Opinion: Heritage Bill vote a dark day for our wildlife, biodiversity, and heritage

Published by Niall Sargent on

July 5th, 2018

There is no need to beat around the bush on this one. Last night’s passage of the Heritage Bill through the Dail marks a dark day for our wildlife, our biodiversity, and our heritage.

The Bill, introduced by the former Minister for Heritage, Heather Humphreys, outlines plans to allow for the burning of heather and gorse in March and hedge cutting in August under a so-called pilot project.

The pilot would encompass the entire country – not so much a pilot then – and has essentially no scientific basis behind it.

All the science and research in fact points to the need for better biodiversity conservation – for example, one-third of all bee species in Ireland are predicted to be extinct by 2030 – which we certainly won’t achieve through this Bill.

The burning of vegetation in March – which is currently prohibited – would critically endanger birds that are just starting to breed and will also impact bees that depend on gorse as a food source.

While the provisions of the Bill for roadside hedgecutting in August still require clarification, as it stands landowners will be allowed to essentially self-regulate and define road safety issues as they deem fit.

This will result in severe consequences for late-nesting birds, such as the endangered yellowhammer, and pollinators who depend on hedgerows for food.

Both Ms Madigan and her predecessor cited road safety concerns as the reason behind the push for the Bill and the need to fix a contradiction between the Roads Act and the Wildlife Act.

Section 40 (2) of the Wildlife Act, however, already gives grounds for roadside hedgecutting by an authorised body during the closed season for reasons of public health or safety.

The important point here is that the cutting is to be carried out by an authorised body, whereas the proposals in the Bill would give unregulated scope for landowners to cut roadside hedges for self-defined road safety issues.

Numerous amendments from opposition parties that would have resolved any confusion over road safety concerns, while also protecting our already stressed biodiversity, were rejected by the Minister.

Deputy Peadar Tóibín, who was involved in a “serious” road accident on a narrow country road some years back, said that road safety “can and should” be achieved through other mechanisms than a Bill that essentially offers a “carte blanche opportunity” to cut back hedges.

Despite the Bill’s clear shortcomings, it passed through the Dail with the support of Fianna Fail, but not without much-heated debate between the Minister and other opposition parties.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said that the Bill should be “scraped” in its entirety, while his party colleague, Catherine Martin, said that plans to extend the burning season will sound the “death knell” for some of our most endangered species.

People Before Profit’s Brid Smith called it a “slash-and-burn Bill” lacking in any scientific backing. Labour’s Joan Burton also questioned the scientific validity of the State’s proposals, asking the Minister to bring out her experts to “let us hear what they have to say”.

It is unlikely that there would be much to say, as, according to environmentalists, conservation experts, beekeepers and farmers working together with nature, there is no data to back up the proposals in the Bill.

Instead, Pádraic Fogarty, the author of Whittled Away – Ireland’s Vanishing Nature, said that the whole process since the Bill was introduced in 2016 highlights the “influence of the farming lobby in the face of public opinion and indeed many farmers themselves”.

The Bill, he believes, will do “untold damage to our already beleaguered wildlife”, and that the “regressive legislation” should have been abandoned by the Government “a long time ago”.

Last night, the Minister tried to downplay the significant impact the Bill would have on our wildlife by emphasising that hedgecutting will only be allowed on hedges facing roads and that a maximum of one year’s growth can be cut back.

Ms Madigan, however, is well aware that the technical aspects of the Bill will be lost on the general public. As Eamon Ryan said last night, the passage of the Bill will mean one thing and one thing only in public discourse: “hedgerows can be cut in August and the mountaintops can be burned in March”.

While the overall mood today among the environmental and conservation movement is one of equal parts sadness and frustration, Pádraic Fogarty says that we can at least take solace in the “heartening” public support for wildlife protection that the Bill provoked.

Our hopes now rest with the Seanad and the Irish public to come out and rally against this Bill to stop it entering into Irish law, which would only enhance our reputation as the laggard of Europe in protecting the natural world.

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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