Thursday, 18 May 2006
Question 7: To ask the Minister for Agriculture and Food the number of cases and the respective charges made under the Noxious Weeds Act 1936; and if a review of the legislation is being planned to include, for example, the dangerous giant hogweed which at present is an impediment to the development of farm tourism. [18756/06]
The Noxious Weeds Act 1936 provides for the control of the spread of the following six noxious weeds: thistle, ragwort, dock, common barbery, male wild hop plant and wild oat. Under the Act, it is an offence not to prevent the spread of these noxious weeds. The owner, occupier, user or manager of lands on which these weeds are growing is liable, upon conviction, to be fined. In the case of fences and margins of public roads, the local authority charged with the maintenance of such roads is the responsible body.
While the last prosecution under the Act was in June 1988, the Department continues to enforce the Act by issuing a notice to destroy when it is aware of the presence of noxious weeds. In 2005, 12 notices to destroy were issued and these were followed up by a visit from an officer to ensure the notice was complied with. Under the EU single farm payment scheme farmers are obliged to keep their land free from noxious weeds under the cross-compliance measures of the scheme. Failure to do so may result in a reduction of their payment entitlements.
The need to raise public awareness of the importance of controlling these weeds has been an ongoing activity in my Department. This year two publicity campaigns were launched. The first campaign in February consisted of posters which were forwarded to public bodies, including Garda stations, local authorities, Department of Agriculture and Food regional offices, Teagasc offices and agricultural merchants, for display in public places and press notices in the national and regional newspapers.
The second campaign this month has been launched to remind landowners and users that ragwort can still be controlled on farmed grasslands by spraying, cutting or pulling, followed by removal and destruction of the weed. The reason for removal is that following spraying, cutting or pulling, ragwort is still poisonous and becomes more palliative to animals. In addition, all local authorities will again be reminded of their responsibilities under the Act.
My Department is currently examining the provisions of the Act with a view to updating and strengthening them in accordance with good agricultural and environmental practice. The Noxious Weeds Act 1936 was introduced to deal with specific weeds that posed a threat to farm productivity. Giant hogweed has not been classified as a noxious weed under the Noxious Weeds Act 1936 on the basis that it has no agricultural significance as it is not generally found in productive agricultural areas. Accordingly, I have no plans to list giant hogweed under the Noxious Weeds Act.
Giant hogweed is an invasive species and is the responsibility of the national parks and wildlife service under the aegis of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
Given that the last prosecution was in 1988, there is probably a need for a review, whether that is of the fines or of the context in which the legislation was framed. The threat to farm productivity condition should also be reviewed. Farming has changed significantly and farm tourism is now a large part of diversification. Will the Minister acknowledge that the giant hogweed appears in productive areas, whether it be in grassland or in areas close to watercourses? It spreads rampantly along watercourses. Will the Minister consider that in the context of the criterion of the weed being a threat to farm productivity? Just because it is not harmful to cattle does not mean it is not a threat to farm productivity. Perhaps he will review the legislation on that basis.
The Minister mentioned the last prosecution and said that 12 notices were issued in 2005. How many of those notices were issued to local authorities? When was the last occasion a local authority was prosecuted? The Minister of State might not have those figures to hand but perhaps he will forward them to us. While the enforcement takes place with regard to farmers, and there is a threat to the single farm payment, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the local authorities are not enforcing their part of the legislation. Are there any plans to enhance enforcement of this legislation now that additional staff are available in the Department?
There is an ongoing review with regard to coexistence with GM crops. As I travelled throughout the country in recent weeks I noticed a substantial amount of rapeseed growing on roadsides. If at some future date a GM rapeseed crop is introduced in this country, it will be critical to address the issue of wild rapeseed. It is important that such plants and crops are also considered in the context of the review of this legislation.
The notices that were issued were followed up by officials calling with the relevant people to ensure the necessary conditions had been complied with. We are writing to all local authorities again to remind them of their obligations. I do not know if the prosecutions involved individuals, local authorities or statutory bodies. However, I will take account of what Deputy Sargent and Deputy Naughten have said when we review this issue.
I have had unfortunate experience with hogweed. It grows readily along roadsides. While it is not regarded as a dangerous weed, I consider it extremely dangerous, particularly for people who have allergies. Will the Minister convey to his colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the need to have that weed dealt with either by spraying or cutting it on a regular basis?