Hunting of Wild Mammals Bill: Second Stage

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:15 pm on 6 December 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 1:15, 6 December 2021

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Hunting of Wild Animals Bill [NIA 43/17-22] be agreed.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated a time limit to the debate overall but has agreed limits to individual contributions. The sponsor of the Bill will have 30 minutes to move the motion and a further 15 minutes to make a winding-up speech. The Minister will have up to 20 minutes to contribute, and the Chair of the Committee and all other Members who speak will have up to 15 minutes.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I will proceed by pointing out that Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom without a ban on hunting with dogs. That is despite widespread public support for a ban, including fox and deer hunting. It is my opinion and that, widely, of the public that hunting with dogs is a cruel and unnecessary sport that causes immeasurable suffering to the hunted animals and the hunting dogs, which can also sustain horrific injuries, especially during what is known as "terrier work". Through my private Member's Bill, I intend to reform the legislation on hunting wild mammals with dogs in Northern Ireland to bring it in line with that in England, Scotland and Wales, where the practice has been illegal for nearly 20 years.

A ban on hunting with dogs in Northern Ireland is long overdue. That has been my personal and political stance for many years. It is also the policy position of my party, the Alliance Party. I firmly believe that animals being ripped to shreds by packs of dogs for human enjoyment cannot be considered a sport and that fox and stag hunting have no place in a civilised society.

Between December 2020 and February '21, I conducted an eight-week consultation exercise on my private Member's Bill. There were 18,425 responses to the survey. That is thought to be the largest number of responses to a private Member's Bill in the Assembly, and it shows the strength of feeling on the issue. An overwhelming majority of respondents, 78·16%, agreed with the proposals and said that all hunting, searching, coursing, capturing or killing of wild mammals with dogs should be banned in Northern Ireland. An even greater majority, 79·6%, said that they considered terrier work, which is using dogs to attack to cause a wild mammal to flee its cover, to be unacceptable.

Following consultation and deliberation, I considered that primary legislation would be the best mechanism by which to achieve the policy objectives comprehensively and to introduce appropriate penalties for breaches of the proposed law. Therefore, the Bill will make a consequential amendment to the Welfare of Animals (Northern Ireland) Act 2011 to ensure that a coherent statutory framework is in place.

The Bill aims to introduce a ban on the hunting of wild mammals to death with dogs, and, without introducing legislation, that practice could not be banned. I also intend the legislation to facilitate prosecutions and subsequent penalties to act as a deterrent to future hunting using dogs to kill wild mammals. I am also conscious of loopholes in the legislation in other jurisdictions, such as the use of trail hunting as cover for proscribed fox hunting. Accordingly, provision to address those has been included in the Bill. The legislation will ensure that Northern Ireland would lead the way with a full and comprehensive ban on hunting with dogs. It will not duplicate the exemptions and loopholes that have allowed animals to continue to be chased and killed in the rest of the UK. There is a historic opportunity to tackle the scourge of hunting with dogs once and for all in Northern Ireland. We need to end this brutally cruel activity that has no place in a modern society.

I will now outline the clauses of the Bill. In 2000, a UK parliamentary inquiry into hunting with dogs, commonly referred to as the "Burns report", established and concluded that animals suffer incredible physiological and psychological stress when chased by a hunt and that that suffering occurs regardless of whether they are eventually killed. That evidence led to a ban in England and Wales through the Hunting Act 2004. The Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 protected certain wild mammals from being hunted with dogs and placed restrictions on the practice of hunting wild mammals with dogs. Northern Ireland remains the only jurisdiction in the United Kingdom without a ban on hunting with dogs. Such hunting includes fox hunting and deer hunting. The Bill aims to introduce a ban on hunting wild mammals to death with dogs, with a definition broad enough to include deer, foxes, rabbits and mink.

The Bill also intends to ban trail hunting, which is defined in the Bill as:

"any process in which one or more dogs are induced or permitted to follow the scent of a wild mammal (whether the trail of scent has been laid naturally or by human intervention)."

It should be noted that that activity was non-existent — not even envisaged — when the Hunting Act 2004 was drafted. It is therefore crucial that a hunting with dogs ban in Northern Ireland prevent trail hunting from being used as cover for illegal hunting.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Is he aware of a recent court case in which it was found that trail hunting is precisely as the Member describes: a cover for fox hunting?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I am aware of that, and, coincidentally, I will refer to it a line or two later in my speech.

