The Heritage Bill Round 2 - Beating Around the Bush

1st December 2016
News Item

The Heritage Bill was once again debated in The Seanad on Thursday 17th November, where its flaws continued to be laid bare. While Minister Humphreys stated that she recognised hedgerows as ”important wildlife habitats, performing important functions”, she maintained that “the change in the timing of cutting set out in Section 8 of the Bill would not interfere with any of these functions.” However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the arguments put forward for the extension of hedge-cutting and burning seasons have neither the support of a number of relevant stakeholders nor stand up to scientific scrutiny.

Lack of Scientific Methodology

The Minister has stated that she intends for her department “to carry out studies to determine what, if any, effects there are during the pilot phase”, involving “the use of control areas where cutting within the prescribed period under the Wildlife Acts can be compared with cutting of the current year's growth under the Bill.” However, this is lacking in appropriate methodology. There is no sufficient baseline data prior to the pilot phase taking place, a two-year period is inadequate to study complex populations and reactivation of Section 8 provisions directly after this period would effectively occur before scientific assessment of the effects. In response to a call for support for amendments allowing for comprehensive methodology, An Taisce received 13 replies from academics in the field of natural sciences across five universities.[1] Proposed amendments to Section 8 of the bill call for a three-year minimum baseline survey, a comprehensive consultation process and no extension to cutting and burning until the results of the baseline study are published and considered.

Best Practice

The Minister proposed the introduction of regulations allowing for only “the trimming back of one year's growth on land where reseeding or tilling is taking place”, maintaining that,

“If people want to get the best results out of their hedges in terms of seeds, berries and flowers, it is best to perform a light cutting every year. This is recognised to be the best husbandry…”

This is not the case. According to Teagasc, ‘while light annual cutting can benefit hedgerows, it is not good for wildlife. Flowers or fruit are not produced.’[2]

Additionally, hedge-cutting has been found in a number of studies to be detrimental to the production of flowers and berries over winter;

“Results from five years show that hedgerow cutting reduced the number of flowers by up to 75% and the biomass of berries available over winter by up to 83% compared to monitored uncut hedges.”[3]

Lack of Support and Consultation

The Minister has maintained that the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) were involved throughout the process of the Bill, including the consultation process and that they would be responsible for advising her about regulations and overseeing monitoring during the pilot study. However, according to correspondence with the Minister, the NPWS would not seem in favour of the measures in the Bill, particularly with little data to underpin the case for extension of dates. [4] Senator Norris mentioned the reservations of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding the Bill’s proposals, particularly the impact of upland burning in March on air and water quality. The EPA’s advice to the NPWS on the issue has been that consideration of any changes be based on scientific evidence. If this evidence is insufficient, “it would be more prudent to leave the controls as they are until such research is completed.” [5] The lack of consultation with Environmental Pillar and other NGOs and stakeholders was again raised, to which the Minister responded;

“I have met those involved in the Environmental Pillar. They were consulted and those concerned sent me a letter shortly after I had met them. I do not know how many times they want me to meet them, but I have met them.”

According to the Environmental Pillar, they were not given the opportunity to meet with Minister Humphreys to discuss the Heritage Bill, despite repeated requests, as the Minister was ‘unable to commit to such a meeting’, ‘due to extreme time constraints’. [6]

Additionally, according to Senator O’Sullivan,

“Of the 19 participating councils only four called for an extension of the cutting period, including two that were only concerned about the road-safety issues. Three made no reference to the hedge-cutting dates and 12 indicated either no changes or even an extension to the closed season.”

The issue of the repeal of existing laws under the Wildlife Acts was also raised and the dissatisfaction felt by members of the NPWS in this regard. This relates to laws that make it an offence to interfere with the work of NPWS officers and the reset of fines back to the 1976 levels. Many of the questions raised still remained unresolved. As Senator Kevin Humphreys noted, there have been logical arguments within the debate, but they have so far ‘fallen on deaf ears’.

Debate over the bill will continue, with the next amendments on the agenda relating to the Canals Act. There will be subsequent debate at a later stage on further issues relating to the Wildlife Act.

Note: [1] NUI Galway, NUI Maynooth, Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and University College Cork

[2] Teagasc Routine Mechanical Hedge Cutting Leaflet https://www.teagasc.ie/media/website/environment/biodiversity-ampamp-countryside/routine_mechanical_hedge_cutting.pdf

[3] Staley, J.T.; Sparks, T.H.; Croxton, P.J.; Baldock, K.C.R.; Heard, M.S.; Hulmes, S; Hulmes, Lucy; P, Jodey; A, Sam R.; Pywell, R.F. (2012) Long-term effects of hedgerow management policies on resource provision for wildlife. Biological Conservation 145 (2012) 24–29

[4] Obtained as a result of an AIE request.

[5] From a letter from EPA to NPWS, 8th January 2015 - https://www.npws.ie/sites/default/files/files/Environmental%20Protection%20Agency.pdf

[6] Correspondence sent to the Environmental Pillar