Thursday, 21 May 2020
Covid-19 (Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht): Statements
We shall proceed to No. 10 on the agenda, statement by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, and questions and answers. The Minister is becoming a regular visitor to the Chamber for these sessions.
This week, National Biodiversity Week, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to update the Dáil on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our built and natural heritage. The world we knew in February has changed utterly. Adjustment to the new reality is challenging each of us, and it places large and stressful demands on the way we live our lives and the way our society is organised. All organisations need to learn to adjust and survive in the environment we are in and to equip themselves for the society that will emerge from Covid-19. Adaptability, flexibility, imagination, foresight and courage are all the hallmarks of those who will rise to this challenge.
It is not without accident that many across the heritage sector are recognised as essential workers in response to Covid-19 in this country. Our national parks and nature reserves, for example, remain open and accessible to the public, albeit subject to the current 5 km restriction. They are and will remain major supports to our mental and physical well-being in these days of movement restriction, social distancing and cocooning. In the midst of this crisis, our heritage sector has been highly valued by our citizens. It will need our support as we emerge from the current situation.
Over the past 11 weeks, the heritage-based work of my Department has focused on providing the essential services of maintaining, protecting and continuing to provide access to our national parks and nature reserves, and, through Waterways Ireland, maintaining our inland navigations. I am engaging with stakeholders across the heritage sector to assess and measure the wider impacts and implications of Covid-19 on and for the sector and, of course, supporting all-of-government well-being initiatives through online services provided by the Heritage Council, Waterways Ireland and my Department’s National Parks and Wildlife Service, in addition to the National Monuments Service and our own built heritage team. Since the publication of the road map for reopening society and business, the Department has been working to implement it across all the public services we provide while also ensuring all necessary public health measures are in place.
Following the decision on 12 March to close our cultural institutions and tourism sites, all visitor centres at our national parks and nature reserves were closed to ensure physical distancing was observed. Over the following weeks, the parks and reserves welcomed an unprecedented number of visitors as people took the opportunity to experience and enjoy our natural heritage. To meet this challenge, the National Parks and Wildlife Service has erected public health notices across all sites, introduced electric variable message signs where feasible, introduced one-way systems and deployed additional resources at popular visitor locations. When we implemented the extensive public health restrictions on 27 March, the services provided by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, including the maintenance and protection of our parks and reserves, were identified as essential. The service is part of the law enforcement and prosecution architecture of the State as regards wildlife crime and is responsible for the protection of wildlife and the conservation of biological diversity.
This core work has continued over the past eight weeks. Wildfires have posed a particular threat. Eight fire danger notices have been issued by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The setting of uncontrolled fires, which damage and destroy protected habitats and species in Natura 2000 sites and in our parks and reserves, has been a recurring problem over the years. It is, between 1 March and 31 August, an offence under the Wildlife Acts. Beyond being an offence, at this time when the full attention of our emergency services should be devoted to addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, it is a particularly abhorrent antisocial act. Since 24 March, there have been six fires in Wicklow Mountains National Park and the Wicklow Mountains special area of conservation and special protection area, and a major fire in Killarney National Park. I extend my gratitude to and appreciation for the fire services in both affected counties and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. They worked tirelessly battling the conflagrations.
Since midnight on 30 March, our inland navigations have been closed. However, Waterways Ireland has continued essential work to manage water levels and where required to undertake emergency repairs. Canal towpaths have remained accessible. I am aware that for many citizens living within 5 km of canals, formerly 2 km, towpaths have been an important amenity for exercise.
In protecting and conserving our built and natural heritage, historically we have sought to change the way in which we as a people interact with our built and natural environment to protect and even to restore instead of destroying and degrading and to harness our heritage to promote the individual and collective well-being of our people. An important component of this has been inviting visitors to historical sites and education centres, often located in rural communities. Since 12 March, all indoor sites have been effectively closed, which has severely impacted commercial income, not only for those who operate sites, such as my Department, the Office of Public Works, the Irish Heritage Trust and the Irish Landmark Trust, but also those ancillary services provided in communities close to the sites. My Department continues to engage with the Irish Heritage Trust, the Irish Landmark Trust and other bodies to establish the scale of loss of commercial income, having regard to the road map. The Heritage Council has undertaken a survey of heritage organisations and workers and is analysing the results in detail at the moment. The summary impacts identified by respondents include temporary closure, postponement of income generating events and lack of revenue streams. This is similar to the impact faced by the non-profit cultural sector, which I outlined to the House last week.
