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26 Nov 2002 : Column 289—continued

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Although I know that the hon. Gentleman and I disagree about some of the substantive points in the general debate, does he at

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least accept that the middle way group seeks a regulatory solution that takes account not just of cruelty to hares but, more broadly, to all hunted animals?

Mr. Pickthall: I know what the middle way group says and what its platform is. I also know that most people who espouse the middle way detest hare coursing, of all the blood sports. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point.

I am not highlighting the relative cruelty of what goes on, but pointing out that there is, at least, an impact on hare numbers. In The Belfast Telegraph of 22 November, a piece quotes Ronan Gorman, the Northern Ireland chief executive of the Countryside Alliance. The article quotes his view that the decline in the Irish hare population was to

That totally misses the point. No one is blaming anyone. We are concerned with the conservation of the hare population in Northern Ireland, as was the Assembly when it considered these matters. The issue of whether we blame agricultural changes and practices and/or hare coursing is almost irrelevant. Both, in some measure, are causing hare numbers to decline in that area.

The process of netting and transportation might damage hares physically and in terms of stress. I do not know whether research has been carried out on that. If my hon. Friend knows, I am sure that she will put it on the record in one way or another. One aspect of those activities is their effect on the reproductivity of female hares. What research on that is available to the Minister when considering applications for licences?

I have a few questions on the conditions for granting licences. Condition B obliges the coursing club to notify the Department at least 72 hours in advance of the date, time and location of any netting activities. Is that done in such a way as to allow researchers, scientists or academics to monitor the events?

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful and interesting case on legal hare coursing and the problems that that causes in Northern Ireland. Is he aware of the terrible problems in rural areas in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom caused by individuals from urban conurbations who trample across farmers' land, which is often cropped, to chase hares illegally? Does he agree that additional police powers should be put into the hunting Bill that will come before Parliament soon?

Mr. Pickthall: Indeed I do. I agree almost entirely with the hon. Gentleman. I know a good deal about illegal hare coursing and have done much towards doing something about it. If there is one thing on which hare coursers and anti-hare coursers agree, it is the horrible nature of illegal hare coursing. Not only does it destroy animals, which are left to rot in the fields, but it poses a threat to farmers, landowners and people who spot it taking place, an activity in which I have been physically involved. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman. Illegal hare coursing happens a great deal in my area. I do not know for sure, but I suspect that it happens in Northern Ireland too. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will comment on that.

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Condition C says that netting and releasing may be subject to inspection by the Department. Is that done? If so, how often? Condition D says that all caught hares must be humanely marked to identify their place of capture. Who does that? Should not it be done by independent vets, academics or people who know what they are doing? Condition E says that surviving hares must be released into the locality. Is that monitored by the Department? How many are released into the environment, and how many have to have their necks wrung because they are badly damaged by the coursing? Condition G says that netting should be undertaken only by members of the club that has the licence. Is that monitored? Can we be sure that it is done by experienced people and that there is no commercial trade in netted hares?

Condition H is a sweep-up clause. It says that the club must co-operate with Queen's university in research to monitor the condition and fate of netted hares. Is that done? If so, is the research thorough, satisfactory and made available to the relevant Minister? Condition I concerns the obligation on clubs to file a detailed report on all those matters to the Department within one month of the expiry of the licence. Is that evidence made public, and if not, why not?

I could have made a passionate speech about the hare and its decline in these islands, especially as I understand that hares in Northern Ireland are generally smaller and weaker than English and Welsh hares which makes them more vulnerable to the activities that I have described, but that would have been unhelpful in this context. I hope that the need for our debate will be made otiose by a hunting Bill, but who knows how long that will be in the gestation?

I realise that my hon. Friend is in a difficult position, and I have asked her a lot of questions. No one in the House has a finer record on animal welfare than her. Her present role restricts her to ensuring that all the mechanisms for the licensing of netting are properly used to ensure that the hare population of Northern Ireland is not further damaged and, indeed, that it is enhanced. I can think of no one more capable than her to do just that.

