A proposed Bill to ban hunting with dogs in Northern Ireland has fallen after narrowly failing to win enough votes in the Stormont Assembly.
The region will remain the only part of the UK where hunting wild mammals with dogs is still permitted after the private members’ Bill was voted down on Monday
MLAs voted 38 for banning hunting with dogs, and 45 against outlawing the practise.
The Bill was brought by Alliance MLA John Blair in a bid to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK.
Hunting with dogs has been banned in England, Scotland, and Wales since the early 2000s.
The practise was described as a "cruel and unnecessary sport" in Stormont today, where the issue sparked broad division among lawmakers.
The Countryside Alliance hailed the outcome, labelling the proposals an "attack" on rural life and “very clumsily cobbled together with absolutely no regard or thought for its wider implication”.
Opening the debate on the second stage of the Bill on Monday afternoon, Mr Blair described hunting with dogs as a “cruel and unnecessary sport that causes immeasurable suffering to both the hunted animals and the hunting dogs”.
“It is my intention in bringing forward my Private Members Bill to reform legislation of hunting wild mammals with dogs in Northern Ireland to bring our legislation in line with that in England, Scotland and Wales, where the practice has been illegal for nearly 20 years,” he said.
“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.
“We have an historic opportunity to make a significant difference. A real opportunity here for Northern Ireland not only to catch up with the rest of the UK but to lead the way in ensuring full robust protection for animals persecuted for sport and for human enjoyment.”
Chairman of the Stormont Agriculture Committee, Declan McAleer, said the committee has not yet agreed a stance on the Bill.
He said if it passes its second stage, the committee will engage with all matters raised, such as the proposed penalties and potential loopholes.
He said his party (Sinn Fein) do not agree with a ban on hunting, but added that there are elements of the Bill which it does agree with.
“Legislation as it currently stands, we feel is unworkable and would require significant additional time in the committee to rectify it and that’s time we currently don’t have given the challenges of other legislation such as both of the climate change bills,” says Mr McAleer.
“I have no doubt that this issue will be revisited in the next mandate when appropriate time can be set aside to examine the issue in a round and to work alongside stakeholders to see what legislative changes are needed, if any.”
DUP MLA William Irwin opposed the Bill, describing it as “bad legislation”.
He said he has received “hundreds of pieces of correspondence from people who are deeply concerned by this poorly thought-out bill”.
“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 law were actually to come into force,” he told MLAs.
He added the Bill, if passed, would create an “absolute legislative nightmare” and a “significant resource implication for the PSNI”.
Speaking ahead of the debate, Stormont Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots indicated he would not be supporting the Bill.
In an interview with BBC Radio Ulster, Mr Poots contended foxes are a threat to some ground-nesting birds such as red grouse and hen harriers.
He added that he does not hunt himself or like the sport, but said he could not support the Bill has he viewed it as being poorly written with potentially damaging consequences if it is rushed through.
The proposal has been backed by the Northern Ireland animal welfare charity, the USPCA.
Chief executive Brendan Mullan said the charity has been “greatly encouraged” by the momentum around this Bill.
“There is a real opportunity here for the Assembly to put on record their commitment to enhancing animal welfare standards, and specifically on this occasion, introducing legislation which has been in place in other regions for nearly 20 years,” he said.
But Gary McCartney, director of Countryside Alliance Ireland, which opposes the Bill, contended that it could “potentially criminalise every dog owner in Northern Ireland” and “also represents an attack on the rural way of life”.
“Anyone whose dog chases a rabbit or squirrel, for example, whilst they are simply out for a walk in the park, partaking in country pursuits, checking their livestock or engaged in any other activity will be committing a criminal offence,” he said.