Despite these impacts, those involved across the heritage sector have repurposed the way they work to provide educational services in new ways. In my Department these efforts have been orientated towards supporting all-of-Government well-being initiatives. This work has drawn on existing services provided by my Department, such as the historic environment viewer, which makes the National Monuments Service's sites and monuments record and the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage available to the public in the form of an online map. Examples of online services include the Waterways Ireland online learning zone, which has been featured on RTÉ's Home School Hub, and Know Your 5K, which is an initiative of the Heritage Council and the National Museum that helps the public to use a wealth of online resources to find out more about the story of their locality.
This week my Department has taken National Biodiversity Week online, running a campaign under the hashtag #LoveNature to raise awareness of our country's biodiversity and nature conservation and to promote public engagement through digital resources. We are also encouraging people to engage with biodiversity in their immediate vicinity. For many, one of the unexpected outcomes of the public health restrictions has been a renewed engagement with our immediate surroundings and natural environment. This new awareness may be a moment for us collectively to reverse the unprecedented global deterioration in the health of our ecosystems which was identified by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services global assessment report last year.
The time approaching is one of challenge, renewed purpose and recovery. It will also be a period of growth, renewal and resurgence. The economy will perform again and the constraints of recent months will be replaced by a converse and more constructive set of opportunities. Our heritage sector has a central role to play in this process. I thank again all those in the sector who have been working so hard since March. It is at times like these that we appreciate not only the intrinsic value of our heritage but also its importance in sustaining our national life.
Fianna Fáil welcomes the opportunity to address the House on heritage during National Biodiversity Week and having just celebrated World Bee Day yesterday. UNESCO has pointed out that 89% of all world heritage sites are either totally or partially closed. The heritage sector in Ireland, like all other sectors, has faced closures and job losses. Most facilities under the remit of the National Parks and Wildlife Service are closed to the general public, and our historical houses, castles, estates and gardens lie empty. There appears to be light at the end of the tunnel as many amenities are beginning to make plans to reopen. This is a mammoth task for these providers in making and putting in place mechanisms to ensure that facilities can be enjoyed safely. The Government must provide all supports necessary to enable them to do so.
A question that has been gathering a lot of momentum is whether our failures on biodiversity have caused the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. More and more research is pointing to humanity's destruction of biodiversity as the cause of the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19.
Regardless of whether that is the case, the Covid-19 pandemic presents us with major opportunities in the context of our natural heritage. The crisis has caused a 17% drop in daily global carbon emissions. The media has been awash with stories of wild animals and birds changing their behaviour because of reduced human activity. Green areas are being rewilded. We have a unique opportunity to maintain these areas of emerging biodiversity and reverse the destruction of our ecosystems.
Fianna Fáil welcomes this week's announcement from the European Commission of a major EU biodiversity strategy to 2030. Although this year's international dawn chorus day had to be cancelled, Derek Mooney put a lovely spin on things when he asked people to immerse themselves in the birds' world. He urged people to pull up a chair, open a window and enjoy a wonderful free natural concert that will not and cannot be cancelled. I also listened attentively this week to Padraic Fogarty from the Irish Wildlife Trust. Unfortunately, he was not so optimistic that the pandemic is giving nature a real opportunity to rejuvenate itself. He spoke strongly about the need to put in place more tangible efforts to protect our wildlife.
It is good to see our cultural institutions like the National Museum of Ireland working with the Heritage Council to launch the Know Your 5K initiative, which invites people to share their discoveries and insights about the hidden heritage of their locality. It is akin to the local authority golden mile competitions, which are dotted throughout the country. These are initiated by heritage officers in our local authorities and involve active local heritage enthusiasts in our communities throughout the length and breadth of our country. I am keen to take this opportunity to give great credit to the likes of Anne Marie Curley in Cavan County Council and Shirley Clerkin in Monaghan County Council. They ensure a focused effort to protect and preserve our heritage in our local authorities.
