I read somewhere (probably on Twitter) very recently that there are serious moves afoot to have hare coursing banned in Ireland. I hope that the process runs smoothly and speedily. One of the subjects on which I’ll be talking at a wildlife crime conference in Ireland in September is illegal hare coursing (hopefully it will all be illegal by that time). It seems appropriate now to share a couple of short pieces from my chapter in how wildlife crime is dealt with in Ireland from my book The Thin Green Line. These two short pieces follow on from a longer piece on the shame of disposable greyhounds in Ireland:
Hunting the Fox
Cruelty can also be associated with foxhunting, which is banned in Britain in its traditional manner where the intent is for the hounds to catch and kill the fox. This is still legal in Ireland and attracts hunts from Britain whose members are not content with driving the foxes forward to people waiting with guns to shoot them, or drag hunting, where the end game is for the hounds to follow an artificial scent laid in advance. Though I used to take part in rough shooting and occasionally driven game shooting – much less so now – I have no issue with field sports where the creature killed as part of the sport is eaten, or the true objective of the day is pest control. I have no issue with fox hunting as it is carried out in Scotland (and perhaps some other parts of the UK) where the intention as part of pest control is to have people on foot with hounds to chase the fox forward to be shot, or with the use of terriers in fox dens in spring. I have never been an advocate of fox hunting on horseback that purports to be pest control but in reality is sport. If those that took part ate the foxes they killed I might change my views.
What makes this sport worse is when the fox being hunted ‘goes to ground’ and is dug up. This happened during a hunt in 2008 with two Irish foxhound packs, with a pack of hounds and their followers from Cumbria taking part as guests in what was described as an act of barbarism by a witness. The witness described how a group of men dug foxes out of their underground refuge with spades and iron bars, then killed them in direct violation of what the witness described as ‘the good sport’ of leaving foxes who have outwitted the hounds alone once they are underground. The allegations included one man tossing a helpless captive fox from a bag to the waiting dogs. The witness said that he “thought bagged foxes were a relic of darker times and consigned to the history books. The anti-foxhunting brigade can hang up their boots; foxhunting will end as a result of the actions of its own followers.” That may well turn out to be the case.
This incident was not reported to the gardaí though it appears that they knew about it and were waiting for an official report so that they could investigate the allegation of cruelty. There is no doubt that had that taken place in Britain, full-time wildlife crime officers would have made it their business to elicit a complaint.
And foxhunters wonder why public opinion is against them
As I related earlier, hare coursing is still practised in Ireland, but with the greyhounds muzzled. Again this is a sport that I have little truck with as the end result is not for the pot. Hares are netted under licence and brought to enclosures, where they are released singly for the dogs to chase.
In September 2006 a farmer from Raharney, CountyWestmeath, was charged with trapping hares without a licence. He held hare coursing meetings on his land and was found guilty of hunting 18 hares without a Department of Environment licence. A licence granted to the Irish Coursing Club by Environment Minister, Dick Roche, allowed the Raharney-based coursers to take hares from the wild after September 1st. The hares in question were found at the end of August when National Park and Wildlife Service officers inspected the club’s premises. The farmer concerned stated that the hares had only been caught the day before but a conservation ranger stated that in her experience the hares at the farm appeared to have been in the pen longer than a day and that it was unlikely that so many hares could have been trapped in a single day.
The coursing club was fined €300 for hunting hares without a licence and the club’s chairman, the farmer, was found guilty of the same offence but was not fined since the fine had been directed towards the club.
I am full of admiration for the conservation rangers who investigate these wildlife crimes. They have little or no training in interviewing skills yet have to counter a parcel of lies in many of their investigations. They cannot arrest a suspect and place him or her in a cell to be interviewed at a pace that best suits the investigation (though strangely neither can the gardaí except for an offence under Section 14A of the EC Natural Habitats Regulations 1997 and 2005. The gardaí are also empowered to arrest a suspect under Section 72(2A)(b) of the Wildlife Acts 1976 and 2000; this power was not given to conservation rangers). Yet they frequently can put together a watertight case that will satisfy the high standards of evidence in court. But how much more effective would this be with the conservation rangers and gardaí working in tandem.
