Heritage Bill continues to divide opinion as it returns to Dáil floor this week

Published by Manus Boyle on

July 4th, 2018

Key elements of the controversial Heritage Bill continue to divide opinion as it returns to the Dáil for debate this week.

The Bill, now entering reporting stage, outlines plans to allow for scrub burning in March and hedge cutting in August.

It is currently an offence under the Wildlife Act to cut hedges and burn any vegetation growing on any land not then cultivated from 1 March to 31 August.

The Government has said that it plans to bring a pilot measure allowing for managed hedge-cutting of roadside hedges during August to tackle issues such as overgrown hedges impacting on roads.

Section 7 of the Bill would also allow for the controlled burning of vegetation – to be specified by regulation – during the month of March.

Birdwatch Ireland and other environmental groups disagree with the proposed changes which they claim will have a hugely negative impact on nesting birds and pollinators.

A spokesperson for BirdWatch Ireland told The Green News that they are very concerned about the Bill and that it is a threat to wildlife and habitats across Ireland.

Strong Opposition to Bill

During a Dail debate on the Bill yesterday evening, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan expressed his opposition to a Bill that “risks a further degradation and deterioration in our hedgerow system”.

Mr Ryan said that the Bill takes a “let it go, let them burn, let it be cut” attitude and that it does a disservice to our environment.

People Before Profit Deputy Bríd Smith raised her concerns over the impact that the Bill would have on wildlife. She said that during these periods wildlife begins to nest and reproduce and that “the action provided for in this Bill would endanger them”.

This is especially worrying, she said, as “28 per cent” of Ireland’s breeding birds are already in decline and “31 per cent of habitats” are currently under threat.

Sharing speaking time with his party colleague, Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett noted that under the Road Safety Act there are already provisions in place to ensure that local authorities can cut hedgerows throughout the year if they are a danger to road safety.

He appealed to the Minister for Heritage, Josepha Madigan, TD to “reconsider and support” an amendment calling for the deletion of the “controversial and concerning section” of the Bill calling for the extension of the cutting season.

Fianna Fáil Deputy Éamon Ó’Cuív questioned the concerns raised against the Bill, however. He agreed that there is a challenge to biodiversity but asked if the cutting of roadside hedges was the main problem or “is it pesticides, herbicides and other attacks on habitats?”

Independent Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice, who runs an agricultural and turf contracting business, also defended the Bill. He said that everybody should be aware that farmers are obliged to maintain their hedges because “if somebody gets hurt, the farmer is liable”.

Drone eye view of fire in Saggart last week. Firefighters from Tallaght, Rathfarnham and HQ attended the scene Photo: Dublin Fire Brigade

Slash and Burn

He also argued that when controlled burning is carried out in the uplands there will be “more food for the birds with the vegetation that grows back”.

Last May, two active Hen Harrier nests were destroyed during a fire in the Sliabh Beagh Special Protection Area (SPA) shared between Counties Monaghan and Tyrone. The endangered Hen Harrier is an internationally protected species and is reliant upon SPAs for its protection.

Green party Deputy Catherine Martin described the Bill as “anti-heritage slash and burn legislation” and said that it should “be consigned to the scrap heap”.

“March is a month of nesting. This is the time when [upland birds] establish their territories, create their nests and prepare for laying their eggs,” she added.

However, Ms Madigan said that she is “not accepting” amendments on this issue. She pointed out that under section 22 of the Bill it is an offence to interfere with or damage a nest in any way.

She claimed that the Bill “limits cutting to roadside hedges” and that the overall impact on biodiversity will be curtailed. Debate on the controversial Bill is set to continue this evening.

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Manus Boyle

Manus is an MA Journalism student at DCU. He has an interest in the environment, the outdoors and live music.