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26 Nov 2002 : Column 286—continued


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 145(2)(Liaison Committee),

Question agreed to.



Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Industrial Organisation and Development

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Question agreed to.

26 Nov 2002 : Column 287


Stansted Airport

10.41 pm

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): I wish to present a petition on behalf of the residents of east Hertfordshire, north and west Essex and the surrounding communities. In just 14 weeks, the petition has attracted signatures and support from more than 33,000 people.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Consumers for Health Choice

10.43 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): I rise to present the petition of Mr. and Mrs. Brown of Fordingbridge, which has been signed by 230 of my constituents.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

26 Nov 2002 : Column 288

Hare Coursing (Northern Ireland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Derek Twigg.]

10.44 pm

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this subject this evening. First, it is a pleasure to have my debate answered by my hon. Friend the Minister. I congratulate her on her ministerial appointment. I believe that this is the first Adjournment debate that she has done, and the coincidence that it should be on this subject is wonderful. It is an awful paradox that while most of us would like the Northern Ireland Assembly to be running again as soon as possible, all of us would wish my hon. Friend to continue in her ministerial role for as long as possible.

I must make it clear at the outset that I recognise the strict parameters on this debate, and on what my hon. Friend can be expected to answer. Although I might stray into issues of cruelty at times, my concern is to explore and, I hope, illuminate the issues around the licensing of the netting of hares in Northern Ireland and associated conservation matters. She knows that, as the MP for Altcar, I have a long-standing interest in hare coursing and the unnecessary cruelty that it involves. That has led to my concern for the conservation of hares and the well-being of a magnificent animal that is under constant pressure from change in agricultural practice generally.

The system for addressing hare coursing in Northern Ireland is a recent addition to my concerns. The Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) would have included Northern Ireland in its embrace. The subsequent hunting Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) did not do so. As yet, we do not know what the Bill to be introduced by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs will involve.

The Minister is well aware that hare coursing in Northern Ireland takes place under Irish coursing club rules, and differs greatly from hare coursing in England and Wales. The greyhounds are muzzled and the coursing fields are semi-enclosed. In particular localities, there may not, at any particular time, be enough hares for the purpose of a specific event. Accordingly, club members will go into the countryside to collect hares. The latter are netted and put into containers for transport to the coursing venue. For that, the former need a licence.

In late 2001, the Northern Ireland Assembly discussed concerns about the decline in the Northern Ireland hare population when it was debating the game laws. Most studies—by Professor Montgomery of Queens university, by the Northern Ireland species action plan, and by the biodiversity strategy for Northern Ireland—reveal a decline in hare numbers. The Irish hare is the only mammal selected for a specific Northern Ireland action plan, which, inter alia, states:

Records show that in 1864 there were 138 hares per square kilometre in Northern Ireland—I am not sure how that was worked out, but that is what I am told.

26 Nov 2002 : Column 289

Current records show that there are 0.6 hares per square kilometre in Northern Ireland. Even over such a long period, that is a pretty dramatic difference. The action plan of 2000 also states:

Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can tell me what that research concluded and whether it informed previous decisions to license netting made by her predecessor.

The Northern Ireland Assembly voted to ensure that the Minister responsible should not issue licensing for the netting of hares for coursing without being satisfied that it

I suppose that Xany part thereof" is particularly significant. That is part of the Game Preservation (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2002. What is the nature of the research data available to the Minister and to her predecessors that would allow such a judgment to be made, particularly on a local basis?

I understand that the most recent estimates of the hare population in Northern Ireland range from 8,250 to 21,000. In other words, we have no real idea. It is one heck of an area to cover. Recent researches by Professor Montgomery suggest that the Irish hare population may, in some areas, be extinct or near extinct. The crucial point in the present context is for my hon. Friend to ensure that all future decisions on licensing made by her and her successors are based on clear and unambiguous scientific evidence such as may have eluded her predecessor.

A new study has been initiated by the Environment and Heritage Service of Northern Ireland. Does my hon. Friend think that it would be invidious to license any further nettings until the results of that new study are to hand and have been examined? Will she tell me how long a licence lasts?

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind the circumstances of netting and coursing in relation to hare conservation? Coursers claim that, because the dogs are muzzled in Northern Ireland coursing, hares are not killed but are later released. That sounds, at least, a gesture towards conservation. It is an argument that I have often used to hare coursers in West Lancashire. I say to them, XIf it is not all about blood and killing, why don't you muzzle the dogs?"

However, in its evidence to Burns, the National Coursing Club of England and Wales claimed that muzzled coursing might be more inhumane than unmuzzled coursing. It said:

There are certainly videos showing hares in Northern Ireland being buffeted about, tossed into the air and mauled into the ground. Handlers often have to kill the hares as a result.

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