Another very experienced conservation ranger, this time Enda Mullen from Wicklow, has had many encounters with hare coursers. Enda is now a District Conservation Officer with a number of conservation rangers working directly to her. She related the following tale while we relaxed in the bar after attending the National Wildlife Enforcers’ Conference at the ScottishPoliceCollege in November 2008.
“It is amazing sometimes how paths converge and how seemingly trivial events lead to something more significant. When I was a young ranger, we had a regional manager who didn’t like to say no to people, so, one day, when a woman rang up to say that her dog had been stolen, he asked me to contact her. Finding lost dogs is not part of the remit of the NPWS, but I rang her nevertheless. This is the tale she told me.
This woman, Mary, and her husband lived in a relatively remote area and had ‘adopted’ a rather large lurcher from the county dog pound. Being responsible owners, they had had it neutered and had shared their house with it for several years. Mary had worked for the Wildlife Service when it had been part of Forest & Wildlife, but was now a teacher in a second level school in Bray, about 10 miles from her house. One day she arrived home from school to find the door of the dog pen open, and the dog missing. Having searched high and low for the dog for several days, and having place posters throughout the locality, there was still no sign of him.
One of Mary’s classes at school was a group of 13 year-olds that she took for personal development lessons. As they were discussing emotions, one child asked her if she was ever sad. She told the class that she was very sad at that moment because someone had stolen her dog. After class, one boy hung back to talk to her. ‘Miss’, he said. ‘I know where your dog is and I can get it back for you’. He went on to say that it had been stolen by two of his neighbours who wanted a lurcher for hunting competitions. He described the competitions, telling her that the men and dogs would go to different parts of the country, and used their dogs to bring down whatever animals they could find. Different points were allocated to each species; so many points for a deer, a badger, a hare, and so on. The prize for the winner was a holiday for two in Spain. The child named Tinahely in Co. Wicklow as one of the locations where coursing took place.
A few days later when Mary returned home from work, she met her dog trotting up the road. There was nobody around and none of the neighbours had noticed anything. She went out and bought the thickest chain and the biggest lock she could find and used these on the dog pen from then on.
All was well for a number of weeks until Mary came home from work once more to find that the chain had been cut with a bolt cutter and that her dog had been stolen again. This time the child in school was not so forthcoming, saying he had been in ‘awful trouble’ for ‘squealing’ to her on the first occasion.
I kept in touch with Mary for a number of months, but to the best of my knowledge, she never saw her dog again. I made enquiries around Tinahely and spoke with colleagues around the country but we never managed to find any useful leads to these groups.
There is absolutely no doubt that such illegal coursing takes place. We had a case recently where one of my staff investigated some lamping at night and discovered that four men were using dogs but had no guns. He seized a deer and photographed the lurchers. We had an autopsy done on the deer which concluded that it had been killed by dogs and that it had not died quickly. Our powers under the Wildlife Act meant that we could prosecute them on two charges; for hunting at night using dogs, and hunting on land without permission. The gardaí added charges of animal cruelty under different legislation.
The case came before the district court in Carlow on several occasions where there were arguments about jurisdiction and the statute of limitations. Eventually it came to a hearing and the defendants said they would plead guilty to the animal cruelty charge if the Wildlife Act charges were dropped. The prosecution agreed to do this without consulting us. Ultimately the men were fined €400 each and ordered to pay a further €250 to the NPWS for expenses. Interestingly, a brother of one of these men was up on more conventional deer poaching charges at the same time.
About two or three years after I had spoken to Mary, there was a Mountain Rescue call out in very cold, icy weather, to Djouce Mountain, a few miles from Bray. Some young men and their dogs were missing having failed to return home the previous night. Their families gathered in the car park at the base of the mountain, praying, crying and keeping vigil. They were eventually found, dressed only in tee shirts and suffering from the early stages of hypothermia. They were accompanied by, yes, you’ve guessed it, their lurchers.
I believe that the biggest difficulty in stopping illegal coursing is lack of information. The coursers move in different circles entirely and even disaffected coursers are highly unlikely to ever share anything with the authorities.”
See The Thin Green Line and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org