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Hares

Volume 401: debated on Tuesday 18 March 2003

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To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland how many hare courses took place at the Dungannon Coursing Club meet on 2 November 2002. [102906]

The number of courses that take place in any organised coursing event on the island of Ireland is subject to the policy and rules of the Irish Coursing Club. The policy for coursing in Northern Ireland is set by the Department for Social Development in conjunction with the ICC. Environment and Heritage Service of the DOE issue permits to allow the netting of hares for use in coursing events. Under the conditions of these permits, EHS officials monitor the catching of hares before the event and the return of the hares to the wild after the event. The officials have no role in coursing events, consequently I am unable to answer the hon. Member's question.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what assessment he has made of the recent research of the Northern Irish Hare Survey; and what actions he proposes to implement its recommendations on the hare's status as a quarry species. [102905]

Professor Montgomery's report, entitled "The Northern Ireland Irish Hare Survey 2002", was received by my Department on 14 February 2003.The report provides a current population estimate and compares these results with data collected in a 1997 survey. It also assesses the merits of two survey techniques and makes recommendations for future Irish hare monitoring. Professor Montgomery's team concludes that a method of survey known as 'Night Driven Transect Survey' allows a reliable estimate of hare abundance to be calculated.The 2002 Night Driven Transect Survey produced an average density estimate of one hare per square kilometre in Northern Ireland, an estimate similar to that reported in 1997. The present report concludes that hares are widespread and are found most frequently in upland areas. Hares were more frequently recorded in County Antrim during the survey and were less frequent in County Tyrone. The survey technique is not a census and so the sample survey gives an estimate of 14,000 hares for Northern Ireland, with lower 95 per cent. confidence limit of 7,000 and an upper confidence limit of 25,200.Professor Montgomery concludes, "That the population of Irish hares appears to be stable, albeit at a low density."The contract also required the Queen's University Team to make recommendations for practical measures which could improve the status of the Irish Hare in the medium to long term. One of the recommendations was as follows: "Removal of the Irish Hare from the quarry list and protection given under the Wildlife Order."In the Irish Hare Species Action Plan, published by DOE in October 2000, a number of actions are listed for consideration. Section 5 deals with Policy and Legislation and Action 5.1.3 recommends that DOE "Review, and if necessary, increase the level of protection given to the Irish Hare in the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985". My Department has appointed consultants to consider the implications of local Biodiversity Action Plan recommendations on the legal status of species, including the Irish hare, and recommend changes where appropriate. I will ensure that the consultants give very careful consideration to Professor Montgomery's recommendation to remove the Irish Hare from the quarry list. The report resulting from this contract is due in June 2003.My Department will consider carefully any changes which are proposed to the Wildlife (NI) Order 1985 Schedules or to the Game Preservation Act (NI) 1928 (as amended by the Game Law Amendment Act 1951 and The Game Preservation (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2002) and will bring forward any amendments considered necessary in the usual way.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he has received a copy of Professor Montgomery's report commissioned by his Department on the hare population in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. [101575]

Professor Montgomery's report, entitled "The Northern Ireland Irish Hare Survey 2002", was received by my Department on 14 February 2003. I welcome the opportunity to make a statement to The House on the results of the survey.The Irish hare, Lepus timidus hibernicus, is an endemic sub-species, confined to Ireland, of the mountain hare, which has a widespread distribution across northern Europe.The best evidence available suggests a major decline in Irish hare numbers in Northern Ireland during the latter half of the 20th century. This decline has been largely attributed to a loss of suitable habitat brought about mainly by agricultural intensification and changing patterns of grassland management.A comprehensive estimate of the population density of Irish hares throughout Northern Ireland was published in 1997. That survey reported that the Irish hare had a widespread distribution and occurred at low densities.The Environment and Heritage Service responded to the findings of the report by publishing a Species Action Plan in 2000 that listed a number of specific measures geared "to maintain the existing range and to demonstrate a population increase by 2005; and to double the present population by 2010 over as much of the range as possible."To assess achievement of the Species Action Plan targets, and to have current information on the distribution and abundance of Irish hares, requires a system of regular and effective monitoring of population density and distribution.Professor Montgomery's report provides a current population estimate and compares these results with data collected in the 1997 survey. It also assesses the merits of two survey techniques and makes recommendations for future Irish hare monitoring. Professor Montgomery's team concludes that a method of survey known as 'Night Driven Transect Survey', allows a reliable estimate of hare abundance to be calculated.The 2002 Night Driven Transect Survey produced an average density estimate of one hare per square kilometre in Northern Ireland, an estimate similar to that reported in 1997. The present report concludes that hares are widespread and are found most frequently in upland areas. Hares were more frequently recorded in County Antrim during the survey and were less frequent in County Tyrone. The survey technique is not a census and so the sample survey gives an estimate of 14,000 hares for Northern Ireland, with a lower 95 per cent. confidence limit of 7,000 and an upper confidence limit of 25,200.

The report advances a number of recommendations aimed at improving the status of the Irish Hare, these include:

  • The provision of hare refuge sites.
  • Hare friendly agricultural practices in agri-environment schemes.
  • Removal of the Irish hare from the quarry list and protection given under the Wildlife (NI) Order 1985
  • Increase in awareness of the plight of the Irish Hare by liaison with farming groups, the rural community and DARD.

My Department will give these recommendations active consideration and will act on them in an appropriate manner.

Professor Mongomery concludes, "That the population of Irish hares appears to be stable, albeit at a low density".

This assessment of the current status of the Irish hare in Northern Ireland is welcome, although the success of the Species Action Plan will be judged ultimately on a sustainable increase in the population of this special creature.