As the Minister is aware, Irish wildlife groups have called for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, to be put on an independent footing through the establishment of a wildlife crime unit, with increased powers for enforcement and funding to address the biodiversity crisis in Ireland. They have called for the establishment of an independent agency - something like the Environmental Protection Agency - in the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to be responsible for the enforcement and communication of information to people. The director of the national biodiversity data centre has acknowledged that while many people are doing small things in their gardens and some farmers and local authorities are helping out with biodiversity, it needs to be cranked up at Government level for transformational change to be achieved.
One year after this House declared a climate and biodiversity emergency there has been little progress in addressing the loss of certain species. That is the main point of view of experts such as Oonagh Duggan from BirdWatch Ireland. Not enough is being done to support and enhance the NPWS to strengthen its ability to nurture biodiversity, restore habitats and address the climate crisis. Kevin O'Sullivan wrote a lovely piece in The Irish Timesat the weekend. In summary, he suggested the Government is lagging behind the public regarding the acute need for action in terms of the loss of our hedgerows, the loss of our trees and the detrimental impact this is having on our environment. While we acknowledge that people are doing many things in positive ways and working with local authorities, it is certain more effort is needed on a transformational scale to address the climate and biodiversity emergency.
The Minister of State, Senator Kyne, is in discussion with the Business Committee with a view to an appearance next week before the Covid-19 committee to discuss the responses in respect of the Gaeltacht. I am here today to discuss heritage matters. I was here last week to discuss culture matters. Maybe, given the limited time, we can confine it to that.
I am not on the Covid-19 committee and I want an answer in the plenary session of the Dáil. Tá sé de cheart agam é sin a fháil. Táim ag caint i mBéarla inniu mar níl aon chóras aistriúcháin ar fáil inniu. Therefore, I will address myself to the matter because the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, has responsibility for the Gaeltacht.
The Minister has responsibility for the Gaeltacht. There are 15 Ministers in the Cabinet under the Constitution and she has ministerial responsibility for the Gaeltacht.
As I stated, the Irish language is a particularly important part of our heritage. It is one of the oldest written languages in Europe and it is still a vernacular. Of course, the Gaeltacht is the place that is a living well from which the language keeps springing anew. Since 1904, Gaeltacht courses have been held every year and they have created a significant connection between people all over the island, North and South, in the Gaeltacht communities. It is nearly unique and I do not believe it is replicated anywhere else in the world.
For the first time in 116 years, ní bheidh aon choláiste Gaeilge ann i mbliana; there shall be no Irish college this year. This is a massive economic blow to the Gaeltacht. The reality is there is money in the Gaeltacht Vote that was set aside to pay the grants to the mná tí this year for keeping students. We should remember that the mná tí were not working in March because people do not go to the Gaeltacht to learn Irish in the middle of March, so they are not entitled to the Covid-19 payment. My question to the Minister is what will she do, like her action with Galway 2020, to support the colleges, the mná tí and the halls and facilities funded by the Department and which rely on income from the Irish colleges to pay for things like insurance.
I also ask the Minister if she will consider creating a new grant this year as I understand tourism will be allowed in August, although it would not be suitable to put four or five children from different backgrounds in a room together. It may be possible to encourage families to stay in a house in the Gaeltacht during that period or five days, for example. Some of the money already in the Vote could be used constructively, particularly for parents with children in Gaelscoileanna, to encourage people to come to the Gaeltacht for five days. This could happen over three or four weeks in August on a rolling basis. Would the Minister consider introducing a scheme like that to retrieve some of the season for the mná tí? It would also give a unique opportunity to families to learn the Irish language together in a programme.
To be absolutely fair to the Minister, the preparations for today concerned a debate on the physical heritage in our country. The points she raised are of fundamental importance to the Gaeltacht and people with a concern therein. My understanding is these matters are to be addressed at the Covid-19 committee.
I am thorough about my work and I made an inquiry to my Whip as to whether there was a definition of heritage for the purposes of the debate. I was told there was not and it would concern all heritage matters. Mura oidhreacht í an Ghaeilge, tá an-iontas orm déanta na fírinne.
