‘Good day for nature’ as controversial hedge cutting plans shelved

Published by Niall Sargent on

July 17th, 2019

Conservation and environmental groups have welcomed a “good day for nature” as the Minister for Heritage shelves a controversial change to the laws on hedge-cutting.

Josepha Madigan yesterday announced that she will not proceed with new regulations that would have allowed for roadside hedge cutting this August on a trial basis. 

The Minister was given discretionary powers under the Heritage Act 2018 to allow for the cutting of roadside hedges during August on a trial basis in 2019 and 2020.

The Wildlife Act currently restricts the cutting, burning or destruction of vegetation on uncultivated land or in hedges or ditches during the nesting and breeding season for birds and wildlife from 1 March to 31 August.

Ms Madigan said that she made the decision as it’s clear from both recent international and national studies that “we need to provide greater protection” for biodiversity. “It would be wrong and would send out all the wrong signals to extend hedge cutting further into August this year.”

In Ireland, recently released data has shown that many of our habitats are under threat, together with bee populations and various bird species that frequent our island.

Kieran Flood of the Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) welcomed Ms Madigan’s announcement and the fact that the decision was made “based on data detailing Ireland’s biodiversity decline”. 

“The drastic reductions in protection for nature brought about by the Heritage Act are considered by the IWT and other environmental groups to be both unnecessary and dangerous to wildlife. We are glad to see [hedgecutting] is not being allowed this August.”

According to An Taisce, the new powers in the Heritage Act would have a negative impact on birds, pollinators and other species that rely on hedgerows for food, shelter, as corridors of movement, and for nesting and hibernation.

Heritage Bill protect April 2018 Photo: Ramya Ramalingam

‘Clarion call’

The environmental charity said that the passage of this Act “was a major blow to nature conservation in Ireland” and that allowing for cutting in August would “directly contradict” the recent declaration of a biodiversity emergency.

Dr Elaine McGoff, An Taisce’s Natural Environment Officer, said that she hopes Ms Madigan’s decision will act as a “clarion call” to other departments to give biodiversity loss “the consideration it urgently requires”.

“This is great news for hedgerows in 2019, but we would like to see a guarantee that hedgerow cutting in August will not be permitted in other years,” she added.

During field research on late-nesting bird species last year, BirdWatch Ireland’s (BWI) found 24 other species nesting in hedgerows well into August. This includes the under-threat Yellowhammer that BWI found still nesting up to the end of September.

BWI’s Oonagh Duggan said that yesterday was a “good day for nature” and welcomed Ms Madigan’s comments on the “need to nurture nature and biodiversity”.

Ms Duggan called on Ms Madigan to follow up on her strong words in favour of protecting nature by setting up a forum to deliver a National Hedgerow Conservation Strategy to ensure their long-term conservation.

“The Minister’s decision today saves hedgerows this August, but a long-term conservation strategy is urgently needed. This should include a bespoke law protecting hedgerows, as well as guidance on their appropriate management for the benefit of wildlife,” Ms Duggan added.

The Joint Oireachtas Climate Action Committee had recommended that a conservation strategy was included in new State climate policy. The Government has instead proposed to commission a study to quantify the climate role of hedgerows by 2021. Hedgerows act as carbon sinks, estimated to cover over six per cent – 450,000 hectares – of our landmass.

Hedge removal during nesting season by Irish Rail Photo: Pippa Hackett

Hedgecutting cases

Earlier this year, Irish Rail updated its vegetation management policy to ensure that site-specific risk assessments are carried out if any tree or hedge cutting is being considered during the nesting season.

The move came after Green Party Councillor Pippa Hackett raised concerns with “many incidences of severe hedge trimming” and hedge removal during the cutting season along the rail line in her native Co Offaly.

In May, two men in Co Laois were found guilty and convicted under the Wildlife Act for hedgerow destruction during the nesting season between 22 and 27 May 2017 in Clogrenan, Co Laois.

The case was brought forward by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) earlier this month. The two men were convicted of four offences under the Wildlife Act.

According to data released to The Green News under Access to Information on the Environment regulations, the NPWS has brought over 30 cases linked to illegal hedgerow cutting or removal since 2010.

This account for a little over 15 per cent of cases brought by the service between 2010 and 2018, with other cases involving the likes of illegal hare coursing, bird trapping and tree removal.

Upland burning

In March, Ms Madigan announced that she would not make regulations allowed for under the Heritage Act to extend the season for the burning of vegetation into March following an “exceptionally dry” winter.

Analysis of Met Eireann data by Ms Madigan’s department showed that the first two months of 2019 were “exceptionally dry” with rainfall almost 30 per cent below the 30-year average.

Ms Madigan has previously indicated that granting an extension to the burning period would be conditional on adverse weather conditions that prevent burning during the prescribed open period.

Biodiversity experts have raised concerns that such a move would have a devastating impact on breeding birds such as the near-extinct curlew that begins its nesting activities in March, as well as other bird species that nest in scrub.

The burning provision in the Heritage Act will expire after a two-year pilot period although the period may be continued for periods of up to three years by resolution by each House of the Oireachtas.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London