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Dublin: 8°C Tuesday 1 December 2020

Ongoing legality of wild hare coursing sums up this government's contempt for our natural heritage

The singular beauty of Ireland’s natural resources is as important as anything else this country has to offer, argues bird expert Eric Dempsey.

Eric Dempsey

THIS WEEK, I read that Heather Humphreys, our Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, has once again licensed the capture and use of live hares for another season of hare coursing. Did you know that our Irish hares are a unique race of Mountain Hare, found nowhere else in the world? They are truly special in that, unlike their European cousins, they do not go white in winter. Under the Wildlife Act they are a protected species. With habitat loss, human expansion, land management changes and persecution, the Irish Hare population is in very serious decline right across the country. For example, there are no more left on Dublin’s North Bull Island. Yet, the minister, responsible for our heritage, once again allows live hare coursing to continue on with her blessing.

It should in fact be consigned to history as a barbaric tradition that belongs in the 19th century.

ASGARD commemoration Heather Humphreys Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

The sad truth is that the granting of a licence to continue live hare coursing doesn’t surprise me too much. After all, this is the same government that just last year was more than happy to invite Disney Productions to take over Skellig Michael in Kerry, one of just two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Ireland. This precious, sacred site was desecrated by being trampled over by heavy equipment, cables and people to facilitate the filming of a segment of Star Wars. This filming was even done during the breeding season when thousands of seabirds nest on the cliffs around and within the ancient monastic ruins.

Young seabird chicks were actually blown off cliff ledges by the helicopters that ferried that equipment out to the island. That does not even touch on the possible damage that might have taken place to those precious ruins. A planned return by Disney later this year seems to be on the cards. The argument is that this would generate more tourism. The Skelligs can only tolerate a certain level of tourism… that which it receives today.

Skellig Michael renovation work Skellig Michael Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

‘Star Wars tourism’ is not required. Does our government not realise that we don’t need to sell our wonderful natural heritage for something that it isn’t? We don’t need to ‘greenwash’ over what we have. Our natural heritage is something to be proud of. It is something to treasure simply for what it is. We don’t need to ‘Disney-fy’ our natural heritage.


Sometimes I despair of our politicians but it’s not all their fault. Seriously, they don’t know any better. While I may be the same age (or older… now that’s a horrible thought!) as many of them, it seems that few of them were as lucky as I was. I had wonderful parents who gave me a deep appreciation of the world around me. My late father brought me by the hand to share his love of our historical built heritage, our culture and our uniqueness as a race of people.

He also taught me to be proud of our artistic and written heritage. However, most importantly, my enlightened parents introduced me to the magical world of nature. From an early age, I had a deep sense of wonder at, and an appreciation for, our natural heritage.

‘Natural Heritage’ is far less understood than other forms of heritage. It seems that what we have in nature is somewhat taken for granted. There would be outrage if a historical building was demolished or an ancient burial site was bulldozed. In recent months there was justifiable concern at the sale of paintings from Russborough House. We were losing a part of our national heritage.

shutterstock_269232155 A corn bunting singing Source: Shutterstock/Emilio100

Yet, there seemed to be total silence when a species like Corn Bunting, a bird that had been in Ireland for thousands of years, simply vanished. They went extinct in Ireland in the 1990s.

Corncrakes are equally on a steady decline… as are Skylarks, Yellowhammers and Irish Hares. These are as much a part of our heritage as our language, Newgrange, the Russborough paintings and the monastic settlement on the Skelligs.

Yet, for some reason, they are not afforded the same consideration or protection. Of course, I was doubly lucky in that I also had a wonderful schoolteacher. I went to school in Finglas, where I was born and raised. Lets face it, Finglas is not exactly the epicentre of ornithological study yet, eight of Ireland’s top bird experts all had that one teacher, Mrs Carthy, in low infants.

I am reliably told that several of Ireland’s leading botanists also had her as their teacher. She instilled a real love of Ireland’s natural heritage into countless generations of young fellas from Finglas, Ballymun and Glasnevin. What a shame Enda or Heather didn’t have Mrs McCarthy as their teacher.

I am now a listed ‘Heritage Specialist’ which allows me to visit our national schools to share my passion for our birds and wildlife with our younger generations. The romantic soul in me allows me to believe I am carrying the baton for Mrs McCarthy. Schools are so different these days. Thankfully nature studies are now on the curriculum and our younger generations are getting a chance to understand, and most importantly of all, to appreciate the wonder of nature.


I am so privileged to get a chance to work with so many schools and am enthused by what I encounter. One kid in a working class area of Dublin told me that he was so angry. When I asked him why, he told me that each Saturday morning he goes to the small stream near his house and removes the rubbish from it. However, he gets angry because when he returns the following week, there is more rubbish dumped there. He is angry because others around him don’t appreciate the beauty of the stream.

How wonderful is it to meet a ten-year old who holds such passion for our natural heritage? Another young lad in the same school, when the teacher suggested that we google the song of a Blackbird, asked that we go outside instead so that we could hear one singing for real.

“You might hear it singing on your computer,” he said. “But you won’t feel it unless you are there beside it.”

These kids represent the future of Ireland. They give me hope for our future. I can only pray that one of them (or one of the many other brilliant young schoolkids I meet) will grow up to be a Minister for Arts, Heritage & the Gaeltacht.

In the meantime, it’s up to us to ensure that until then, we have a natural heritage left for them to enjoy and treasure. It is not ours to do with as we choose. We are merely the custodians of our heritage in all its forms. We need to be brave and bold to protect it.

Minister… are you listening?

Eric Dempsey is recognised as one of Ireland’s leading bird experts and is a professional guide, speaker, wildlife photographer and writer.

His new book, Don’t Die In Autumn, is available now from Amazon and bookshops nationwide.

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Eric Dempsey

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