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A year ago, I would have taken the view that hare coursing was self-evidently wrong and should be banned. It has been part of my slow, painful and rather shameful education to have found out enough about coursing to know that, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and others have said, it is not as the public generally understands it to be. There is a huge amount of ignorance, but I see no reason why coursing should not be subject to the same conditions as fox hunting, or that the decision should not be made by the registrar.
I speak as a convert. I hope and believe that if the same principle were to apply to hare coursing as to fox hunting, the general public would come to understand itas the great majority of the public has come to understand a great deal more about fox hunting than it knew five years ago. I oppose the Question; I hope that the Committee will also do so.
Viscount Ullswater: I ought to declare an interest, because my wife is a member of a coursing club in East Anglia. I have therefore attended a number of coursing events. I must start by saying that the coursing events to which I have been, which are whippet coursing, bear no relation whatever to those described by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester. There is no crowd; there is a single line of people with their dogs. There is no driven game; it is all walked up. There is no betting; there are no people such as that.
What the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, described, happenscertainly at the Waterloo Cup and other venuesbut much coursing happens in a simple way, which is a competition between two dogs. They may be whippets, salukis, greyhounds or deerhounds; there are various sorts of clubs. The noble Lord, Lord Best, gave the other view by describing his recent experience of what happens when coursing. It would be wrong if Members of the Committee listened only to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, and took that view of what coursing is all about.
The Game Conservancy Trust says that on estates where coursing is practised hare stocks are maintained at some of the highest levels in the country. My contention is that coursing plays an important part in hare conservation. Recent surveys suggest that there is a wintering population of some 800,000 hares, and the Biodiversity Action Plan suggests that by 2010 our countryside should support at least 2 million animals in winter.
As Members of the Committee know, coursing clubs have their strict rules. The few hares caught are usually caught extremely quickly, and the number caught has been demonstrated as being very low. Why single out coursing for special treatment in Clause 5?
Baroness Byford: I shall explain briefly my own views. I have never been to a hare coursing event. Had the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford not said what he said, I would have said it. I was very sceptical about hare coursing until I went to the presentation. I feel much more confident in organisers' ability and the thinking behind the way in which they organise coursing events.
I was grateful to my noble friend for the way in which he introduced the debate. It is perhaps the most controversial and difficult issue that Members of the Committee face today, as has been explained by other noble Lords who spoke. We are asking the Government to treat this clause in the same way as they treat other parts of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Best, asked whether it was so bad, and why it should be considered differently. I agree. The House of Lords Select Committee, which has been referred to several times, has said that hares suffer less than they would as a result of shooting.
The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, made a very impassioned speech. I understand that it is a very impassioned debate, as it is the one about which people feel strongest. My noble friend Lord Peel stole my thunder, but I repeat the Burns report's conclusion that,
Many views have been put forward today. I hope that it has been made clear that we are talking about legal hare coursing, not illegal hare coursing, which we have sometimes debated at length in the House of Lords. We are all against illegal hare coursing, and the sooner it is stopped the better. We are talking about organised legal coursing. We must decide whether we oppose the Question that Clause 5 stand part and believe that hare coursing should be treated in the same way as other areas of hunting. In my view, that is what we should do. I will support my noble friend.
Baroness Strange: I did not mean to stand up, but I could not resist doing so. I went coursing often as a child. Unlike my noble friend Lord Faulkner, I have never been unlucky enough to see a hare killed. However, I admired how the hares ran and very much admired the dogs. The question is that of killing hares. We all love hares. But should we not ban cars? We once found a hare that had been run over on the road and had its back leg badly broken. We took it home, amputated its back leg, kept it in a box of hay for two weeks and then released it. It was perfectly all right. Three years later, we saw the same hare, with three legs, perfectly happy and feeding all right. I am very worried about cars. I do not think that we should ban cars, as they are very useful, but that is part of the argument.
Lord Whitty: My first point is technical. Some Members of the Committee, latterly the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, have said that all they are trying to do is to put hare coursing events on the same basis as everything else. That is not what the deletion of the clause would do. It would leave hare coursing totally unregulatedin an area where, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, there is huge public anxiety about such events.
As the Bill now stands, if we go for a registration system, hare hunting falls under Clause 1. Sometimes the term "coursing" is used for informal hare hunting. This clause is about organised hare coursing events, the purpose of which is to test the skill of dogs, not pest control or conservation. It is defined in Clause 5 as,