I will answer the Deputy's question. First, we recognise that the colleges play a vital part in the social and economic infrastructure of the Gaeltacht, with up to 27,000 students going every summer. My son was due to go this year and is extremely disappointed not to be going. I know it is of major economic value, bringing in approximately €50 million from economic activity in the region. It is regrettable that because of Covid-19 we are not in a position to do much about that.
Under the Scéim na bhFoghlaimeoirí Gaeilge, my Department provides a subsidy to Gaeltacht households that provide accommodation for students attending Irish language summer colleges in the Gaeltacht and the households also received a payment from these colleges. I know the Minister of State, Senator Kyne, and officials in my Department on a number of occasions have met the college representative organisation, CONCOS, with a view to identifying the financial pressures and points where they must be examined. They are looking at support packages around that sector.
We are aware that it is important and intrinsic to the entirety of the Gaeltacht, not just the mná tí. The Deputy can rest assured that this is on our radar and something on which we are working intensely.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute predominantly on issues of biodiversity, particularly during what is national biodiversity week. On Monday morning, I was delighted to receive in the post from Laois County Council's heritage officer a beautiful, fantastic, practical and educational publication from the NPWS, funded by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht's national diversity fund. The booklet, entitled Gardening for Biodiversity, was authored by Ms Juanita Browne and illustrated by Mr. Barry Reynolds. I advise as many people as possible to look for it online if they do not have hard copies. It is beautifully produced. It came in the middle of the Covid-19 restrictions, although perhaps these books come on a regular basis. It was interesting because, in recent months, many people who were lucky enough to have a garden or allotment found a great interest in gardening once again. Many have spent time tending to the trees, shrubs, flowers and grass in their gardens that they did not had the time to work on previously because they were busy at work. Now they have a little more time at home to engage in these activities. Many people have reconnected with nature, which has been a positive side-effect of the Covid-19 restrictions. My own hands might be a little grubby under the nails, as I spent the past two evenings weeding various flowerbeds.
It is important that we help biodiversity. When I was chairman of Castletown's Tidy Towns committee years ago and we won the national award, there was one particular household whose walls were overflowing with weeds. I approached the man as chairman and asked whether we could do something about the weeds. He was a pure environmentalist. He looked me in the eye and told me that the weeds had to live too. That put me in my place. I was there to tidy up the place, but that actually made me think twice. There is something good in that, and I advise people to look at the recent publications.
People have been at home for the past number of weeks. I should also mention the international dawn chorus, which was cancelled. Many people are taking time to listen to the birds in their gardens or the trees or flying overhead. I have spotted in the big trees at the end of my garden buzzards and all sorts of thing I had not seen in some time. I have been told they are common in some areas. I have seen birds that face severe restrictions - herons and different birds that gobble up fish in the local rivers, streams and ponds where they can. Some people like those birds and others believe they must be protected. There are a diversity of views on the matter.
Apart from the people listening to birds in their gardens as they have been advised to do, I have found that extended families now communicate in a different way. They do WhatsApp quizzes. I have seen WhatsApp quizzes where people have taken photos of the birds in their gardens or taped their sounds and others must identify them. Schools could do more of that type of education. Back when we were a more rural society, we knew these things from birth. We lose that knowledge when we move into villages, towns or larger urban areas and stop seeing birds at first hand. Some people are fortunate enough to still see them.
I recognise and welcome the Department's historic towns initiative. I am unsure of its level of funding, but the initiative could be enhanced and developed in due course. It fits into the tourism sector, and people are looking at their surroundings more.
RTÉ needs to be complimented. It has shown many good television programmes in recent times. Maybe they had always been there and I just did not have time to watch them, so perhaps I am being unfair. It is not that I am watching too much television, as we have had lovely, fine evenings and I have been outside. However, I have watched some beautiful programmes.
I am not here to be critical of the Department, although we could talk about much in that regard.
I join in all of the praise for National Biodiversity Week. We could all do with a bit of diversity in our lives. We get up every morning, we take various modes of transport to work, we work, we come home, we eat food, we sit down and mingle with our families and then we go to bed and repeat it all again the next day. In a way, biodiversity week and the Covid restrictions - dare I say it - have been good for the soul. They have been good for people. We have taken a step back and we have seen many things we do not normally have time to absorb. I thank everybody for their efforts in this regard.
