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Urgent need for full hare protection
28 April 2005

A report published by the Irish Hare Initiative has highlighted the adverse impact coursing has on the hare species. Among the report's recommendations is an all-Ireland ban on the removal of hares from the wild. The full text of the report appears below.

The Impact of Enclosed Hare Coursing on Irish hares
Mike Rendle
April 2005

Executive Summary

1. This report does not deal specifically with the issue of animal cruelty involved in enclosed coursing. However, the author acknowledges that cruelty associated with coursing is a matter of great concern to around 80% of the population of Ireland.1,2

2. There is clear evidence to support a link between hare deaths caused by poor animal welfare and enclosed coursing, as carried out under Irish Coursing Club rules.

3. There is no evidence that the muzzling of dogs since 1993 has reduced hare deaths.

4. There is emerging evidence that enclosed coursing is responsible for a significant number of hare deaths in Ireland.

5. At some events actual hare deaths may be as high as 48% of the hares caught for coursing.

6. Irish hare numbers are low and the species is locally extinct in some areas of Ireland.

7. There is no evidence to support claims that coursing benefits Irish hares.

8. There is no evidence to support any association between coursing and higher hare numbers.

9. Hares are caught indiscriminately and, as they breed throughout the year, pregnant females and nursing mothers are taken.

  • If a nursing mother is taken from the wild - her leverets will die
  • Pregnant females may abort or give birth in captivity
  • Leverets born to these captive mothers are unlikely to survive

10. The hare population of Ireland as a whole is fragmented and potentially vulnerable to the cumulative effects of local extinction.

11. Coursing targets and depletes fragile local populations of Irish hares.

12. Effective permanent protection for hares within Wildlife Legislation will serve to underpin a wider conservation strategy and make a significant contribution to the long-term recovery of the Irish hare.

Enclosed (or Park) hare coursing

Most hare coursing in Ireland takes the form of enclosed coursing. This is the practice of taking hares from the wild for the purpose of coursing with dogs within an enclosed area from which the hares cannot escape. In Ireland hares are caught, using nets, under licence from the relevant government department. The hares are then packed into shallow crates and transported to an enclosed paddock where they are 'trained' to run in a predetermined direction. The hares may be held in captivity for up to 6-8 weeks in advance of the coursing event. On the day of the event, one hare is released into the paddock and pursued by two muzzled dogs. The hare cannot escape from the enclosure although there is a small zone at the 'finish' end of the paddock that the dogs cannot enter (the 'escape'). However, as will be discussed later, this offers no escape nor does it constitute a safe area for the hare. The pursuit continues until the hare reaches and remains in the 'escape', both dogs are restrained or the hare is killed or injured. All coursing in Ireland takes place under the rules of the Irish Coursing Club, the sport's governing body. This provides a standard for the way hares are caught, handled and coursed across the whole of Ireland, irrespective of the jurisdiction.

The Irish hare

The Irish hare is a native species, which has been present in Ireland since the end of the last ice age around 10,000 years ago. Brown, or European, hares (Lepus europeaus), known locally as 'thrush' hares, were introduced to the North of Ireland over a century ago but do not appear to have survived in significant numbers. However, the appearance of Irish and brown hares are easily confused and any policy or legislation should apply to both species. They live a relatively solitary existence and normally avoid human contact. The presence of humans can have a very disruptive effect on these shy animals that are sensitive to disturbance and are easily stressed. This is reflected in the Irish hare's Latin name, Lepus timidus hibernicus.

There is a lot of general confusion within the general populace about Irish hares and many people believe them to be similar to rabbits, only bigger. They are related, as both belong to the family of Leporids, but there are some important differences. Rabbits are common and may be found anywhere they can dig burrows. Rabbits are well known for prolific breeding and can reproduce from the age of three months. They can give birth every 31 days to a litter of around eight young. Hares live entirely above the ground - they do not have the protection and shelter of burrows. This leaves them susceptible to environmental disturbance, especially from human activities. They have a much lower breeding rate than rabbits and do not breed until their second year. Those that do survive to breed will probably only have around eight leverets in a year in optimum conditions. On average, only 25% of leverets are believed to survive their first year. A high breeding rate allows a species population to recover from low numbers, however this does not apply to Irish hares. The Irish hare population is only a fraction of the size of 30 years ago and hares are now locally extinct in some areas.3,17 All of this leaves Irish hares extremely vulnerable, especially when numbers are low.4,17

