The Heritage Bill is once again to be debated in the Seanad tomorrow (Thursday 2nd March). If proposed changes are put through, this will have a hugely negative impact on nesting birds and other wildlife. See the arguments against the changes here.

The main argument being put forward by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in favour of the extension of hedge-cutting dates, is that it is primarily a road safety issue. This is simply not the case. Exemptions to the provisions of the Wildlife Act already exist under the current legislation for health and safety reasons. The Road Safety Act specifically allows for hedge-cutting to be carried out at any time of the year for “reasons of public health or safety by a Minister of the Government or a body established or regulated by or under a statute”.

However, despite the fact that the road safety argument has been completely discredited in the most recent Seanad debates on the Bill, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil continue to rely on it to support the extension of the hedge-cutting dates. The stock reply of Fianna Fáil in response to emails from concerned individuals and groups, including the Environmental Pillar has been the following;

There have been some 131 tragic road related fatalities this year. We believe that safety on our roads is paramount and the extension by one month for the management of roadside hedges will ensure the highest standards in road safety are maintained and make sure human lives are protected to the maximum level.

[From an email received by Environmental Pillar on 28th February 2017]

An Taisce are dismayed that the number of road deaths is being used to justify the changes to hedge-cutting dates. It is disrespectful to the many people who have tragically lost their lives on our roads to suggest that a bill which will contribute nothing beyond the existing road safety provisions will save lives. Additionally, the fact that the figure given in the email above has not even been updated demonstrates that this is a stock response which fails to fully acknowledge people’s concerns and the most recent debates on the issue. Instead it relies on a figure relating to reported road deaths by September 2016.

The claim cannot be made that an extension will ‘ensure the highest standards in road safety’. An Taisce and all of the groups in this campaign recognise the need for exemptions from the cutting restrictions for health and safety, but the Road Safety Act is the mechanism for this to be done. Minister Heather Humphreys herself acknowledged this in an article in the Irish Farmers Journal;

The councils do have authority if there’s a health and safety issue. They can cut the hedge in terms of road safety.

[Irish Farmers Journal 21-6-2016]

Additionally, if the issue is about road safety in general, why justify hedge-cutting in August alone? If it were about road safety, then the argument being given would be an extension to other times of the year.

In addition to this, roadside hedges only make up a small percentage of the total hedge area in Ireland. If the proposed provisions of the Bill are put through, this will allow for a blanket change to the protections afforded to hedgerows in general, not just roadside hedges.

Additionally, allowing hedge-cutting in August may also pose a potential added risk to road safety. August is one of the busiest months of the year for road traffic. It is holiday season so there is tourist traffic and there are more pedestrians and cyclists out and about, including schoolchildren. This is not necessarily the best time to be allowing powerful, unregulated hedge-cutting machinery to be working on public roads.

This is a deeply flawed bill and based on the 26000+ people who have signed our joint petition against it is clear that it does not enjoy the support of the public. This bill needs to be thoroughly scrutinised in the Seanad and the Dáil. This clearly will not happen if disingenuous arguments around road safety continue to cloud the discussion. Roadside hedges can and should be dealt with under the Road Safety Act and the mechanisms for this must be strengthened, rather than weakening the provisions of the Wildlife Act. It is imperative that we continue to protect our already vulnerable wildlife from a bill which has the potential to wipe out already threatened species.

Sign the petition here :