Ban on hedgecutting and upland burning comes into effect as snow slows spring

Published by Niall Sargent on

March 1st, 2018

Environmental groups have stressed that the closed season for scrub-burning and hedgerow-cutting must be respected once the unprecedented snow brought by the Beast from the East lifts.

The groups – including BirdWatch Ireland and An Taisce – are calling on landowners, farmers, contractors, and local authorities to ensure that they are in compliance with the law and to protect our vulnerable wildlife.

At present, the cutting of any hedgerows and upland burning between 1 March and 31 August is an offense under the Wildlife Acts, with the exception of roadside hedgerows for road safety reasons.

According to the conservation coalition, which also includes the Irish Wildlife Trust, the Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations and the Hedgelaying Association of Ireland, the ban is essential to protect breeding birds and other wildlife of our uplands and hedgerows.

Hedgerows provide foods for numerous species of birds, bees, and butterflies all throughout spring and summer, as well as nesting grounds for late breeding species such as the endangered yellowhammer.

Irish uplands are also essential for endangered birds such as the near extinct curlew that mate and establish nesting sites in March.

However, last year, a series of deliberately started scrub fires raged across the country within the first two months of the prohibited period, with the Air Corps and Defence Forces called in on several occasions.

These fires destroyed the nests and food stores of birds and other wildlife, including two active Hen Harrier nests – another protected species – in the Sliabh Beagh Special Protection Area last May.

Oonagh Duggan, Assistant Head of Policy and Advocacy of BirdWatch Ireland, said that our wildlife “deserves better than this”.

“Last year thousands of hectares of mountain, hill, bog and forest habitat were destroyed during the closed season, incinerating the wildlife that cannot escape fast enough, including helpless chicks in their nests,” she added.

Out of control upland burning last May also led to the burning down of the home of a family of five in County Mayo.

It is believed that the two-storey house close to Kiltimagh caught fire as sparks from the fire hit the thatched roof of the building. The owner, Bernice Brennan, told The Irish Times that it was a “frightening” experience as the flame spread closer to the house.

Enforcement of such issues has been poor to date, however, as indicated in documents released to the Irish Wildlife Trust last year under Freedom of Information legislation.

The documents reveal that the use of satellite images to monitor burning on farmland had not led to any prosecutions between its introduction in March 2016 and last summer.

Since 2007, the Government has only brought eleven prosecution cases under the Wildlife Acts for the illegal burning of vegetation.

Two active Hen Harrier nests in the Sliabh Beagh SPA were burned last year MaPhoto: Rob Zweers

 Heritage Bill Concerns

The groups are also concerned that the Heritage Bill, currently at Committee stage in the Dáil, would make this situation even worse.

The Bill seeks to allow the burning of upland vegetation in March and the cutting of vegetation growing in any hedge or ditch on the roadside during August.

The conservation groups are strongly opposed to this “reckless Bill” that they say would roll back 20 years of protection for our habitats, 90 per cent of which are in ‘bad’ or ‘inadequate’ condition.

According to Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust, the government must “abandon this regressive legislation” as it would cause “untold damage” to wildlife populations. “It’s high time we placed a higher value on the amazing benefits nature brings,” he added.

The conservation coalition recommends the formation of stakeholder groups to find solutions which benefit wildlife, farmers and road users before going any further with the Heritage Bill.

A petition created by the groups calling on the government to reconsider the changes in the Bill has reached over 30,000 signatures to date.

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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