Coursing clubs and Irish hare conservation

The Countryside Alliance promotes hare coursing as 'having a net benefit for Irish hares'.5 It has also been claimed that coursing clubs carry out sympathetic habitat management for hares but, in the absence of any supporting evidence, this would appear to be based on speculation. There is no evidence that coursing has any benefit whatsoever for Irish hares. Furthermore, a study carried out for the Joint Nature Conservation Committee6 concluded that: 'there was no association between coursing and higher hare numbers'. The report went on to say 'at least some areas no longer held high enough hare populations to support traditional coursing meetings. During the survey a number of reports were received of hares being caught and transported to restock traditional coursing areas.'

In 2002 Dungannon and District Coursing Club netted hares for a coursing meet. Hares were found at four sites ranging from County Armagh to the Stewartstown and Coagh areas, a total distance of 50 Km. Only 11 hares were caught,7 which appears to be indicative of extremely low numbers in areas under the control and management of coursing groups. Meanwhile in County Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland, a wildlife ranger came upon 28 men netting hares. The hares were placed in a van and removed from the area. Subsequently two of the men were found guilty of offences under the Republic's Wildlife Act. They admitted catching hares for the Dungannon and District Coursing Club based in the North.

When the supporters of coursing refer to 'conservation', they are more likely to be referring to research. Conservation is an activity designed to have direct practical benefits for the species and its habitat. Research, on the other hand, is an information-gathering exercise that may, or may not, assist conservation policymaking. The Countryside Alliance and the Irish Coursing Club frequently refer to their role in this 'conservation', but their actual contribution is overstated. Coursing clubs have assisted with the Irish hare research carried out by Queen's University Belfast. This has included providing tissue samples from coursed hares for DNA analysis and allowing coursed hares to be radio-tracked. Although performed by 'volunteers', these activities have been carried out as a mandatory condition of the licence issued to the coursing clubs by the Environment and Heritage Service.

For a number of years, Irish coursing groups have had the opportunity to gather very important and useful data about Irish hares as part of their normal coursing activities. Given the large numbers of hares coursed in Ireland, such information gathering could have provided significant samples of basic but valuable data on Irish hares. However, there is no evidence, or data, to indicate any significant contribution to data collection by the Irish Coursing Club or any of its member clubs beyond that detailed above.

The real impact of coursing on Irish hares

The impact of coursing is often considered in terms of the individual hares that are caught and coursed. There is emerging evidence that this impact is much greater than previously disclosed. It is clear that actual hare deaths due to coursing are under-reported and there may be a number of reasons for this:

  • The methods of recording hare deaths may lead to reporting discrepancies,
  • Hare deaths are not publicised for fear of contradicting the assertion that 'dogs are muzzled and no hares are harmed',
  • Hare deaths can occur at any time from capture until well after release due to stress or capture myopathy.7

An indication of the real mortality rate may be found in coursing fixtures where the figures for hare deaths have been made available (Table 1 below). These events were subject to Irish Coursing Club regulations and it should be noted that although dogs have been muzzled since 1993, this does not appear to have reduced hare mortality.

Table 1
Year Location Hare deaths % Mortality (nearest 1%)
1992 Clonmel 37 hares died 20% mortality
1992 Clounanna * 25% mortality
1993 Clounanna 48 Hares died *
1998 Clare South 20 Hares died 38% mortality
2001 Abbeyfeale 14 Hares died 30% mortality
2001 Cavan & District 17 Hares died 21% mortality
2002 Dungannon 4 Hares died 36% mortality
2003 Wexford † 40 Hares died 48% mortality
Notes
Data from government sources.8,16
* Complete figures unavailable at time of writing.
† These deaths attributed to stress by the reporting veterinary surgeon.14

