mortalities. In 2003, following the death of up to 40 hares after a coursing meeting at New Ross, County Wexford, a veterinary surgeon cited stress as the cause, stating that the corralling and coursing of the hares caused such stress that their immune system was compromised, resulting in "severe clinical disease and ultimately death".
There is a humane alternative to this cruelty — mechanical lure coursing — successfully practiced in Australia and the USA, but the coursers refuse to consider it, obviously preferring the sadistic thrill they get from watching a timid wild creature run in terror for its life before two hounds.
Surely in this year 2005, it's time to call a halt to hare coursing and other forms of hunting wild animals with dogs. It's ironic that Ireland is now the last outpost of a barbaric blood sport, inherited from our neighbours across the water who themselves have now seen fit to outlaw it, along with fox and deer hunting with dogs. Meanwhile our government seems quite content to turn a blind eye to this undeniable cruelty and the fact that, according to independent polls, 80% of the population, North and South, want it banned.
o For more information on our campaign to outlaw hare coursing and other cruel bloodsports, readers may access our website at www.banbloodsports.com or alternatively contact us at PO Box 88, Mullingar, County Westmeath, tel: 044-49848.