Loopholes have been exposed in the legislation in England, Wales and Scotland that have allowed hunting to continue under certain guises, including trail hunting. Such exemptions are widely abused and make potential prosecutions difficult. They cannot be justified. It is imperative that Northern Ireland eliminate the loopholes that were highlighted in a recent court case in GB when the Westminster Magistrates' Court found a leading huntsman guilty and ordered him to pay £3,500 for giving advice on how to carry out hunts illegally. It was described as a landmark case. The court heard that, at two webinars last August, he had told members of the Hunting Office to use the legal form of trail hunting as a "smokescreen" for the criminal activity.

In addition to that, the Bill introduces a ban on terrier work, which is defined as:

"a process in which dogs are induced to enter a hole in the ground — (a) in order to flush out or otherwise force a wild mammal to leave the hole, or (b) in order to make it easier or quicker to dig a wild mammal out of the hole."

That is a simple description for the purpose of my speech, but I assure Members that the footage that I have seen of the activity is harrowing and makes for uncomfortable viewing. A secondary matter with terrier work that I was made aware of during the consultation process is that terriers can often sustain injuries. It can be the case that professional veterinary care is not sought and dogs are treated elsewhere. I have heard reports of dogs having staples in their jaws and superglue in their mouths as intended fixes. Those injuries also suggest that the dogs impacted in such circumstances are used for activities other than simply flushing rabbits and may have been involved in illegal badger baiting, for example, such is the extent of their injuries.

The Bill allows for exemptions. Hunting is exempt from the prohibition in clause 1 if it is confined to hunting rats or mice or if it complies with all the conditions listed in clause 4. Hunting that satisfies the conditions listed in the exemptions will not be deemed to be illegal. The exemptions cover protection of livestock, crops, biodiversity and hunting that puts food on the table, as well as the established and historical practices that are part of country life.

The Bill permits the hunting of wild mammals for the protection of biodiversity. However, I have to say at this point that hunting with dogs is more likely to have an adverse impact on wildlife, conservation and the wider environment. One of the most obvious characteristics of hunting with dogs as undertaken by organised hunts is the fact that it is based on a large pack of big dogs moving through the land at high speed, followed by many people who are often on horseback. That is bound to have an impact on the land where that occurs, because, naturally, the hounds will not care about disturbing the natural habitat where they are hunting, and those areas will, perhaps, include ground used by nesting birds that are already protected by law. Those consequences of recreational hunting and biodiversity conservation have been supported by a number of reviews and reports.

Members will also note that drag hunting and clean boot hunting have not been included in the Bill's remit. Both practices are non-lethal forms of hunting, and it is my hope that those involved in fox hunting will adapt and move to those animal welfare-friendly alternatives. It is vital, however, that the two activities are not confused with trail hunting. I emphasise that trail hunting is not drag hunting or clean boot hunting. Trail hunting can, however, be used as cover for illegal hunting, which is why it has been included in the Bill's remit. In fact, the exemptions in general have been written to avoid the potential for loopholes, misinterpretation and uncertainty.

In setting the penalties, I followed the highest penalty in section 31 of the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. A person who commits an offence under this Act is liable:

"(a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to a fine not exceeding £20,000, or both; (b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years, or to a fine, or both."

It is my hope that we can scrutinise the penalties further at Committee Stage, including the potential forfeiture of any dog or hunting article used in the commissioning of the offence or in the possession of the convicted person at the time of their arrest.

The interpretation section further defines the remit of the legislation. It states:

"It is an offence to organise or participate in the hunting of a wild mammal with a dog" and that all willing participants or those otherwise involved in the pursuit of a wild mammal will have caused an offence. In defining the offences, I have not included a clause for recklessness. As trail hunting is to be prohibited, there is no need to extend that hunting offence to cover cases where a person who goes drag hunting is reckless and a live hunt ensues. I have made the offences ones of strict liability, which means that prosecution has to prove only the organisation of or participation in the hunting that I have mentioned. "Participation" carries within its natural language a meaning of deliberate engagement or organisation of a hunt that should, in turn, naturally exclude a person's genuinely inadvertent stumbling across a hunt.

I am grateful to present on the Hunting of Wild Mammals Bill, for the debate on the matter and for the opportunity for the Bill to progress for further consideration and scrutiny. Members will be aware that I represent a largely rural constituency and that, before I joined the Assembly, I worked closely with the country sports sector for many years and tried to ensure that country sports and other outdoor activities were accessible to the public. 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. It is therefore not my intention to go further than the scope of the Bill as outlined in the content and described today to Assembly colleagues. It is my hope that the Bill's clearly defined scope, to which I do not intend to add, is also a good reason why the Bill can easily be considered, consulted on and debated in a timely manner within the time limits of the current mandate.

