Misguided views of field sports far from the truth
Despite this week's coursing ban, the activity plays a key role in hare conservation, says Robert Fenton
Barbaric is a word liberally tossed around in an ill-informed manner to describe hare coursing, which this week was the subject of a permanent ban by Environment Minister Alex Attwood.
If those people who oppose what is a wonderful example of nature in action took the trouble to attend a coursing meeting, they would have to accept such a description as being very wide of the mark.
As secretary of Ballymena Coursing Club, which has been in existence for more than 80 years, I can assure opponents that coursing is one of the most strictly regulated and licensed sports in Ireland.
No club or member would embrace gratuitous cruelty or unnecessary suffering. To do so would not only be reprehensible, but would bring about serious consequences.
Can the same be said of those who shoot hares, or lamp them at night with lurchers, which are not muzzled and give hares little or no opportunity to escape?
Of course, the 'antis' make sure the word muzzling is severely limited in their propaganda, press releases or videos. When did we last see a picture from such quarters showing greyhounds wearing plastic muzzles, which have been part of coursing since 1991?
All meetings must have vets, wildlife officers and officials in attendance to ensure rules and regulations are adhered to, including each hare being coursed only once on any one day. Hares must be fit and healthy which necessitates being properly cared for and treated against disease.
Before any meeting takes place, hares are trained weeks in advance to familiarise them with the surroundings and where the escape is.
A good hare is more than capable of handling two dogs and, in many cases, it has left owners and trainers frustrated at not going through the escape, but continuing to give tiring dogs the runaround.
Hare husbandry - the creating and protecting of their natural environments - is part of the important work carried out by active coursing clubs.
Studies carried out by Quercus, a research organisation based at Queen's University which provides Government and statutory bodies with advice on conservation, have shown that clubs have a crucial role to play in the welfare of the species.
The biggest threat to the endemic Irish hare is intensive farming, which destroys habitats, the threat of disease and illegal hunting.
Prof Ian Montgomery, attached to Quercus, is on record as stating: "There is no evidence of coursing having a negative effect on the overall numbers of hares in Ireland."
In fact, hare numbers appear more abundant in coursing areas because of the involvement of clubs in promoting the hare's survival.
Coursing is about testing greyhounds for speed and stamina in pursuit of their natural quarry and that means creating an environment where a test can take place.
To suggest hares cannot escape and are crammed into wire cages prior to having dogs 'set upon them' is typical of the nonsense and lack of knowledge expounded by those with little understanding of field sports.
Thankfully, coursing carries on in the Republic, where it fulfils a role in rural economies - especially during the three-day festival at Clonmel every February attended by around 10,000 people from home and abroad.
There are only two clubs in Northern Ireland - Ballymena and Dungannon - compared with around 80 in the south and only the cooperation of Cavan and Tubbercurry allows them to hold joint meetings outside Stormont's jurisdiction.
Coursing has not taken place in Northern Ireland since 2004, because of the annual refusal to grant a hare-netting licence, which was effectively a coursing ban.
The now-permanent ban, however, paints a bleak picture for those wishing to see coursing back at Crebilly and Eglish.
That will demand a change in the law, but such a prospect is unlikely as few politicians will want to take up the cudgels on behalf of a minority interest which is, alas, greatly misunderstood by those who have never ventured on to a coursing field.