We really can’t pretend that hare coursing is about some notion of rural living and culture, writes Fergus Finlay.
What a civilised country we are. The most staggeringly beautiful country in the world, with the most decent and welcoming people. Except when we’re engaged in doublethink.
Last Sunday, I visited a privately owned farm, open to the public, that had some of the most stunningly beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen. Sheep and lambs were grazing in an idyllic field and, as we arrived, a couple of lambs were being gently bottle-fed. The care and the respect for the animals was obvious and palpable.
Yet, during the past couple of weeks, the Dáil debated a bill designed to end one of the most barbarous things we allow under law— the coursing of live hares. And it voted almost unanimously to allow the practice to continue. Only 20 members supported the Bill — all of the major parties, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, and Sinn Féin, voted against it. And, as far as I can tell, all of the main parties applied the whip to ensure that the cruel practice of hare coursing was allowed to continue.
It makes Ireland one of only three countries in Europe where hares are allowed to be killed for sport. The other two are Spain and Portugal, which of course also allow bulls to be killed in front of an audience for sport.
Ireland is unique in one way, though. The Irish mountain hare is a protected species — not just under Irish law, but also under a European directive and an international convention. So we are the only country in Europe that allows the killing in front of an audience of one of our protected species — and applies a parliamentary whip to ensure it continues.
We may be unique in another respect too. We routinely lie to ourselves about hare coursing. Some years ago, we decided to muzzle the dogs, who used to tear the hares limb from limb, and ever since then we have chosen to believe that the hares don’t die, that the stress and terror to which this naturally timid animal is subjected is somehow good for them.
Try telling that to people such as the ones that run places like Gleninchaquin, near Kenmare, Co Kerry. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it — I hadn’t, until a couple of us stumbled on it, almost by accident, on Sunday. There are famous and well-known waterfall landmarks in Ireland — Torc, Powerscourt — but the 120m-high waterfall in Gleninchaquin is as beautiful as you’ll see anywhere.
I think the term is striated. The water falls straight down from one layer of rock to the next, and the layers are each cut sharp, as if by knife. It’s a striking effect, and the ever-present noise is incredibly peaceful — not roaring like some of the great waterfalls, but rumbling gently.
When you turn your back to the waterfall you find yourself gazing out over wide, level pasture to a still, blue lake that seems to go on forever. It’s an amazing sanctuary, this place, and clearly one where all of nature is valued and respected.
Unlike Dáil Éireann. Here, for example, is the Sinn Féin representative, Martin Kenny, speaking during the debate on whether or not to ban coursing.
“The banning of hare coursing would drive it underground, as has happened in many other countries [he didn’t get around to identifying them]. This is not like blood sports, by which I mean dog fighting, badger baiting, or cock fighting, which we all continue to oppose.”
It’s good news, I suppose, that Sinn Féin is still opposed to cock fighting and badger baiting. But it requires deeply twisted logic in the first place to dig up ancient brutalities like these in order to make the point that they meet the definition of blood sports, and then to go on and argue, as Mr Kenny did, that hunting and fishing don’t. How much blood has to be guaranteed, I wonder, before a sport is a blood sport.
I’m not singling out Sinn Féin for special attention here. The Labour Party couldn’t bring itself to add anything to the debate, but trooped into the lobbies to kill off the bill anyway. Most of the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael speakers, and some of the rural Independents, fell back on the hoary old chestnut about driving the industry underground. Mattie McGrath talked about the wonderful spectacle involved, enjoyed by adults and children alike.
The bottom line, of course, isn’t about things going underground. The bottom line is that coursing isn’t a blood sport, it’s a blood industry.
Coursing, and more generally greyhounds, makes lots of money. It is and always has been supported by the State. For years, a significant amount of tax revenue was ring-fenced every year for investment in a thing called the Horse and Greyhound Industry Fund. It has never been possible to successfully ring-fence an allocation for disability or mental health services, but horses and greyhounds have always had their little bit of tax revenue guaranteed.
This year, about €15m of your money and mine will be ploughed into the greyhounds, (along with nearly €70m going to the gee-gees). We have a dedicated Minister of State for the Dogs, Tom Hayes, and he said he wants to see that extra money being spent on “encouraging participation in the sport”.
Of course, I must emphasise that he is talking in the main about greyhound racing, not coursing, and the taxpayers’ money goes to Bord na gCon, and not the Irish Coursing Club. But the sponsorship, the betting, the huge attendances at premier events, all make coursing an indispensable part of the industry.
The thing about us is that we do love nature, we do love animals, we’re really proud of rural Ireland — its peace and tranquillity, its unspoiled beauty. But we really can’t pretend that something as bound up with money and profit as hare coursing is about some notion of rural living and culture.
Personally, although I could think of much better ways to spend the money, I’d be prepared to see an extra €5m a year go into the greyhound industry to encourage more people to go greyhound racing, but only if every vested interest involved was willing to see an end to coursing.
We are a civilised, hospitable, and decent people. I meet that warmth everywhere, and I have reason to be grateful every day in my work for that decency. But we have somehow or other managed to persuade ourselves that an activity that involves terrorising defenceless animals to the point of death is just as civilised as everything else we do.
It’s not. Hare coursing is something to be ashamed of, not proud of. And the imposing of a party whip on a vote about hare coursing, amid all the blather and pompous talk about new politics and new ways of doing things, makes a nonsense of all that talk.
I don’t believe that (for instance) Mary Lou McDonald, Leo Varadkar, and Joan Burton really find it OK that animals should be terrorised in the name of sport. But they voted for it, along with the majority. We all became a bit less civilised as a result.
We really can’t pretend that hare coursing is about some notion of rural living and culture
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