11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela Smith): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) for his kind and generous comments. I accept his comments about my position but I make it clear that my ministerial appointment is temporary. We all want the Assembly to be up and running as soon as possible, and we work to that end.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this subject, because, as he said, it is of interest to me. In racing terms, I have some form on the issue. My hon. Friend has a reputation in this matter, being well known as a campaigner for conservation. His interest in hare coursing arises from his commitment to see hares preserved and protected. I share his concern about the protection of our biodiversity, and I fully support the aims of the recently published Northern Ireland biodiversity strategy.

The netting of hares for coursing is governed by the Game Preservation Act (Northern Ireland) 1928, which was amended in 2002. Under that legislation permits are

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issued by the Department of the Environment, for which I am responsible. The permits are issued subject to a number of conditions, currently nine, designed to minimise the harm to hares and to avoid adverse effects on the hare population.

In Northern Ireland hares are traditionally caught over a six-week period prior to the coursing event. They are individually marked and kept in a spacious enclosure until the event. On the day of the meet, the hares are coursed once by a pair of dogs and then allowed to escape into the enclosure. I have to admit that I have not seen evidence of that, never having seen hare coursing in Northern Ireland. However, I visited my hon. Friend's constituency to see the Waterloo cup on one occasion—it was not an experience that I would care to repeat.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford): Does the Minister accept that the holders of the two existing licences stringently adhere to the conditions of those licences?

Angela Smith: I understand that there is only one existing licence; another has expired, or is due to expire on 30 November. I am not aware of the holders breaching the conditions, but I shall make some comments about action that we can take regarding monitoring.

I am told that, the day after the event, the hares are returned to the place of their original capture and released. As my hon. Friend made clear, dogs are muzzled in hare coursing in Northern Ireland, under the Irish Coursing Club rules, and they cannot bite. However, I am interested in his comments about what can happen to the hare during coursing with muzzled dogs. He mentioned a video, and I would be interested to see it if he could get me a copy. I am informed that most hares are returned to the wild following the event and that only occasionally a hare has died while in captivity. I do not know and do not at this stage have access to the information about how many, if any, hares died during the process of capture, netting, transport and release.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has considered hare coursing within the past year. It rejected an amendment to legislation which would have had the effect of banning organised coursing of Irish hares that were trapped or netted in Northern Ireland, but it introduced an amendment governing the issue of permits to net hares. That requires that the Department be satisfied that the trapping of hares for a coursing event will not impact on the hare population in Northern Ireland, or any part thereof, before another permit is issued.

The legal advice is that in deciding to grant or refuse an application, the Department must have sufficient relevant evidence to support its view that the taking of hares by netting would or would not endanger the hare population in Northern Ireland or any part thereof. The Minister must therefore be satisfied that netting does not have an adverse effect.

As is highlighted in the Northern Ireland biodiversity strategy, the Irish hare is an endemic sub-species not present outside Ireland. Historically it was widespread and common throughout Ireland, including Northern Ireland. However, a detailed survey of the Irish hare population during the late 1990s indicated that it had

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undergone a marked decline. Similar information was available to my predecessor, but we have now been able to update it.

Estimates indicate that the present Northern Ireland population may be as low as 8,250 or as high as 22,000, but it is at critical levels in some areas. Professor Montgomery is currently undertaking a further survey for my Department's environment and heritage service. As a result of those figures and the concerns that have been expressed, the former Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions issued in October 2000 a local species action plan for the Irish hare. The Ulster Wildlife Trust is taking the lead in delivering that plan, which draws on current evidence to analyse the main factors causing loss or decline and goes on to draw up objectives and targets for protection of the Irish hare.

