Irish hare numbers are not under threat from coursing, according to new research released as legal protection for the species is reviewed.
A research team at Queen's University, Belfast, says its investigations into coursing in the Republic - where the practice is not subject to a ban - have revealed that it has little effect on mortality.
The team, led by Dr Neil Reid from the School of Biological Sciences, analysed records and independent video footage collected over 20 years to evaluate efforts made by the Irish Coursing Club (ICC) to improve animal welfare and decrease the number of hares killed.
Each year the ICC captures about 6,000 hares from the wild for coursing within enclosed parks. The Queen's study, published in the journal Animal Welfare, shows that when the ICC introduced compulsory muzzling of greyhounds during 1993 mortality dropped from 16% to 4%.
The researchers said that further reductions in mortality since then may be attributed to improved care in captivity.
"The most recent estimates of the hare population of Ireland suggest that mortality during coursing removes less than 0.1% of the total adult population annually. Therefore, at its current level, mortality during coursing is likely to have negligible effect," Dr Reid said.
Professor Ian Montgomery, head of the School of Biological Sciences, who has led work on hares at Queen's for over a decade, said the findings support ICC's efforts to mitigate the effects of coursing on hares.
Hare coursing is banned throughout Britain but is legal in the Republic of Ireland.
The Department of Environment will soon launch a review of whether there should be statutory protection for Irish hares.
A spokesman said: "The department expects to begin a policy consultation in January on the review of the Wildlife Order which will seek views on whether there should be statutory protection for the Irish hare for the longer term."