by Gary McCartney

This piece was written by Gary McCartney, Regional Director of the Countryside Alliance Ireland for Irish Country Sports and Country Life. You can read it online here.

I first met Mr John Blair at the launch of the Irish Game Fair at Shanes Castle not long after taking up his position as an Alliance Party MLA. I was obviously naturally wary of his presence due to the party stance on aspects of county sports and land management. However, I was reassured by my colleagues, who pointed out John had come from DAERA Inland Fisheries and that he had done a lot at the fair to promote angling notably the catch and release.
 
During his address John said not once but twice “country sports have a friend in me”. I had hoped this new face in the party would have brought some balance and could be someone to help the party, which has close links with animal rights groups, better understand the need for wildlife management, in addition to the conservation and economic benefits this brings.

Unfortunately, this was not to be the case and whilst we were in middle of the second wave of the COVID-19 virus with case numbers increasing daily, John decided to start the public consultation process to introduce his Private Members Bill to Ban the Hunting of Wild Mammals with Dogs.
 
It appeared to many in the country sports community  that this consultation was in name only, leading to a predetermined outcome, given that it was open to anyone no matter where in the world they happen to live. In explaining this proposed new legislation, evidence was ignored when inconvenient and selective references from Lord Bonomy’s review of the Scottish law used that were entirely at odds with that report’s findings. It did not say why this legislation is needed and was based on what can only be said to be a questionable polling and not on scientific evidence.
 
For example, Lord Bonomy, in discussing hunting as an activity and method of wildlife management reaches very similar conclusions to the earlier Burns Inquiry. His findings support the continued use of packs of hounds for pest control and confirm the view that the restrictions on hunting in Scotland are not supported by the evidence. His findings also highlight how the Hunting Act in England and Wales, with its two-dog limit, is even more arbitrary and without an evidential basis than the law in Scotland.  
 
Even more concerning is the fact that there was little engagement with a wide range of highly relevant stakeholders including ourselves and notably the Ulster Farmers Union, whose members would be directly affected by his proposals, and wider stakeholders who are interdependent on hunting. It would also seem that a social and economic impact assessment has not been undertaken.
 
We have to take into account dedicated hunt staff, some of whom have young families to support. What has been done to establish how these people and their families will be affected? Some could even be left homeless if John’s ban is successful. In the last year alone unemployment in Northern Ireland has increased by over 10,000.
 
Again, we have to look at the other services interconnected with hunting - farriers, veterinary surgeons, feed merchants, insurance companies (for animals, employees, members and grounds/ buildings), various saddleries and grooms to name but a few. 
 
We also have the thoroughbred industry in Northern Ireland.  Hunts throughout Northern Ireland hold race meetings: ‘point-to-points’.  These have been described as “the lifeblood of the racing industry in Ireland.”  There are 12 point-to-point courses in Northern Ireland and races are held here either once or twice a season.  These generate an average turnover of £21,500 per meeting.  To run a horse at one of the race meetings they need to have obtained a ‘Hunter Certificate’, these cost £50 each and there were 2,836 issued throughout Ireland.
 
It is reasonable to question, as is often the case with animal rights activists, whether any thought has been given to the knock-on effects of their proposed actions. If hunting is banned, how long will it be before National Hunt racing is put under the scope? 
 
We have the very successful horse export industry in Northern Ireland, with a total of 401 registered breeders in Northern Ireland in 2018.  Ireland and Northern Ireland are world renowned for their breeding of both thoroughbred and Irish Sport Horses.  Point-to-points are vital for the breeding and training aspects of the sport.  Many horses that start their racing life at point-to-points graduate to the highest echelons of National Hunt racing, both in Ireland and the UK, for example ‘Looks Like Trouble’ who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup and was bred in Northern Ireland. These point-to-point horses are important in terms of the continuing worldwide reputation of Irish horses.  The sale and export of these horses is the main income of most horse breeders.  Without the overseas interest this industry would be negatively and irreversibly affected.
 
The 2019 Deloitte report found that the overall Equine industry in Northern Ireland is estimated to generate £212million of direct and indirect expenditure, over £200m of this total is on the cost of keeping, riding and training horses, the largest items being livery/training (£37m), feed (£26m) and £21m on transport and equestrian equipment respectively.
 
Last year was a ‘write off’ for most businesses and the first half of 2021 is looking the same. Add in Brexit, difficulties importing goods from our main trading partner and the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic and it’s relevant to ask if these businesses afford another blow at this very difficult time.
 
Some try to claim hunting is cruel, yet many vets state that the use of scenting hounds is natural for both hunter and hunted. Even members of the Burns Inquiry, including Lord Burns, have publicly said that their report did not conclude that hunting with dogs can be deemed cruel.
 
It should never be the case that public representatives attempt to impose the will of a vocal minority upon the majority of a country, not least when that support might be considered to lean heavily on views from outside NI and on the biased views of animal rights activists for its validity. 
 
In closing, we must ask where this animal rights agenda ends. Look at the grounds of John Blair’s proposals and at the recent report by an animal rights group backed by a handful of Tory MPs, which recently claimed recreational angling is making fish suffer. Again, these are allegations not backed by science and robustly challenged by the Angling Trust. 
 
Once on this moral crusade road what choice will the Alliance Party have but to attempt to stop or restrict other country pursuits. We only have to look at the proposed amendments by some MLAs during the passage of the Welfare of Animals Act in 2011 to realise that in spite of Mr Blair’s assertions this Bill could issue threats to shooting and fishing. 

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