Heritage Bill - Two steps forward, one step back?
The Heritage Bill 2016 has passed the final stage of the Seanad and will soon be brought to the Dáil for further debate. While a certain amount of progress had previously been made in relation to hedge-cutting, there are a number of issues which remain unresolved and more which have arisen from the Final Stage of the Seanad debate.
The recent amendment by Fianna Fáil Senators Ó Domhnaill and Paul Daly, passed in the Third Stage, will, if made law, allow for only roadside hedges to be cut outside the hedge-cutting season, in cases of road safety. This is a positive development in that it prevents unseasonal hedge-cutting on around 80% of hedges across the country.
However, an amendment, introduced at the eleventh hour by Minister Humphreys may mean that these restrictions on hedge-cutting will once again be loosened. Amendment 63, passed on Thursday 13th April at the Report Stage of the Bill, if made law, will exempt landowners from obligations under Section 40 of the Wildlife Act, in cases where hedgerows are judged to be a hazard to road safety.
The Minister defended the amendment on the grounds that she sought to
“eliminate confusion as to whether landowners issued with a Section 70 order during the closed season can cut their hedges without infringing on the Wildlife Act.”
However, a number of Senators voiced their concern at the last minute amendment. Senator David Norris outlined once again the importance of hedgerows, not only as nesting habitat for vulnerable species of birds such as the red-listed yellowhammer, but also their role as a food source and habitat for pollinators and other wildlife.
Senator Grace O’Sullivan expressed her frustration and disappointment at what she dubbed “absolutely regressive”. It was essentially undoing months of progress since the debates over the Bill in November, after much engagement with different sectors of society including farmers, NGOs, individuals and communities, who felt that hedgerows should be protected in August.
“I’m so concerned that we are now in a position where every step that we had felt we had made with you Minister over the course of the last few months has been obliterated.”
She showed her discontent at what she deemed a "grubby" bill, adding;
“It is a destruction of heritage, it’s a destruction of our hedgerows, it’s destruction of the beauty of the Irish landscape, it’s a disgrace”.
Senator Alice-Mary Higgins added her disdain for the amendment, calling it “an insult and an injury to our natural heritage” and one which “goes against the spirit of what has happened over two decades.” According to Senator Higgins, the amendment would allow a landowner to take any action he or she deems appropriate for health and safety reasons in respect of a roadside hedge at any time of year therefore, and entail that regulation and Section 70 orders are “out the window” and the role and authority of local councils, with regard to their perspective, is “disregarded”.
“It is a washing of the hands and again it is shameful that a Minister for Heritage would seek to gut the Wildlife Act of which she is the guardian.”
Data Deficient Pilot Study
An additional tabled amendment, which was defeated, would have introduced the use of a public register allowing for a record of hedge-cutting and upland burning. In Minister Humphreys view, she could not "accept any gain that there might be from having such a register that would justify the costs involved". However, Senator Kevin Humphreys defended the need to keep a clear record, also highlighting the inherent contradiction between the Minister’s view and her intention to introduce a 3-year pilot study.
“If we don’t know what’s happening there and we can’t monitor over a long-term period of time exactly what’s happened on the uplands we won’t be able to have a scientific basis for decisions we make.”
The Burning Issue
Within the report stage, the issue of upland burning was not dealt with and no amendments have been passed to prevent the potential damage the Heritage Bill may lead to.
It still remains a crucial issue and must be raised by members of the Dáil. To allow upland burning in March will further endanger vulnerable wildlife such as the curlew and will not address the core issues which face upland and marginal farming communities. Furthermore, it will increase the risk of wildfires, which pose a threat to people, property, wildlife, the environment and traditional grazing itself. The uplands form an important part of our heritage. They are cultural landscapes in themselves, which have been shaped by farming communities for centuries as these communities have been shaped by them. Uplands support extensive farming practices on which many rare species depend, many of which have been lost to lowlands, due to the intensification of agriculture. High Nature Value farming areas are of huge value to wildlife and farming communities, not only for the conservation of nature, but also for tourism and the continuation of a viable rural way of life.
A certain amount of progress has been made and thanks are due to the groups and individuals who campaigned against the Bill. Gratitude is also due to the Senators who put forward amendments and spoke out against it, Senators Grace O’Sullivan (Green Party), Alice-Mary Higgins (Ind), David Norris (Independent), Kevin Humphreys (Labour), Lynn Ruane (Ind), Michael McDowell (Ind), Francis Black (Ind), Fintan Warfield (Sinn Féin), Trevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Féin), Gerard Craughwell (Ind), including Senators Brian Ó Domhnaill and Paul Daly (Fianna Fáil) who put forward the amendment to limit hedge-cutting to roadside hedges only. However, while small victories may be claimed in this regard, the “Heritage” Bill still has the potential to damage that which it purports to protect. It is up to campaigners for nature and the responsibility of those in the Dáil to see that this does not happen.
The Petition has reached over 27,500 signatures. Show your support and add your name here - https://my.uplift.ie/petitions/no-to-more-slash-and-burn