Heritage Bill: ‘Regressive’ amendment would further loosen hedge cutting restrictions, opposition senators say

Published by Niall Sargent on

April 15th 2017

Senators have warned that a last-minute “regressive” amendment to further loosen restrictions on hedge cutting would spell danger for our wildlife if the Heritage Bill becomes law.

Speaking during report stage on Thursday, several senators said that the amendment to the much debated Bill rows back months of hard work by all parties involved. The Bill now moves on the Dáil for further debate.

The rejection by the Minister for Heritage, Heather Humphreys, of a public registry to record hedge cutting and scrub burning incidents was also questioned as she pushes to establish a nationwide pilot project. Under the scheme, landowners would be allowed to cut hedgerows in August, as well as burn in the uplands during March.

It was amendment number 63, however, which caused most controversy.

Amendment 63

The amendment seeks to exempt landowners from obligations to protect nesting and breeding habitats under the Wildlife Act in cases where hedgerows are judged to be a hazard to road safety. The exemption applies to the felling, cutting, lopping, trimming or removal of a tree, shrub, hedge or other vegetation.

Section 40 of the Wildlife Act currently prohibits cutting and upland burning from March to August. The Roads Act, however, allows Local Authorities to issue a section 70 order all year round permitting landowners to cut hedgerows where there is a road safety concern.

Minister Humphreys said that the amendment would bring the two Acts in line and eliminate confusion as to whether landowners issued with a Section 70 order during the closed season can cut their hedges without infringing on the Wildlife Act.

“If this amendment is not accepted a person is both obliged to remove unsafe growth or branches, but they’re also prohibited from doing so,” she said. “In my view it makes no sense that there would be a direct conflict and contradiction between two separate pieces of legislation.”

‘Absolutely Regressive’ Amendment

Several senators, however, countered that the two acts have been working in harmony since the Roads Act came into force in 1993. Section 40 (2) of the Wildlife Act already gives ground to roadside hedgecutting during the closed season for reasons of public health or safety.

Senator Alice Mary Higgins said that this amendment would now essentially remove the need for a Section 70 order, and allow landowner to cut roadside hedges for whatever they deem to be a road safety issue, rendering all previous changes to the Bill “meaningless”. “It is a washing of the hands and again it is shameful that a Minister for Heritage would seek to gut the Wildlife Act of which she is the guardian.

“Regulation is out the window, Section 70 orders are out the window, and indeed local councils and their role and their authority, in terms of their perspective, is disregarded,” she added.  “That means that cutting, that grubbing, and that burning and destroying are back on the table because when we repeal the obligations, we also make it clear it’s now permitted to grub, it’s now permitted to destroy.”

Senator Grace O’Sullivan said that the “absolutely regressive” amendment rowed back months of progress since the Bill was first debated last November. A detailed amendment on road safety brought by the Green Party senator was rejected during second stage of the Bill.

“We have listened and we have engaged with different sectors, with farmers, with the environmental NGOs, with communities who were supporting us on the fact that the hedgerows should be protected in the month of August,” she added. “I’m so concerned that we are now in a position where every step that we had felt we had made with you Minister over the course of the last few months has been obliterated.”

Showing her frustration at the late amendment, Ms O’Sullivan said that the Bill was “grubby” and needed to be thrown in the bin. “I am so frustrated to see what you’ve [Minister Humphreys] put here. It is a destruction of heritage, it’s a destruction of our hedgerows, it’s destruction of the beauty of the Irish landscape, it’s a disgrace,” she said.

“Every aspect of our hedgerow system I see here being eroded in one late, miserable, foul swoop, and I’m really disappointed.”

Senator David Norris outlined the significance of hedgerows for many of Ireland’s endangered species such as the late-nesting Yellowhammer. He said that along with their importance as a food source for pollinators, hedgerows are also a “prey rich habitat” depended on by barn owls, kestrels and robins, all of which are in decline.

“I think it’s extremely important we take this matter, the impact on the rare and threatened bird species into account when discussing this legislation,” he added.

Public Register Rejected

The Minister also opposed an amendment to set-up a public register of hedgerow cutting and upland burning. Ms Humphreys said that she didn’t see any potential gain from registering every case across the country, adding that such a system would be “overly bureaucratic and time consuming”.

However, Labour Senator Kevin Humphreys said that he was confused by the Minister’s hostility, given that she wants to implement a three-year nationwide pilot study. “We need a very clear record of exactly what’s happening within our peatlands and our uplands in relation to burning,” he said.

“If we don’t know what’s happening there and we can’t monitor over a long-term period of time exactly what’s happened on the uplands we won’t be able to have a scientific basis for decisions we make,“ he added. “We’re now accepted that there’s going to be no record over the next three years.”

Ms Higgins added that with “no intent to monitor” it is going to be the “most extraordinary pilot”. “If we’re not monitoring where it’s happening, we’re not going to be monitoring what’s happening,” she added. The amendment was defeated.

Donegal Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill questioned the need for a national pilot project in the first place as similar projects are already on-going in counties Tipperary and Donegal. Results are expected in the coming weeks and should act as a barometer for any future decisions, he said.

The Minister had previously proposed that hedge cutting be allowed on tillage farmland or where reseeding needs to be carried out. However, an amendment brought by Fianna Fáil during the second stage of the Bill ensures that out of season destruction of hedgerows is restricted to roadside hedges only.

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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