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HEAD to HEAD: Coursing – A Misunderstood Tradition

To read the opposite side of this debate, argued by Gript Editor John McGuirk, click here

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Coursing with hounds as a pastime likely goes back many millennia but certainly dates back to ancient Greece. Is was described by Arrian, a Greco-Roman historian in approximately AD 150 in a work titled “Cynegeticus”, which in translation is “On hunting with dogs”. In it he says, “For coursers, such at least are true sportsmen, do not take their dogs out for the sake of catching a hare, but for the contest and sport of coursing, and are glad if the hare meet with an escape.” Those sentiments hold true with true coursing aficionados to this day.

Coursing is rooted deep in rural Ireland. I grew up hearing tales of the famous coursing bitch “The Magpie from Knockaun” which had been bred by my grandfather in Co. Limerick. As children we were brought to open and park coursing meets around Meath and north Co. Dublin. Our Dad was more inclined to track racing but still loved a day out at the likes of the old Irish Cup which was then held at Clounanna in Adare.

More so than greyhound racing on the track, coursing is a pure sport. Only a very very few dogs win a substantial prize each season and the breeding industry is relatively small, and so people are not in it for money but rather for enjoyment and the pleasure of involving their families in something they themselves were shown by their parents before them.

Hares are netted 4-6 weeks before a park coursing meet and held in an enclosure called a hare park, where they are fed daily, wormed, and treated for any illnesses or ailments. Weak or injured hares are re-released and not used. Hares are released back to the same area as they were captured after the meeting, a process carefully monitored by Irish Parks and Wildlife officers. Veterinarians care for the hares before and during meetings and are also on hand to treat any injured dogs.

Coursing meeting are held by clubs all around Ireland over two or three days during a season which lasts from late September to the end of February. The two big end of season targets are the National meeting at Clonmel (held at the racecourse) and the Irish Cup, which is held at Limerick racecourse. Winners of “trial stakes” at meetings during the season qualify to run at the National meeting.

Coursing greyhounds are a distinct breed to the track dog. They are larger, some dogs weighing over 100lbs, and are bred for their straight line speed over around 400 yards. A “course” involves two dogs being “slipped” or released at an appropriate distance behind a trained hare which runs up the field. The dogs are faster in a straight line but the hare can turn abruptly to wrong foot her pursuers, and in almost all courses the hare gets to the escape unscathed. Occasionally hares get damaged by the muzzles of the dogs but “flankers” are poised to intervene immediately to prevent further trauma. Nobody in coursing wants to see a hare damaged, and cries of “go home hare” will be heard when a hare is being turned by the dogs. The course is decided by which dog causes the hare to turn first and by subsequent “work” or turns of the hare. Stakes are run on a simple knockout basis, and dogs need both speed and agility to win individual courses, but also incredible powers of recovery to be able to run up to three times on the last day of a stake.

Coursing greyhounds are amazingly gentle, quiet animals. This makes them very sought after as pets after they finish their working lives. Large numbers go the US every year to homes all over the continent.

Coursing is a family sport. Training coursing dogs is incredibly labour intensive and typically all the family will be involved in feeding, grooming, walking, galloping and cleaning out the dogs.

I have no doubt that coursing confers a net benefit on the population of the Irish hare. The year round monitoring of lands where hares are known to live by coursing clubs, the care the hares receive in the weeks before a meeting, and the careful re release of coursed hares to their original habitats, serves as an important protection for a vulnerable population. Unfortunately when coursing stops, (as in the UK in recent years), the hare population dwindles as the incentive to care for them is removed. Illegal hunting flourishes and wipes out whole areas. Illegal hunters literally corral groups of hares before releasing two or more unmuzzled dogs to kill as many as possible. They proudly display their “kill” on social media, something which disgusts the coursing fraternity. You may imagine the associated antisocial behaviour and confrontation they cause by trespassing on private property. This is the real alternative to coursing. People who want coursing banned should speak to the landowners in English counties such as Norfolk and Lincolnshire, and ask them about their experiences in the years before and after coursing was banned there.

Coursing is a highly social activity which helps bind rural communities together and gives them an opportunity to gather and indulge their passion. I vividly recall the despair felt by many when coursing was abruptly cancelled on Christmas Eve in the 2020-21 season. There are substantial numbers of country people who literally live for coursing.

Opposition to coursing seems founded on the mistaken perception that the sport of coursing is deleterious to the hare population. The English experience is the best refutation of that hypothesis for anyone who cares to study it. The anthropomorphic revulsion of a hare being chased by a dog is just as illogical. Were I an Irish hare, I would prefer to do what thousands of years of breeding have equipped me to do for a few brief minutes every year and then be left to exist and breed in the natural way, than to be surrounded and systematically slaughtered by gangs of “hunters” regulated by no one.

 


 

Denis Beary

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