Proposed ban on hunting with dogs in Northern Ireland divides opinion at Stormont

The region remains the only part of the UK where hunting wild mammals with dogs is still permitted.

Rebecca Black
Monday 06 December 2021 15:06
The Huntsman Master leads the hounds and riders through Main Street Crawfordsburn during the North Down New Year Hunt (Liam McBurney/PA)
The Huntsman Master leads the hounds and riders through Main Street Crawfordsburn during the North Down New Year Hunt (Liam McBurney/PA)

A proposed Bill to ban hunting with dogs in Northern Ireland has divided opinion in the Stormont Assembly.

The region remains the only part of the UK where hunting wild mammals with dogs is still permitted.

A private members’ Bill brought by Alliance MLA John Blair aims to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK.

However, the Countryside Alliance has urged MLAs to vote against the Bill, describing it as “very clumsily cobbled together with absolutely no regard or thought for its wider implication”.

Alliance MLA John Blair (Liam McBurney/PA)

Opening the debate on the second stage of the Bill, Mr Blair described hunting with dogs as a “cruel and unnecessary sport that causes immeasurable suffering to both the hunted animals and the hunting dogs”.

“It is my intention in bringing forward my Private Members Bill to reform legislation of hunting wild mammals with dogs in Northern Ireland to bring our legislation in line with that in England Scotland and Wales, where the practice has been illegal for nearly 20 years,” he said.

“The Bill is not intended in any way to restrict traditional country sports such as shooting, using gun dogs or angling. The Bill maintains appropriate balance by exempting hunting from the ban in certain circumstances including avoiding damage to livestock, crops or property, and causing damage to the biological diversity of an area.

“We have an historic opportunity to make a significant difference. A real opportunity here for Northern Ireland not only to catch up with the rest of the UK but to lead the way in ensuring full robust protection for animals persecuted for sport and for human enjoyment.”

Chairman of the Stormont Agriculture Committee Declan McAleer said the committee has not yet agreed a stance on the Bill.

He said if it passes its second stage, the committee will engage with all matters raised, such as the proposed penalties and potential loopholes.

He said his party (Sinn Fein) do not agree with a ban on hunting, but that there are elements of the Bill which it does agree with.

“Legislation as it currently stands, we feel is unworkable and would require significant additional time in the committee to rectify it and that’s time we currently don’t have given the challenges of other legislation such as both of the climate change bills,” says Mr McAleer.

“I have no doubt that this issue will be revisited in the next mandate when appropriate time can be set aside to examine the issue in a round and to work alongside stakeholders to see what legislative changes are needed, if any.”

DUP MLA William Irwin opposed the Bill, describing it as “bad legislation”.

He said he has received “hundreds of pieces of correspondence from people who are deeply concerned by this poorly thought-out bill”.

“Practically every dog owner in the country whose dog may at some point chase a wild animal could indeed be committing an offence if this poorly thought out and ill-advised law were actually to come into force,” he told MLAs.

He added the Bill, if passed, would create an “absolute legislative nightmare” and a “significant resource implication for the PSNI”.

Speaking ahead of the debate, Stormont Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots indicated he would not be supporting the Bill.

Mr Poots contended foxes are a threat to some ground-nesting birds such as red grouse and hen harriers.

“If we’re serious about biodiversity, then we need to have management tools and we need to be very cautious about removing management tools,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.

“I’m not sure it is a particularly well written Bill so I can’t support it on that basis. Personally I don’t hunt, I don’t particularly like hunting but I can’t support this particular Bill because I think that it isn’t well thought through. It might be well meaning but not well thought through and has damaging consequences if it came into force.”

Hunting with dogs has been banned in England, Scotland, and Wales since the early 2000s.

The Bill gained significant support during a public consultation with nearly 80% of the 18,000 respondents in favour of a ban.

It is understood to be the largest consultation response in Stormont’s history.

It has been backed by the Northern Ireland animal welfare charity, the USPCA.

Chief executive Brendan Mullan said the charity has been “greatly encouraged” by the momentum around this Bill.

“There is a real opportunity here for the Assembly to put on record their commitment to enhancing animal welfare standards, and specifically on this occasion, introducing legislation which has been in place in other regions for nearly 20 years,” he said.

But Gary McCartney, director of Countryside Alliance Ireland, which opposes the Bill, contended that it could “potentially criminalise every dog owner in Northern Ireland” and “also represents an attack on the rural way of life”.

“Anyone whose dog chases a rabbit or squirrel, for example, whilst they are simply out for a walk in the park, partaking in country pursuits, checking their livestock or engaged in any other activity will be committing a criminal offence,” he said.

“We are continuing to urge MLAs to oppose this Bill.”

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