The Minister mentioned various fires in woodlands around the country. I am delighted to see drones in operation by local authorities and the fire services because they can identify the source of a fire and send firefighters directly to the areas concerned, which means they are getting to the core of the problem much quicker and their safety is enhanced because they are not in the line of where the fire is emerging.
I join with the Minister and others in advising people to enjoy National Biodiversity Week during the restrictions of Covid-19. It is a good side effect and it is good for the soul and humanity that we take time to do that.
Táim ag roinnt mo chuid ama le Teachta Clarke, Teachta Carthy agus Teachta Stanley. I agree with the previous speaker and other speakers that there is a silver lining to Covid in terms of the thriving wildlife that we are seeing. However, this is a temporary reprieve. The rejuvenation that we have seen will only be a temporary reprieve unless we put in place protections to ensure that it continues. It is a big challenge for us to do that in the time that we have before industry, commerce, agriculture and life in general springs back into life and we again turn our backs and look at wildlife in a different view. I appeal, not to the Minister, but to us as a society, to reap the rewards in terms of wildlife on this island in particular.
Tacaím leis an méid a bhí le rá ag an Teachta Ó Cuív. Táim i mbun díospóireachta leis an gCoiste Gnó maidir leis an Aire Stáit, Teachta Kyne. Táim den tuairim gur chóir go mbeadh eisean, nó Aire éigin eile le Gaeilge, anseo. Ní cóir go bhfuil sé i gcruinniú an choiste. Ba chóir go mbeadh an cinneadh maidir leis na coláistí samhraidh agus na mná tí déanta faoin am seo. Ní cóir go mbeimis muid fós ag fanacht. Fuair mé freagraí ón Aire Stáit mar gheall air sin. Níl sé soiléir go díreach cad atá ag tarlú.
I want to ask the Minister a question concerning the cultural institutions, not only the national institutions but the many local museums and institutions that play a huge role in terms of our international tourism. These institutions attract many people but as they are now closed they will not enjoy tourists travelling from abroad. I appeal to the Minister to find some way to help them attract Irish tourists, people who are living in Ireland who are not going to go abroad who have not enjoyed the benefits of visiting their local museums and other institutions. These institutions are well organised but they need additional funding to help them in terms of the Covid restrictions. I have previously discussed with the Minister the need for funding to assist them to get their collections online. I praise those institutions that have used this opportunity to get their collections online, which we can share with those who have not seen them to enjoy. There is a vast amount of collections that need to be made available online. Since lockdown, Kilmainham Gaol has been sharing a video per day which is encouraging viewings from people who have never visited it because of lengthy queues. This is an opportune time to open up these collections to Irish families, in particular as we wait for the international sphere to kick-in again.
I am conscious that the Minister, Deputy Madigan, and I have never spoken in this Chamber or outside of it. A great deal of concern has been expressed to me in regard to the derogation which classifies the wood pigeon as a pest. Will the Minister give clear and concise clarification as to whether she intends to sign this derogation?
This species causes enormous destruction to standing crops, putting unnecessary pressure on the tillage farmers who have, for decades, depended on the game and conservation organisations for crop protection. The National Parks and Wildlife Service has stated that this decision was based on scientific advice but it has yet to publish that advice even after the National Association of Regional Game Councils, NARGC, called on it to do so. Without that advice being published, the only easily available evidence to give credence to not signing the derogation is from the UK. However, after a similar ban was enforced in that country, farmers reported yield reductions from 10 tonnes to 2.5 tonnes per hectare, resulting in enormous financial losses. I am firmly of the opinion that this will be replicated here if the derogation is not signed.
The current procedures to protect crops have been in place for decades. Without any consultation with the stakeholders involved, the Minister appears to have removed from tillage farmers their most effective form of crop protection and then created even more uncertainty by failing to make a clear statement with regard to a possible deferral. The conservation status of the wood pigeon is not threatened. The September 2018 final report on the review of the derogation process put its population at an estimated 2.8 million and classified it as secure. With more than 300,000 ha of land being used by tillage farmers, the majority of it for cereal crops, these farms produced 1.8 million tonnes in 2018, which was actually down on the previous year, according to the Central Statistics Office.