We have a historic opportunity to make a significant difference: a real opportunity for Northern Ireland to not only catch up with the rest of the UK but lead the way in ensuring full, robust protection for animals persecuted for sport and human enjoyment. I look forward to debating the Bill's principles with political colleagues. I hope that they will give the legislation their backing so that we can finally consign hunting with dogs to history, where it belongs. I urge Members to support the Bill.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to outline the Committee's views on the Hunting of Wild Mammals Bill.

The Committee received evidence from the Bill sponsor last Thursday. It recognises that this is a contentious matter and that due consideration needs to be given to the issues before introducing such restrictions. The Committee heard that the purpose of the Bill is to ban the use of dogs to hunt wild mammals to death, including foxes, rabbits, deer, hare and mink. It seeks to bridge a legislative gap here and in other parts of these islands. The Bill goes further, however, by closing legislative loopholes that have been exploited by individuals to continue the use of dogs to hunt under permissible activities.

Clause 1 will make it an offence to organise or participate in the hunting of wild mammals with dogs. The Committee acknowledges that the use of dogs will invariably lead to distress for other animals and potentially cause additional suffering.

The Committee was advised that, in order to bring a prosecution or impose a penalty under the Bill, there will be a threshold test to prove active participation and pursuit of a wild mammal using a dog. Members raised questions about that and were concerned that there may be insufficient safeguards to protect individuals who find themselves in a situation in which their dog independently chases a wild mammal. Related to that, members highlighted the fact that clause 6, which sets out how the Bill's provisions are to be interpreted, has a very wide scope and will potentially lead to individuals engaging in appropriate activity being sanctioned, penalised or restricted unnecessarily.

Clauses 2 and 3 of the Bill will ban the use of dogs in trail hunting and terrier work respectively. The Committee heard that trail hunting, whereby a dog is induced to follow the scent of an animal by artificial or actual means, has been used in some areas by people to circumvent a ban on the use of dogs, so it has been included in the Bill as a way of closing that gap. Terrier work, which involves the use of dogs underground to flush a wild mammal, is likely to cause the hunted animal distress and can also be dangerous to the participating dog, with a risk of injury associated with operating underground.

Clause 4 sets out exempted activities. The use of dogs to hunt rats and mice will be permissible. It will also be permissible to use dogs to hunt wild mammals if all the following preconditions are met: the hunting is carried out to prevent damage to livestock, crops, property or the biodiversity of an area or to obtain meat for consumption; each person who occupies the land on which the hunting will take place has given consent; no more than two dogs are used; and the wild mammal must be shot dead as soon as possible by a competent person. Members of the Committee acknowledged that those criteria are broadly reflective of other laws but consider that greater time and scrutiny will be required to explore the issues to determine their appropriateness.

Clause 5 establishes the penalties that may be imposed through the Bill. An individual who is found to commit an offence may be subject, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for up to 12 months and/or a fine up to £20,000, and, on indictment, to a prison term of up to five years, in addition to a possible fine. Those penalties are similar to provisions in other Acts, but greater time to review them is required in order to consider the proportionality of the penalties in the context of the very low conviction rates seen in England and Wales for similar breaches.

The Committee heard about the significant number of responses that the Bill sponsor received to the consultation, indicating the strength of feeling from members of the public on the issue. Notwithstanding the commitment that the intent of the Bill is to ban hunting with dogs, there is a strong lobby that considers hunting with dogs to be an important economic and recreational outlet, particularly in rural communities. We did not take a position on the Bill, but, should it pass its Second Stage today, we will engage on all the matters raised with the Bill sponsor and various stakeholders.

I will add some comments from my perspective as Sinn Féin spokesperson on agriculture and rural affairs. Sinn Féin does not agree with a ban on hunting. There are elements of the Bill that we agree with, however. The legislation as it stands is unworkable and would require significant additional time in Committee to rectify that. That is time that we do not currently have, given the challenges of other legislation, such as both Climate Change Bills.