It is often claimed that coursing emulates natural behaviour and that the hare 'enjoys' the chase,9 however this is an anthropomorphic interpretation of the hare's behaviour. In the wild, predators rely on the element of surprise to gain the advantage over the much faster hare. In response, the hare sits up to indicate that it sees the predator and the element of surprise has been lost.10 In coursing, proponents claim that the hare is 'waiting' for the dogs, however the hare pauses because it does not expect to be pursued. Neither does the pursuit reflect natural behaviour in the wild. The hare is confined within the enclosed paddock and cannot escape to open country. The 'escape', the zone that the dogs cannot enter, is no sanctuary for the hare. This is merely another, much smaller enclosure, which the hare realises offers no means of escape. This confinement in close proximity to the dogs with no chance of escape is one of the factors of coursing that produces levels of stress that this animal would not normally experience in the wild and a likely outcome is capture myopathy.

Capture myopathy is a life-threatening condition caused by stress and whether or not the hare is caught, its welfare is very poor during the chase and for periods afterwards which will be prolonged in some cases.11 Capture, handling, transport, confinement and coursing are all contributing factors. The onset of this condition can occur from point of capture, and death may occur suddenly or some time after exposure to trauma. The role of capture myopathy in hare mortality has become much clearer. The link between enclosed hare coursing and the factors responsible for capture myopathy is now indisputable.

While publicly extolling the 'harmless' nature of coursing, the coursing community has long been aware of the causes of stress and the threat that it poses to well-being and survival of the hares. The Irish Coursing Club's veterinary surgeon, JJ O'Sullivan, states that

'it is impossible to completely avoid stress in hares once you manhandle them, and take them out of their natural environment. Stress can come in many shapes and forms and as long as you have the hare in captivity, he is prone to it - resulting in his disability and even death at times.'

Mr. O'Sullivan goes on to elaborate on causes of stress of netted hares as follows:

'Stress can start from the very minute you get him out of his form until you land him in the net, followed by rough handling, boxing and transporting. Sudden environmental changes such as fluctuating temperatures and varying humidity - being hot and sweating in a bag and later over-crowded in boxes.'12

Conclusive evidence of the link between capture myopathy and coursing was provided at an Irish Coursing Club event held at Wexford in December 2003. Of the eighty three hares coursed, forty individuals died - almost 50%.13 The reporting vet, Dr Peter Murphy, stated, 'under the influence of stress, the hare's immune system is compromised'. He went on to say, 'Hares are significantly stressed when corralled and coursed, and this combination of circumstances has resulted in the deaths in this case'.14,15

It would be difficult to find a more compelling example of capture myopathy in hares caused directly by coursing.

The impact of coursing on the species

It is clear from the available data that significant numbers of hares die at the hands of the coursing community.16 However, the impact goes beyond the individual hares caught and there is a real cost to the local hare population.

Hares are caught indiscriminately and, since they breed throughout the year, pregnant females and nursing mothers are taken.17,18

  • If a nursing mother is taken from the wild, her leverets will die
  • Pregnant females may abort or give birth in captivity
  • Leverets born to these captive mothers are unlikely to survive

Coursing also targets and depletes fragile local populations. Individuals may have a very small range - typically 10 Hectares.19 Low numbers, small range and limited dispersal means that removing any hares, especially breeding females, from a local population is potentially very damaging and may put a small group at risk from extinction. The hare population of Ireland as a whole is fragmented and potentially vulnerable to the cumulative effects of local extinction.20

In 1993 a farming family in New Ross, County Wexford, reported on the impact that the activities of coursing groups was having on the local hare population.21

'(hares) are being captured for coursing or used for training greyhounds. This happens regularly on our farm, we often find unfortunate hares which have been entangled in nets for some time, some have broken bones protruding, some of these wounds are festering. The only thing we can do with these animals is to have them humanely destroyed. We used to enjoy the company of between forty and sixty hares but now there are only three or four.'

This level of loss to local populations is a recurring theme in anecdotal evidence. However, there are wider implications for the Irish hare population in general. As hare numbers become depleted, hares are netted over greater geographical areas thus targeting other local populations. It also takes the coursing groups longer to net sufficient numbers for meetings. As a result hares are kept in captivity for prolonged periods, for as long as six weeks, resulting in unacceptable levels of hare mortality.22

It is clear that coursing has the potential to adversely affect the wild population of Irish hares in a number of ways, although it may be difficult to quantify the scale. However with an estimated 10,000 hares expected to be caught by coursing clubs in Ireland in 2005, it is paramount that the environmental impact of these activities be assessed within the guidelines afforded by the Precautionary Principle.