The Minister will come back and tell me that a farmer can apply for a section 42 licence, but the reality is that this is counterproductive for tillage farming and crop protection. The farmer may apply to take appropriate steps but that application is subject to an assessment being carried out first by National Parks and Wildlife Service staff. Only then will a permit be granted, after the damage is done to the crops. I urge the Minister, on behalf of the tillage farmers of this State and the thousands of responsible game and conservation club members, to give clarification on this matter and ensure that any further decisions by her Department in this regard are taken in consultation with the stakeholders involved.
Second, will the Minister provide a detailed breakdown of staff in the National Parks and Wildlife Service on a county-by-county basis? Rural Ireland needs to be confident that staff levels are sufficient but, right now, that confidence is simply not there.
Finally, of the approximately €14 million in licence fees that is taken in every three years from legally held firearms in this State, not including the tax receipts from secondary retail component sales or repairs, not a red cent is put back into the clubs that provide a vital service in relation to conservation and preservation. The perception is that everything these organisations contribute to rural Ireland is entirely forgotten. In the 1990s, the native grey partridge, one of only two native game bird species in Ireland, was on the brink of extinction, with only 20 birds nationwide. The national grey partridge conservation project, carried out in conjunction with the NARGC, was launched in 2006. Today, that bird's population is more than 900. How is this money being spent and why is it not contributing back into the local organisations that have provided services to this State, essentially free of charge, in terms of conservation and preservation?
Deputy Ó Snodaigh mentioned our national cultural institutions. They have done a huge amount of work online and I am well aware of the challenges they face. I thank the Deputy for also mentioning rural and regional museums. We are working very closely with the Irish Museums Association and the directors of the Council of National Cultural Institutions on a plan of action. For the national cultural institutions, reopening obviously poses a series of different challenges, particularly for the theatre sector, which the Deputy also mentioned. We are doing everything we can to assist with that.
I congratulate Deputy Clark on her election. Regarding wood pigeons, she is probably aware that I am allowed to make annual derogations under the birds directive allowing for the capturing and killing of some listed species for air safety and where there is a threat to public health or risk of serious damage to crops.
Scientific advice was given to me by my officials who propose removing the wood pigeon as they suggested there is limited evidence to suggest that they do, in fact, cause serious damage to crops over the summer. However, serious concerns have been raised by Deputies and other stakeholders with me about the exclusion of the wood pigeon because of damage to crop yields and some of the other reasons mentioned. That includes damage to crops that make it difficult to harvest. There is also contamination which makes it particularly difficult for tillage farmers. As a result, the status quo is being reinstated for the wood pigeon this year. Lethal means will be permitted by land owners in June, July and August to prevent crop damage. The Deputy also mentioned section 42 licences. An expected surge of those was going to come to my Department and we would not have capacity to deal with a deluge of licences during the Covid-19 crisis. The Deputy might have mentioned the grey partridge.
I just want to say one or two lines about the grey partridge. The current estimate is the best minimum population estimate and is largely derived from spring camps. The population has declined, but we have approximately 116 pairs at present in Boora in Offaly and it is a red-listed species of high conservation concern and the Department is very aware of it.
I just want to point out that a minute was remaining on Deputy Sorca Clarke's time, which I encouraged the Minister to use. I welcome that. Then I stood up during the four minutes of my time. Unfortunately, the Ceann Comhairle countermanded the situation. Deputy Stanley, therefore, has two minutes when I am finished and I will not take up-----
-----with the greatest of respect to the Deputy, he does not determine who has what amount of time. The House has ordered earlier how the business of the week is transacted. If the Deputy does not like how that is ordered, he can object to it.
There is no need to object because the House agreed that Sinn Féin would have 15 minutes in this time. The Sinn Féin whip then assigned that time, with a portion to Deputy Ó Snodaigh, a portion to Deputy Clarke, a portion to me and then a portion for Deputy Stanley.
I will not have this every week. Last week the Ceann Comhairle did the same. I watched and read back on what six Deputies had done and the Ceann Comhairle intervened with regard to my time and he has done the same this week. I asked that the clock reflects this and that it does not count. I will speak for less then two minutes now and allow the Minister time to respond and to allow Deputy Stanley to have two minutes if that is in order.