I have no doubt that the issue will be revisited in the next mandate when the appropriate time can be set aside to examine it in the round and to work alongside stakeholders to see what legislative changes are needed, if any. It is my view that the process would be best taken forward by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and its Minister in the next Executive, through a public consultation process in the first instance.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance 1:30, 6 December 2021

I thank the Chair for giving way. I realise that reference to Committee business is a significant part of his position, but how many Bills is the AERA Committee considering? I am aware that the Health Committee, for example, is considering multiple Bills at this stage. Surely the pressures on the schedule can be overcome if MLAs put their shoulder to the wheel.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

The Member will be aware that both Climate Change Bills are taking up the vast majority of the Committee's bandwidth at present. We are also dealing with the Horse Racing (Amendment) Bill and other important pieces of policy, such as the new environment policy and the new agriculture policy. The Bill will require more in-depth and thorough scrutiny at this juncture to give it due consideration.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and record my concerns about the unintended consequences of what, in my view, amounts to bad legislation. As I represent a rural constituency, it will be no surprise to Members that I have received hundreds of pieces of correspondence from people who are deeply concerned about this poorly thought-out Bill. I wish to see it taken off the table.

The correspondence has come from responsible individuals who have taken time to explain to me their real concerns about the Bill. It is my duty to represent the hundreds of people who have contacted me, people who have raised their concerns and, indeed, drawn my immediate attention to the fact that 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 draft law were actually to come into force.

The Bill is poorly drafted, and its promotion has raised the concerns of many people. The Bill sponsor has unfairly painted a picture of rural life that is simply untrue. That is a regrettable by-product of this bad draft legislation. As a farmer, I am in tune with the rural environment and, indeed, care greatly for the animals that are in my control. I do not, at any time, wish to see any animal suffer needlessly. Indeed, as on my farm, farmers on many farms throughout the country spend heavily each year to ensure that animals are healthy and well. They also spend heavily on maintaining healthy habitats for wildlife, which has important knock-on benefits for the countryside. The control of vermin and pest species is an important part of maintaining the rural ecosystem. Certain species must be controlled effectively to ensure that that important balance is kept.

The Bill is the thin end of the wedge. As we have seen with such attempts at legislation previously, hunting, whilst it is not a pursuit that I engage in, is not the issue here; rather, this Bill is an attempt to create division and, indeed, misrepresent the rural community. The Countryside Alliance has conducted a significant amount of research and consultation on the issue. It makes an important point about evidence and the fact that, in the drafting of the Bill, no attempt seems to have been made to examine the evidence. There is significant research and a huge evidence base out there, following similar exercises on the mainland. It is worth considering that much of that evidence still points to a firm need to control the environment and pest species, and that need will remain.

Mr Blair's consultation has been the subject of much concern. There is a significant question mark over where the responses came from; whether they were from Northern Ireland or whether many were, possibly, generated from overseas. The consultation required only an email address, and of course it is important that any consultation focuses on the views of people here in Northern Ireland and is not open to abuse through organised spam emails. I remain concerned about the consultation process.

The inclusion of a two-dog limit in the Bill is a huge concern. It represents a real threat to how animals can be protected from vermin and pest species, and it would create huge difficulties to farmers with livestock that is susceptible to attack. The Bill would drastically reduce the capacity to deal with such attacks on livestock and, indeed, manage game.

Clause 6 is also a huge concern. It would see a criminal offence being committed if a dog, while out for a run with its owner, decides to chase a wild animal. The poorly constructed Bill is concerningly open in its language in that area. It would have serious implications for a wide range of scenarios, such as a simple day out in the country with your pet dog. It would also have implications for rough shooters, gamekeepers, pest controllers and, indeed, farmers.

I say it again: the Bill is bad for the countryside and risks criminalising ordinary people. Surely, that cannot be allowed to happen in this day and age. Members, you simply cannot be oblivious to the ramifications of the Bill and what it would mean, in legal terms, for the countryside and rural dwellers. You may not have an interest in hunting, but surely you have an interest in the House creating laws that are sensible, logical and, crucially, enforceable. The Bill is none of those. I sincerely hope that it does not progress. It will represent a very backward step and create a legislative nightmare. The resource implications for the PSNI will be significant, and, as we have seen in other areas such as mainland UK, the rate of enforcement is disproportionately low when compared to other offences. On the basis of what is before the House, I cannot support the Bill, given the concerning legal ramifications. I urge the House to reject the Bill.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue today and thank the Member for affording us the opportunity. The SDLP is deeply committed to animal welfare, preventing the abuse of animals and ensuring that abusers correctly carry the consequences. A lot of work has been done in relation to the register of offenders by my colleague Dolores Kelly, with Sinéad Bradley, myself and councillor Malachy Quinn. <BR/>I lay my cards on the table: I am one of the people who engage in country sports. I do not hunt with dogs like this here, but I am one of the 54,000 people who have a firearms certificate for the purpose, and John already knows that. My concern is not flippant or an aside. It is a major concern about section 6, "Interpretation":

"A reference in this Act to the hunting of a wild mammal with a dog includes any case where a wild mammal is pursued by one or more persons and one or more dogs are employed in that pursuit."

