“I’ve never heard so much tripe in all my life!” Senators speak out against wildlife threatening Heritage Bill as petition against it passes 27,000 signatures

29th March 2017

The dreaded Heritage Bill was discussed at committee stage in Seanad Éireann yesterday for the third and final time. Many senators were annoyed that they hadn’t been given a draft of the legislation and with the lack of scientific evidence provided. The passing of Fianna Fail’s amendment diluted the damage the Bill could have done to hedgerows in August.

It was an important victory for everyone concerned about the future of Irish biodiversity but the fight continues.

Petition closes in on 30,000 signatures target against “flat earth minister’s” bill

Controversy and opposition has plagued Heather Humphreys’ Heritage Bill since its introduction to the Seanad last year. Dubbed the Anti-Wildlife Bill by a growing number of people since its conception, it was brought forward for the discussion today for the third and final time.

An Taisce, Birdwatch Ireland, Irish Wildlife Trust Hedge Layer Association of Ireland have united against it and over 27,000 people have signed their petition demanding it be reconsidered. Environmental groups, politicians, communities and businesses held a protest against the Bill at Dáil Eireann in February. Many fear it would have an irreversible impact on wildlife, agriculture and businesses.

George Hook lambasted Minister Humphreys on Newstalk by describing her as the “flat earth minister”.

Why are people so worried and angry?

Section Eight of the Bill would allow for vegetation burning and hedge cutting in March and August respectively. At the moment, as is the case in many other countries in the UK and the EU, it is illegal to burn vegetation and cut hedges from March 1st to August 31st each year. This allows vegetation and hedge rows to recover so that wildlife to nest, reproduce and feed.

Speaking at February’s protest, Gerry Ryan from Irish Federation of Beekeepers called for more support from farmers and custodians of land believing that, “in ten years’ time, we’ll be paying people to undo the damage caused by this bill. Ireland’s hedgerows are a vital source of pollen and permitting a blanket cutting of hedgerows in August will greatly endanger the bee population” he said.

“If Anything, you have to support good science.”

The arguments against the bill have remained the same with Humphreys refusing the budge. The case has been made for more research, that it is not a road safety issue and more stakeholders need to be involved.

The necessity for informed research and scientific data was something that all senators commented on. The need for a baseline survey before any pilot project took place was pleaded for throughout the debates yesterday, along with it not being something that is for public road safety

Many welcomed the removal of “cutting” “grubbing” and “scrubbing” from the bill but many wanted section 8 of the bill shelved. The Minister made reference to a curlew task force in her constituency where six are being protected. Senator Norris referred to it as being “hardly overcrowding”

The debate sparked into life when Ms Humphreys claimed to be furious that insinuations were made claiming “all farmers wanted to destroy wildlife”. What she may have would become a wonderful soundbite turned into a stick for opposition voices to hound her with as many made  reference back to and stressed it is not  an urban vs rural issue. All were concerned with the fate Ireland’s future biodiversity. The ruckus even gave Senator Norris a chance to make  Joyce and Finnegan Wake reference to relieve some of the tension. While the reference may have been apt, the timing was somewhat off.

Michael McDowell, You may remember him from such political positions  as “a PD politician” and “Tánaiste”, appealed to Ms Humphreys to scrap the section, telling her it would not be a “humiliation” and people “would be well disposed towards you.”

Kevin Humphreys, David Norris, who found some of Fine Gael’s arguments to be utter “tripe”, Alice Mary Higgins, Grace O’ Donnell and Lynn Ruane all looked for the section to be shelved until, at the very least, a baseline survey was done on the possible effects of the bill. This seemed to fall on deaf ears as Fine Gael’s Tim Lombard soon reversed back to the rural vs urban rhetoric.

He used Bantry as an example of a community that felt entrenched – a word he might have been reintroduced to just before the debate as he proceeded to use it four more times in less than 5 minutes- because of all the controversy. Mr Lombard and Ms Humphreys make the best good cop/ bad cop combination since Riggs and Murtaugh.

This didn’t win favour with anybody. Kevin Humphreys reminded senators that it was Michael Ring who created a divide during their radio interview. And David Norris accused him of not hearing anything that had been said.

Kevin Humphreys told the Seanad that the vast majority of emails and calls he had received were from those in rural Ireland who feel excluded by the process. “Let us invite BirdWatch Ireland, the tillage farmers, the livestock farmers and the small farmers in and let us have a very informed and focused debate about section 8 to see if it should be brought forward. I certainly support the previous Senator’s position that we should drop section 8 completely. If we do not, I will vote for this amendment too.”

When asked who would enforce illegal hedge cutting under the Bill and how she could be sure those would follow it, Ms Humphreys was swift in passing off that responsibility to the NPWS. Sinn Fein’s Paul Gavan did quip that Shane Ross might do it.

Drama escalated when Fine Gael laid into Fianna Fáil for abandoning and betraying the farmers with their amendment, which would later pass. They weren’t angry, just “disappointed” with Fianna Fáil.

This marked something of a turning point for many as the bill, mooted as being about public roads, moved from being about road safety to agriculture.

The debate reconvened at 7pm with Fianna Fáil’s amendment passing but Senator O’ Sullivan’s amendment on extensive road safety was blocked. The bill has now passed through committee stage.

Article by Eric Maher and Catherine O’ Toole

 

 

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