Final Seanad Debate on the Heritage Bill Delivers Positives

30th March 2017
Media Coverage

An Taisce, Birdwatch Ireland, Irish Wildlife Trust and the Hedge Layers’ Association of Ireland have fought a long campaign over the last two years to try to change the course of the Heritage Bill. It is far from a bill which will safeguard our natural heritage, but one which would have a potentially irreversible impact on wildlife and biodiversity. The changes to the Wildlife Act, proposed in Section 8 of the Bill would have a serious impact on biodiversity in hedgerows and uplands, in particular highly vulnerable nesting bird species, such as the Red-listed Yellowhammer and Curlew, bats, mammals, flora and many pollinators, vital to healthy functional ecosystems.
Last night, the Bill was debated for the fourth and final time in the Seanad, before it is to be taken to the Dáil. The campaign is by no means over but developments yesterday mark some significant progress in the safeguarding of wildlife.

Last night, the Bill passed the Committee Stage. Amendments were passed which will lessen the negative impact of the Bill on biodiversity, in particular in relation to hedge-cutting. An amendment tabled by Fianna Fáil which was passed, restricts August hedge-cutting to road side hedges. This means that approximately 80% of hedges will not be subject to cutting at this time of year ensuring protection for the majority. This is a positive development and the culmination of a great deal of hard work on the part of the Senators, NGOs and the public.

Sincere gratitude is due to the Senators who listened to and took on board the concerns of environmental groups and the public and tried to achieve the best result for nature, by fighting for Section 8 of this Bill to be amended or scrapped. Many contributions were made during the debate and were offered as amendments and we thank the efforts of the Senators, including in particular, Senators Higgins, O’Sullivan, Humphreys, Ruane, Warfield, Ó Clochartaigh, McDowell, Craughwell, Black, and Ó Domhnaill and of course Senator Norris who has supported us from the start. Thanks must go to Fianna Fáil for tabling their amendment. We hope that they will continue to listen to our arguments and to the will of the Irish people as the Heritage Bill progresses.

Thanks to so many people for your great efforts, the Senators, TDs, environmental groups, concerned citizens, all those who campaigned, wrote letters, emailed, tweeted, joined the demonstration and signed the petition, which has now reached 27,251 signatures, fighting to protect our natural heritage from the Heritage Bill.
The Bill still presents a threat to our wildlife. The issue of conducting a pilot study without a baseline is a scientific contradiction in terms. While the lack of a legitimate pilot study proposed by the Bill may now not have as great an impact on hedgerows due to the amendment for roadside hedges, it may have huge implications in relation to upland burning. The necessity for robust baseline data informed by research is paramount in any pilot study and before any changes can take place. The survey must also be carried out in consultation with relevant stakeholders.

Allowing upland burning in March still has the potential to destroy fragile habitats and vital nesting ground for vulnerable bird species, including the Golden plover, Hen Harrier, Meadow pipit and in particular the highly endangered Curlew, which has experienced an 80% decline in breeding population over the last 40 years.

The Bill has yet to go to Report stage before it goes to the Dáil, at which stage, we will be working hard to ensure the issue of upland burning and the lack of a scientific basis for these changes are challenged. Allowing burning in March will not address wildfires, upland biodiversity loss or farmers issues with land eligibility. Some satisfaction can be taken from the progress that has been achieved so far. However, the campaign will continue as the Bill is brought to the Dáil, and we will depend on the support of the public once again to bring home to their representatives how important it is to safeguard biodiversity, not only for the species themselves but also for agriculture and for healthy functioning ecosystems.

For further information contact Fintan Kelly, Natural Environment Officer, An Taisce, The National Trust for Ireland