That is the draft legislation as proposed at the Second Stage in this Bill. What does that mean? Where I come from, it is not unusual to see a group of people, mostly on a Saturday morning, out with their dogs and shotguns, either after pheasants or on their way to the duck pond or to Lough Neagh to carry out a very legitimate and approved activity. Indeed, I will place on record that many of those people are among the most law-abiding people that there are, because they do not want anything to jeopardise their sport or the retention of their shotgun or whatever they have the firearms certificate for.

The Chair has already mentioned that, under this legislation, a person can face:

"imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to a fine not exceeding £20,000".

I will paint a picture: go back to that Saturday morning when that group of people are going out pheasant shooting or whatever it might be. They will have specially bred dogs for that purpose; they are good dogs such as spaniels. Those dogs get the scent of a wild mammal, and they are off in pursuit of it. The owners will try to restrain the dogs and get them back so that they can get to their destination. In the meantime, a police officer has observed that activity. According to the Bill we have in front of us, that police officer has observed an organised group of people who are in the act of:

"hunting of a wild mammal with a dog includes any case where a wild mammal is pursued by one or more persons and one or more dogs are employed in that pursuit."

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. I will make two points, and perhaps he can clarify them. So far, he has clearly outlined that he does not have a major difficulty with some of the elements of the Bill that deal with the most brutal and barbaric of country sports. Can the Member clarify his position on fox hunting, for example? However, to clarify the legislative position on police intervention if such a thing happened, I ask him if that is not exactly what currently happens with the legislation that is designed to protect badgers. If a dog instinctively or innocently follows the scent of a badger, that set of circumstances already exists. As far as I am aware, no one has been prosecuted on that basis.

In relation to the police and the legislative situation with badgers, thus far, nothing has happened. We have to trust the police to make a judgement at the time. Other allegations against someone who holds a firearms certificate might also have implications for them, not just this.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:45, 6 December 2021

I thank the Member for that intervention. There is but one difference between the badger and some of those other mammals; the badger is, largely, a nocturnal animal, and, generally, people are not out with dogs at that time of the night.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I appreciate the Member's giving way. Surely the issue is about intent. The law is clear about people intending to pursue wild mammals. The issue is clearly about intent. If the Bill passes, I see no scenario in which innocent people will end up being hauled in front of a court over an accident where their dog picked up and followed a scent. It is clear that the Bill is about the intent of the pursuit of wild mammals.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I get what the Member is saying, but, if a police officer observes a group of people with a group of dogs in pursuit of a wild mammal, the police officer is duty-bound to assess that situation, as they see it at that moment, be it rightly or wrongly.

Allow me to expand on that. I am sure that other Members have dealt with people who have got into problems, be they alleged, perceived or otherwise, with firearm certificates. Under the interpretation of the Bill, as I read it, the implication is that people will face difficulties and possibly prosecution owing to not only being caught in that scenario by a police officer or officers but being in possession of a firearm. One issue relates to animal welfare, and the other is quite clearly the illegal use of a firearm, as it would be seen. In the context of the legislation, as a consequence of a serious offence such as one relating to animal welfare, their shotguns are immediately scooped and taken into safe holding by the police.

Mr Blair and I had a discussion about that, and those issues can be left to be rectified by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS). We all know the legalities and how the law works. From the initial point of the guns being scooped, to statements being prepared by police, to those statements being passed to the Public Prosecution Service and the Public Prosecution Service delivering a decision, it can take 12,18 or 24 months, and, with COVID-19, it has taken incredibly longer over the last while. Even at the point at which the Public Prosecution Service makes a decision and says, "No, there will be no prosecution", the decision to return that person's firearm is left not to the Public Prosecution Service but to the firearms and explosives branch (FEB). Based on the evidence that it has, including the statements of police officers, it can decide whether that person is fit for the return of the firearm. That is the process. I have been through it with many people over the years, and it is a fair indication as to how things can go, especially when that happens.