As it happens, I will not need all of my time because I welcome the Minister's decision regarding wood pigeon shooting. It was very unfortunate, and I hope the Minister agrees, that the decision in the first place was made without consultation. My question and request of the Minister is if she will ensure that decisions such as this in future do not happen before consultation takes place with the stakeholders. In this instance, it was tillage farmers and game clubs that were affected. I would also like the Minister to give an opinion on whether, considering these issues come up time and again, and as we speak about Government negotiations, that the issues in this regard would be better served by a different Department.
I welcome this opportunity to raise a very important heritage issue that has been held up by Covid-19. I refer to the issue of the peat harvest and domestic turf cutting on Bord na Móna bogs. Bord na Móna has not been able to commence the peat harvest, including at Kilberry near the Ceann Comhairle, and domestic turf cutters have not been able to start on Bord na Móna bogs.
That is due to the decision on planning consent being held up. It was supposed to be dealt with in March but that was not done. The jobs of hundreds of Bord na Móna workers are at risk. Hundreds of thousands of households in the midlands are facing a winter without fuel because of the ban on domestic turf cutting.
Although peat harvesting is to be wound down as part of a just transition, it was meant to happen in an orderly manner over eight to nine years, with domestic turf cutting to continue. We have had three months of exceptional weather but Bord na Móna staff and turf cutters have been confined to standing on the sidelines or looking out through a window at the sun shining and the harvest going down the drain. What has happened is a scandal. The Department and the Government knew this problem was going to arise given the outcome of the High Court case last October but they did not bring in legislation to avert it. Only now is the application for a substitute being considered by An Bord Pleanála. Leave to apply for consent was supposed to be dealt with before 10 March. It was held up because of Covid. I appeal to the Minister to deal with this issue.
The effect of this issue is that peat harvesting or domestic turf-cutting cannot commence on Bord na Móna bogs until mid-June at the earliest. At that stage, the best four months of weather will be gone. That is outrageous. I am aware we cannot interfere with the decision of An Bord Pleanála, but I am asking the Minister to get one of her senior officials to contact An Bord Pleanála to ask it to process the decision as quickly as possible because too much time has been lost. I asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to get an official from his Department to do the same. I also ask the Minister to ensure that a provision allowing for domestic turf cutting to continue on these bogs is included in the programme for Government her party is negotiating with Fianna Fáil and the Green Party.
I will reply to the Deputies in reverse order.
In answer to Deputy Stanley, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment are trying to streamline the application process, as recommended in the national peatlands strategy. That would make it somewhat easier to apply. Obviously, it is quite cumbersome to be obliged to apply for planning permission for leave for substituted consent. As the Deputy recognised, it is a matter for An Bord Pleanála. Several jobs will be created in the midlands. There will be vacancies for machine operators, engineers, hydrologists, ecologists, environmental scientists, site supervisors, community liaison personnel and staff to evaluate amenity development potential. There will be a significant amount of work available there.
On Covid-19 in general and turf cutting, the National Parks and Wildlife Service recognises the seasonal dependencies on the saving of turf and that it is an important source of heating fuel for households. Turf may be harvested from non-designated bogs in accordance with guidelines. No more than two persons should be on a bog at any one time. A rotation system could be agreed in advance by text or WhatsApp. Those cutting turf must do so and then leave the bog. Each individual must travel separately to the bog unless people are from the same household. Obviously, they cannot be over 70. They must bring identification or proof of ownership of the turf bank or have a turbary right.
I think Deputy Carthy mentioned public consultation. I have now reinstated public consultation, so I accept his point in that regard. The reconfiguration of any Department is a matter for the party leaders involved in the Government negotiations.
I apologise to the Minister for not being here for her opening remarks. I have read them.
Last week, I raised with her in the House the fact that I envisage that a considerable or small portion of the Department's budget cannot be expended in particular spheres because of Covid-19 and public performances being suspended, among other things. Is she in a position to outline an internal or departmental road map in respect of how such resources can be reallocated to support various sectors within her Department?
Of course, this relates to performance artists, musicians and all of those who are unable to practise their particular profession.
