Dear members and friends,

As you may be aware An Taisce in partnership with Birdwatch Ireland, Hedge Laying Association of Ireland and Irish Wildlife Trust are currently campaigning against Minister Heather Humphreys, proposed changes to Section 40 of the Wildlife Act, which will allow cutting of hedgerows from the 1st of August and the burning and destroying of upland habitats from March 1st. The inappropriately named Heritage Bill 2016 came before the Seanad last Wednesday and is scheduled to be tabled again for debate next Thursday. An Taisce and the other eNGOs hosted a number of Senators the morning of the debate to highlight some of the key issues.

We brought to the attention of the Senators:

  • The failure of the Minister to properly consult with eNGOs or her own staff in the National Parks and Wildlife Service before drafting key sections of the Bill.

  • The lack of a mandate for these changes given that over 25000 people have signed a petition against the bill and the fact that the majority of submissions that were made during the department’s public consultation on hedge cutting and burning called for continued or enhanced protection.

  • The lack of a scientific basis for the proposed changes.

  • The deeply flawed argument that the bill would improve road safety, given that the current legislation already allows for hedges to be cut on health and safety grounds. The Roads Act (1993) would be a more appropriate place to bring though road safety amendments. (According to a road safety pilot being carried out in Tipperary and Donegal less than 1% of roads had hazards as a result of roadside vegetation).

  • The terrible impact that these changes would have on Irish biodiversity and in particular species like yellowhammer and curlew which have undergone declines of over 90% in their breeding populations in recent decades.

  • The negative impact that the proposed changes would have on Ireland's agriculture and tourism sectors given that our ”green” image is considered of central importance to both.

The bill was hotly debated. Senator Kevin Humphreys called for the Bill to be withdrawn in its entirety, reconsidered and go out to proper public consultation. Senator O’Sullivan called the Bill a ‘regressive step’ indicating a lack of regard for biodiversity.

Road Safety The issue of road safety was further clarified as a reason not to pass the bill in its current form. Senators O’Sullivan, Alice-Mary Higgins and Kevin Humphreys reiterated the need to address road safety issues under The Roads Act 1993, a view also supported by Trevor Ó Clochartaigh of Sinn Fein. Lack of distinction between on and off road measures was picked up by a number of contributors with Senator O’Domhnaill of Fianna Fail raising the predominance of internal hedgerows in comparison to on-road hedgerows and the lack of distinction within the Bill between the two. This was also reiterated by Senators Norris and also Humphreys who reiterated that the bill is poorly thought out in this regard.

Lack of a scientific approach Senators O’Sullivan, Ruane and McDowell were clear in pointing out the flaws with the approach to the pilot study and lack of scientific basis or methodology. They acknowledged the need for a baseline survey, and pilot study in August but under existing legislation, ‘collating the scientific data over a period of three to five years, gather the data and then base our decisions on those data’ (Sen. O’Sullivan). Senator Ruane reinforced the point in saying that ‘The Minister is going straight into the post-test plan’, ‘whereby cutting and then carrying out a study or looking at how it impacts on the environment will skew the results because there is absolutely nothing against which to compare them.’ Senator McDowell referred to the problem of lack of conditions of the study and the issue of applying the study to all 26 counties in August without limiting it to any part of the state and having no comparable data with the ‘implication that it will apply everywhere’.

Impact on birds and other wildlife of pilot study Senator Higgins and Norris pointed out the danger the bill posed to bird populations and the lack of scientific data to demonstrate that no such negative impacts were likely. The possible impact on the hedgerows as larders was stated by Senators Norris, O’Domhnaill and Humphreys. Trevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein) reiterated that the argument had not been put forward strongly enough and thus it is better to err on the side of caution until the ‘science is put forward that no damage can be done to the species in question in the hedgerows. Senator Mulherin also raised the point of the way in which hedgerows are cut and the inappropriate use of machinery for hedge-cutting, a point supported by Senator Norris who called for the need for training and supervision in use of these machines.

Overall biodiversity value and joint heritage and tradition Senator O’Sullivan and Higgins reinforced the idea of hedgerows as part of our heritage and highly valuable to farmers, landowners, the public, food production and numerous species. Trevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein) highlighted the involvement of many farmers in agri-environment schemes to meet ‘greening’ requirements under CAP. Senators Francis Black and Fintan Warfield also spoke very passionately about the layered values of Ireland’s hedgerows and the need to protect them from the proposed measures.

The Minister failed to answer most of the questions put to her and claimed that she had engaged with An Taisce and other members of the Environmental Pillar when she has point blank refused to meet with us to date to discuss the bill.

The debate was covered by a number of newspapers with The Journal claiming that ‘Environmentalists cut "deep wounds" in government's bill on hedge-cutting extension.’

Our petition, the public response to the bill and many of our key concerns were all raised during the debate. The debate on road safety issues alone raged for two hours and the Seanad was eventually adjourned without any of the tabled amendments going to a vote. Despite winning the key arguments it is possible that had the Seanad voted on the issues that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail would have pushed the bill through in response to fierce pressure from IFA lobbying.

Having studied the bill in further detail it has come to our attention that without properly consulting with the staff in the NPWS the Minister is proposing to delete a section of the Wildlife Act which protect the NPWS and an Garda Síochána from assault “Any person who assaults or obstructs an authorised person or a member of the Garda Síochána exercising any power or function conferred on the authorised person or member by or under the Wildlife Acts, 1976 and 2000, shall be guilty of an offence.” It is hard to fathom why the Ministers office would seek to remove a section of the Wildlife Act which protects those who are on the frontline fighting on our behalf to save our wildlife. This again highlights what an extremely damaging this bill this is an just adds to the long list of reasons why it should be thrown out.

What Can You Do? The bill will come again come before the Seanad this coming Thursday (17/11/2016) and we need your support now more than ever. Given that section 8 of the bill, which covers hedge cutting and burning, will be debated we need anyone who can to email or write to your Senators. In particular it is important that Fianna Fáil Senators are contacted given the pressure they are under from the IFA and Fine Gael to support the bill. We ask that you urge your Fianna Fáil TDs to encourage Fianna Fáil Senators to remove Section 8 of the Heritage Bill and to support the amendments of Senator Grace O'Sullivan.

Here is a list of Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators:

We will be live tweeting the Seanad Debate via @AnTaisce and the tagline is #NoToMoreSlashAndBurn