I have to pay tribute because some information arrived this morning. Some of the legal aspects and concerns around the Bill have been raised by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC). Some detailed advice around the Bill has come from legal persons. In the intervening 12, 14, 18 months or however long it may take for the PPS to make a decision on the matter and the FEB to return the gun —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member —

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Yes, thank you, I will wind up now. If that person is in a sensitive occupation, such as a veterinary surgeon, a police officer, probation officer or anyone in social services, their boss may call them in and say, "Here, I hear that you are being investigated for a very serious offence". Those issues around that interpretation really need to be addressed. I appreciated Mr Blair listening to us on Thursday, when we raised those issues, and again on Thursday evening with the party, but I have serious concerns about — I do not dispute that they are not intended consequences — what are unintended consequences of the interpretation under clause 6. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; I hope that I have made the time frame work.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I call Rosemary Barton, and I advise the Member that I may have to interrupt her, as we are approaching Question Time at 2.00 pm.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; I will try to keep within the time limits. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this Second Stage debate.

Northern Ireland has no dedicated and specific legislation that bans or regulates the hunting of mammals with dogs, unlike in England, Scotland and Wales, where hunting with dogs is either restricted or banned by legislation. We do, however, have legislation that protects wildlife as its objective, such as the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, which prohibited hare coursing but left the possibility to hunt wild animals. There is also legislation to deal with attacks on people, livestock and other animals.

While there are many who say that hunting with dogs is a necessity to keep predators like foxes under control, others contend that that method of control is very cruel and causes unnecessary suffering before the animal dies. There are swifter and more humane methods of eradicating predators such as foxes, which are a danger to young lambs, free-range fowl and ground-nesting birds.

In considering the Bill, we must remember that its aim is to introduce a ban on hunting wild mammals to death with dogs. It is a short Bill, with 10 clauses, but there are several that need greater clarification as to their intent.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to Mrs Barton for giving way. At Second Stage, we consider the general principles of the Bill. The further clarification that Members wish for can be provided at further stages. Can we all agree, as a general principle, that the hunting of a wild mammal to death with a pack of dogs is cruel and unnecessary?

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Yes, that is what I said.

Clause 1 makes it an offence:

"to organise or participate in ... hunting".

There is no clear definition as to what a participant is. Is it an individual on horseback, who is out for a hack with their pet dogs? Is it someone who is out on a country walk, whose dog chases a rabbit?

Clause 2(2) is also ambiguous, in that it suggests that trail hunting:

"means any process in which one or more dogs are induced or permitted to follow the scent of a wild mammal".

A landowner who is walking across their fields with their dogs off a leash, which suddenly pick up the scent of a wild mammal and give chase, must be protected. One cannot prevent the hunting instincts of a pet.

I also have concerns that the current wording of the Bill would end drag hunting, which allows for pursuit by dogs following an artificial scent. Drag hunting could also allow horse riders, who formerly hunted, to continue to meet, socialise and enjoy the countryside.

Clause 3(2) states that terrier work refers to:

"a process in which dogs are induced to enter a hole".

However, there are other animals that could also be induced to enter a hole in the ground in order to force a wild mammal to leave its hole. Is that permissible, as wild animals may have the same ending?

In clause 4(3)(a) and (b), clarification is needed on the definition of "serious damage". That is an evidential threshold: how is the damage measured? In clause 4(3), clarification is also needed on whether the stalking of wild mammals for food is included.

There is ambiguity, again, in clause 6(1). If several people, or even a landowner and his family, are out for a walk and have several pet dogs along with them, those dogs could become involved in the pursuit of a rabbit. An amendment is needed to ensure that ordinary pet owners in Northern Ireland are not criminalised by the Bill.

Were the Bill to become law, and were hunts to come to an end, consideration would need to be given to compensation for the men and women who would lose their jobs. Consideration also needs to be given to the hounds that are specifically kept to accompany hunts. Those animals are not pets, and, therefore, there are limited opportunities for them to become house pets. Furthermore, will many of the hunt horses also be retired? If so, what is their future?

In conclusion, I am content for the Bill to pass Second Stage, but a lot of work and assurances are required on a number of clauses, given that alternative methods of eradicating what the agricultural community refers to as predators can address farm livestock protection issues without being a hindrance to biodiversity.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Members, Question Time is due to commence at 2.00 pm. I ask that Members take their ease until then.

The debate stood suspended.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)