The Precautionary Principle

The Northern Ireland Biodiversity Strategy was published in 2002. The very first recommendation of the Northern Ireland Biodiversity Strategy deals with the Precautionary Principle:

RECOMMENDATION 1: Assess all new or revised policies and programmes for their impact on biodiversity and apply the precautionary principle.

The Precautionary Principle has already been applied in respect of the temporary Special Protection Order enacted in January 2004. The Countryside Alliance's claim that this could have a negative impact on hare numbers23 has been proved wrong. A recent study carried out for the Environment and Heritage Service19 showed no evidence of any detrimental impact on hare numbers in Northern Ireland during the period 2002-2004. For most of this period no coursing licences were issued and, as a consequence, no significant amount of coursing took place. It is quite apparent that the Irish hare population in Northern Ireland is no worse off for the absence of coursing activity.

Conclusion

There is insufficient data to accurately assess the exact impact enclosed coursing on the Irish hare population. However, available evidence indicates that coursing has no benefit for the species whatsoever and that coursing may be responsible for significant numbers of hare deaths - up to 50% of hares coursed on some occasions. Coursing targets and depletes fragile local populations, and in this context alone, must be viewed as a real threat to the species. It is widely recognised that sustainable breeding rates and leveret survival are important factors for recovery of a sustainable Irish hare population. Coursing poses a threat to breeding females and their offspring in some areas and must be addressed. Effective permanent protection within Wildlife Legislation will serve to underpin a wider conservation strategy and make a significant contribution to the long-term recovery of the Irish hare.

Recommendations

1 That the Precautionary Principle should be applied in all policy and decision making in respect of the Irish hare.

2 That no further licences are issued to permit the capture of hares in Ireland (Both jurisdictions).

3 That hares (all species) are given full and effective protection under the relevant wildlife legislation in both jurisdictions of Ireland.

4 That Special Protection Orders in respect of hares are implemented until such time that is the subject of full protection within the Wildlife Legislation.

5 That Animal Welfare and Wildlife Protection Legislation be proactively and effectively enforced across both jurisdictions in Ireland.

References

1 Sunday Independent Poll, 1998

2 Millward Brown Poll, 2003

3 A review of the status and decline in the abundance of the Irish Hare in Northern Ireland Dingerkus & Montgomery (QUB), 2002

4 The Decline of the European Hare - An interdisciplinary European Research Task, 2001

5 Gorman R, Countryside Alliance, Broadcast on BBC's Countryfile March 2004

6 The current status of the brown hare Lepus europaeus in Britain, M.J. Hutchings & S. Harris, 1996

7 Stress and Capture Myopathy in Hares, Mike Rendle, 2004

8 Northern Ireland Environment and Heritage Service

9 Dungannon & District Coursing Club, Broadcast on BBC's Countryfile, March 2004

10 Hares under scrutiny, Holley, Somerset Wildlife News, April 2002

11 An independent review of the scientific literature prepared by Professor D M Broom and the Cambridge University Animal Welfare Information Centre

12 Some Thoughts on The Feeding and Management of Hares - The Abbeyfeale Experience, JJ O'Sullivan MRCVS

13 Internal Duchas report, 9th January 2004

14 Veterinary report by Dr Peter Murphy MRCVS, 7th January 2004

15 Post-mortem reports, Kilkenny Regional Veterinary Laboratory, 6th January 2004

16 Information from ROI government sources (Duchas, DAFRD, Dail Eireann) that has been placed in the public domain or acquired under the Freedom of Information Act

17 Author's personal observation

18 Anecdotal evidence

19 2004 Hare Survey, EHS/QUB

20 Professor I Montgomery, Belfast Telegraph, 2 December 2003

21 Letter sent to Tony Gregory TD, 22 June 1993

22 Internal report, Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, 14/11/2001

23 Game Preservation (Special Protection For Irish Hares) Order NI 2003 A response by the Countryside Alliance, 26 November 2003

More Information

More information on the Irish Hare Initiative can be found on their website at www.irishhare.org


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