Minister for Heritage Josepha Madigan has defended her decision to lift the ban on hare coursing because of the outbreak of a disease deadly to hares and rabbits.
The rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) has been confirmed in four hares in Dublin and Wexford and in 21 rabbits in 10 counties.
The Minister originally suspended the licence allowing coursing clubs to tag and net hares for the coursing season which runs from autumn to spring.
But she later revoked the ban following intensive lobbying and a heated meeting with 16 rural-based Government TDs, and introduced a revised licensing system with specific conditions attached to the licences.
She said there have been no new cases detected since October and the new restrictions prohibit the capture of hares and coursing activity within a 25km radius of where wild rabbits or hares have tested positive for the disease. New zones would be added on an ongoing basis if more animals test positive in these areas.
She added that some coursing events have already been affected by the requirement that all captured hares must be certified in writing as healthy by a veterinary surgeon.
The situation was being constantly monitored and “we will have to review these licences again” if more hares test positive.
But Independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan described the U-turn as “reckless” and said a huge amount of work is involved in implementing the restrictions including field studies, tests, secure paddocks, CCTV, micro-chipping, nominated monitoring personnel and a scientific literary review of the impacts of RHD1 and RHD2.
“I wonder what the additional cost will be as opposed to a straightforward ban on netting.”
A long-time campaigner on animal rights, Ms O’Sullivan cited “clear expert advice” from National Parks and Wildlife Service scientists that the RHD2 virus could “potentially wipe out the entire hare population”.
To date RHD2 – the second iteration of the virus – has been confirmed in four hares in Dublin and Wexford and in 21 rabbits in 10 counties – Carlow, Clare, Cork, Kildare, Leitrim, Meath, Offaly, Tipperary, Wexford and Wicklow.
Outlining the history of the disease in the Dáil this week, Ms Madigan said the original RHD disease first emerged in China in 1984 and millions of animals were killed within a year of its discovery.
A new and more virulent RHD2 strain emerged in France in 2010 and has been detected throughout Europe in hares and rabbits. Ms Madigan said the symptoms are quite distressing and “most distressingly, before the animal dies, there are fits and convulsions which are very distressing to witness”.
The Minster acknowledged that if the virus prove as infectious or lethal in Ireland as elsewhere in Europe “the impact on the hare population would be catastrophic”.
She added that “it is important that we brought the Irish Coursing Club on board, together with the Department of Agriculture so that we have a collaborative approach to dealing with this”.
There are an estimated 250,000 hares in Ireland and approximately two million rabbits.