Key factors thought to have a negative effect on hare populations include loss of refuge areas for daytime lie-up sites, conversion of species-rich grassland to ryegrass and clover mixes, increased levels of disturbance due mainly to high livestock densities on farms, increased use of farm machinery, illegal coursing, lamping and overhunting. The plan recognises that the provision of refuge areas, adequate and varied food supply, and freedom from disturbance are essential if Irish hare numbers are to be maintained at present levels. A number of challenging targets are set in the plan, including a target to double the present population of the Irish hare by 2010 over as widespread an area as possible. Improving the habitat of the hare is one of the most critical factors in hare conservation, and agri-environment schemes such as environmentally sensitive areas and the new countryside management scheme will have an important role to play. Hare sanctuaries or hare reserves will be set up. Greater public awareness will be promoted through the publication of management advice about hares.

The plan also sets out the need to review and, if necessary, increase protection for the Irish hare under current legislation. It points to the need for further research into both hare ecology and population levels. My Department has commissioned further studies of the Irish hare with a view to considering what enhanced protection measures may be required to ensure that targets in the action plan are met. Legislation alone, however, will not ensure protection of the species. Greater public awareness of the uniqueness of the Irish hare will also be an important factor.

Given the importance that my Department and all those interested in supporting our biodiversity place on that endemic sub-species, I will need to consider carefully the issue of permits for hare netting. Clearly, the issue of permits to net hares for coursing sits uneasily alongside policies that are aimed at conservation of the species. Any such permits will have to looked at within the wider review of the conservation of the Irish hare.

I can assure my hon. Friend that all available and up-to-date evidence on the Irish hare will be carefully examined before any permits are issued. The wider public perception of any tension between the Department's conservation policy and the issuing of permits must also be considered. As I said earlier, greater public appreciation of the uniqueness of that

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species will be an important factor in the success of measures set out in the species action plan. I cannot remember his exact phrase, but my hon. Friend asked whether any future decision would be based on clear and unambiguous scientific evidence. I can give him an assurance that we shall of course look at and use scientific evidence. I agree that where a species may be under threat the general environmental precautionary principle is apt. It may take some time fully to develop enhanced conservation measures for the Irish hare, but in the meantime I will be cautious in taking any administrative action that may run contrary to the development of measures that have already been agreed by my Department.

My hon. Friend asked a number of questions about the conditions for a licence, which I shall do my best to answer. If I do not address them all, I hope that he will take them up with me later. Condition B says that the club must give the Department at least 72 hours notice of netting. My hon. Friend was concerned that Queen's university and others should make preparations to attend netting attempts. I assure him that in the past year coursing clubs have been helpful when Queen's university has attended such attempts. He also asked about condition C on inspection by officials. Previously, officials were not present at every stage of netting and release, but in the past year they have been. I can assure my hon. Friend that my officials will do their very best to be present, and I see no reason why in future years it should not be a condition of the licence that they should be present. Of course, that would need co-operation from the coursing clubs, but in the past year my experience is that they have co-operated. There is therefore no reason why officials should not be present.

My hon. Friend asked about condition D and whether the tagging of hares should be done by independent vets, so that when the hares are released, some assessment can be made of how they fare afterwards. There is no difficulty with that. An independent vet was present this year, and advised that the tag should not be invasive. I understand that he has indicated his willingness to be involved again in future. That was done with the co-operation of the coursing clubs, which I would like to see taken forward. We will look at the matter again.

Condition E deals with surviving hares being released into the locality in which they were caught. That is part of the tagging process. If an independent vet tags the hares, there is a means of assuring that they are released back into the same locality and recording how they fare. That will be important to me and future Ministers when we come to make an assessment on the issuing of licences.

Condition G stipulates that netting should be undertaken only by members of the coursing club. My hon. Friend asked whether my officials can ensure that those involved are fit people with sufficient experience. I do not think that it is the job of my officials to check the experience of those involved in hare netting, but officials from my Department would be present and check that people are authorised for that purpose.

Condition H covers the club's co-operation with Queen's university. Again, there has been a positive relationship with the university. I should like more

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information on that. The coursing clubs have been co-operative and we will encourage them to co-operate further with the university.

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