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Can coursing be good for hares? The strange answer is yes

Hare density has been found to be 18 times higher in a coursing club’s hunting grounds

Illustration: Michael Viney

The vertical bars on our front gates leave just enough room for a hare to jump through, as one does some mornings. It then takes a pause before a cautious scamper down the path and a swerve around the box bush brings it to the grass below the window where I watch.

A quietly feeding hare, so close, does touch the heart – and even, as it were, the mental fingertips, so soft the deep fur on its back, the velvet, dark-tipped ears. I once skinned hares for the pot: not shot, but judiciously gathered as roadkill, prone at the edge of heathery verges.

As for the innocence of hares, expressed in every eyelash and quiver of the nose, this can have different meanings. I quote from The Experienced Huntsman, published in 1714 (but still there in James Fairley’s edition: google it), a compelling little book by Arthur Stringer, chief huntsman to a big house beside Lough Neagh.

“As I look upon a hare, or believe her to be the most innocent beast living, so I am satisfied that nature hath taught her the most innocent way of self-preservation, it being altogether defensive ... first, her swift running; secondly, her doubling; thirdly, her squatting ...

“I could write several instances to prove that a hare makes more doubles when she moves or runs of herself without molestation than she doth when hunted, especially if she be hard driven with hounds ... Knowing that she sees better behind than before, she is often coming back, or doubling, that she may see if there be any thing to annoy or fright her.”

Prevention of cruelty is now the sole focus of protest, since the idea that coursing contributes to hare decline has failed ecological study

How this works in hare coursing I do not know, for the natural terror of the hare (“very cowardly or fearful” said Stringer) when pursued by greyhounds was never my pleasure. But rural recreation and human empathy continue to collide in the Republic, Spain and Portugal, the last EU states to allow coursing.

Animal-rights protests, revived in the Dáil before Christmas, continue despite muzzling of the dogs and adoption of “care for the hare” by the coursing clubs. “Wonderful in theory,” agreed TD Maureen O’Sullivan, but “Government regulation of it is not working”.

Native lagomorph

Prevention of cruelty is now the sole focus of protest, since the idea that coursing contributes to hare decline has failed ecological study.

This has been the speciality of Neil Reid, lecturer in conservation biology at Queen’s University Belfast. Conservation of the Irish hare, Lepus timidus hibernicus, was his PhD thesis in 2006 and has driven his research since then. As the only native lagomorph “there can,” Reid enthuses, “be no more Irish an animal”.

He now wants the help of citizen science in an all-Ireland hare survey, funded by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and recorded at the National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford.

The last all-Ireland estimate suggested about 500,000 animals in 2007. Recording since then has been patchy. While numbers have seemingly stabilised at about three hares per square kilometre, there are gaps across the island that people could fill by sending sightings to the National Biodiversity Data Centre website (biodiversityireland.ie).

Changes in agriculture in the later 20th century took the hare population to a record low in the mid-1990s, as farming “reclaimed” more marginal land and meadows were mown for silage. When Reid began his study it seemed that, given the vigour of animal-rights controversy, he needed to measure the actual impact of coursing on hare numbers. He set out to compare their abundance in local “preserves” of the Irish Coursing Club with that of the wider countryside (“Integrating field sports, hare population management and conservation” ).

In today’s precarious natural world, wildlife survival must sometimes depend on such varieties of human enthusiasm, even those quite alien to one’s own

Random shooting

The preserves are traditional hunting grounds of some 76 coursing clubs for the annual netting of hares. By agreement with farmers, these are barred to random shooting and kept free of foxes.

A first comparison – and the one that delighted the Irish Coursing Club – suggested that “mean hare density was 18 times higher” in their preserves. Even allowing that clubs may have selected the better, and conserved, hare habitats, the density remained three times higher.

“Any change in the legal status of hare coursing under animal welfare grounds,” Reid concluded, “may necessitate an increase in government subsidies for conservation on private land, together with strengthened capacity for legislation enforcement.” Meanwhile, he estimated, the 6,000 or so hares netted by the Irish Coursing Club each year kill 0.1 per cent of the total adult population.

On such ecological analysis, coursing is, indeed, “good” for hares, as the club attests. Hunters of game can, with similar justice, point to their part in conserving local woods and wetlands. In today’s precarious natural world, wildlife survival must sometimes depend on such varieties of human enthusiasm, even those quite alien to one’s own.