Lack of insurance cover forces cancellation of Meath Hunt event

Warning that issue is impacting wider equine industry with costs having spiralled

The Meath Hunt’s pack out for daily exercise on St Stephen’s Day with  huntsman John Henry, ‘Whipper’ Barry Finnegan and huntsman Kenny Henry. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The Meath Hunt’s pack out for daily exercise on St Stephen’s Day with huntsman John Henry, ‘Whipper’ Barry Finnegan and huntsman Kenny Henry. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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A move by a UK-based insurance company to withdraw cover for countryside pursuits could succeed where thousands of protestors over many decades have failed by bringing a stop to fox and hare hunting in Ireland.

The Meath Hunt has been running for more than 200 years but its chairman Graham O’Reilly said its annual St Stephen’s Day hunt had to be abandoned because it was unable to find an insurance company to cover the event.

In November the primary insurer in Ireland, a UK-based subsidiary of US parent company Liberty Mutual, announced that it would no longer renew policies in Ireland blaming high claims costs for the move.

Liberty Insurance Ireland left the commercial market here two years ago, leaving no Irish-based insurance underwriter for the sport.

Insurance costs for clubs over the past year for race meetings have doubled or tripled, in some cases bringing premiums to €12,000 or more.

Before Christmas, meetings were held between Government officials and the Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Committee, insurance industry representatives and hunt clubs but without resolution.

Mr O’Reilly said there was “no-one to fill the gap” and the Meath Hunt had been effectively stopped as a result.

He said the insurance difficulties would have serious implications for not only hunting but the wider equine industry with over 14,000 jobs now at risk. He added that it would also have consequences for point to point racing as well as for National Hunt racing industry.

He said hunts across the country were trying to come up with alternative solutions but he could not say when or if the horses and dogs in his pack would be allowed to run again.

“I think the insurance companies are after the low hanging fruit, public liability or fire insurance and they see covering outdoor pursuits as higher risk,” he told The Irish Times.

“Hunters can sometimes draw adverse publicity but it is a tradition in Ireland,” he continued.

However he said hunting did have considerable support suggesting that tens of thousands of people come to watch the hunt - or “the lovely spectacle” as he called it - in Meath each Christmas.

It has been run since 1817 and his family have been involved since the very beginning. He himself has been hunting for more than 40 years and had never seen a fox killed, he said.

“I don’t consider it cruel in the slightest, it is part of our culture and in our DNA. I know that there are urban elements who are anti-blood sports but at this stage it is not really a blood sport at all. I have never seen a fox killed and I have been hunting since I was seven years old.”