On heritage, the subject of today's discussions, will the Minister provide more detail on top of what she already mentioned in her opening remarks on the importance of supporting our heritage centres throughout the country to promote tourism? We will see a significant amount of holidaying in Ireland when all of this ends - something that we should encourage - because people will be reluctant to get onto aircraft, which is understandable. From the Department's perspective, are there any initiatives it proposes to roll out in tandem with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to highlight and encourage such activities? In terms of historic buildings and our national heritage sites, we should ensure that these facilities are marketed in Ireland to Irish people as destinations. Are there plans within the Department to improve the facilities being provided, including organising activities at these sites and similar endeavours? Perhaps the Minister would provide a brief outline of any proposals in that area.
The Deputy touched briefly on culture there and obviously my Department is working very closely with all art organisations and with the Arts Council in particular to determine how we can support the sector overall. Obviously, the collective national impact of increasing access will have to be assessed and not just the safety of the individual cultural outlets. We must consider the audiences as well as the participants. This sector was one of the first to be hit and will be one of the last to get back on track. Under the road map, national museums and galleries are not due to reopen until 20 July and theatres are not due to reopen until 10 August, all things being equal.
The key word here is engagement and I and officials in my Department are in constant engagement with the sector. An expert advisory group was set up a short while ago and is due to report back in a few weeks. The group will give advice to the Arts Council on how to move forward. The Arts Council has carried out a number of different surveys in an attempt to get more information on how it can help and how people themselves feel they can be helped.
In terms of the approach in the road map, the criteria that must be taken into account include whether an activity or event is safe in terms of public health and whether it is rational in terms of its social and economic benefits. We must also consider whether the decision is evidence informed. In that context, we must use all of the data and research available to guide our thinking. Another consideration is whether it is fair, ethical and respects human dignity and whether it is open and transparent. Decisions must be clear and well communicated. Obviously we must also consider the whole of society, based on the concept of solidarity and supporting cohesion as we exit the lockdown over time. These are all extremely important considerations, as are research actions being carried out by the Arts Council. The council is engaged in forecasting based on projected figures. It estimates a loss of €2.9 million in income per month. It has also conducted a survey of 165 organisations to identify the impact on audiences, a survey of artists as well as a survey of strategically funded organisations.
My Department has a number of shovel-ready heritage projects which we hope to roll out over the coming months to try to boost the sector. I agree with Deputy Farrell's comments, having worked in this Department which has a huge width and breadth.
In each part of each sector we need to come up with innovative approaches and to have, as the Deputy said, a sort of alignment with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and other Departments, particularly around tourism. Heritage is very closely interlinked with that and we want to have that alignment in terms of moving forward because Ireland can still showcase its wonderful heritage sites. We have some incredible UNESCO heritage sites in this country and we might have more applications, given the date for applications to become a world heritage site has been extended to March 2021 to allow local authorities to nominate other areas around the country. Some of these sites help in terms of enhancing tourism and attracting tourists to this country, and heritage is very closely linked with that. I completely agree with the Deputy on that point.
We have to be open throughout as to what we are doing, and we are fully transparent in everything we are trying to do. We are working on botanical attractions as well as presentation and improvement projects, and we are talking to Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland and local chambers in terms of what we can do. I know the Heritage Council does a vast amount of work in this sphere and has undertaken a number of different surveys with a view to finding out what it can do to try to assist in the sector. There has been a huge loss of revenue from cafés and franchises. Even though the national parks and reserves have stayed open continuously, and indeed the National Parks and Wildlife Service rangers have been working 24-7 since Covid arrived, the cafés and visitor sites themselves are closed. The parks and reserves remained open not from a tourism perspective but purely from a public health perspective because, obviously, it is good for people's mental health to get out and about in the fresh air. However, we are conscious that we want to get this sector and those visitor sites back up and running. For example, Muckross Park had to close completely and there will be a loss of revenue in that regard. While all 86 outdoor spaces have remained open, many seasonal jobs have been lost and we must also consider the situation of franchises and businesses like bicycle hire, small local enterprise offices and so on. We also had to close Glenveagh Castle, the archaeological sector will be quite badly affected and will have a real downturn, and there has also been huge damage to sole traders.
One positive is that under the national development plan and Project Ireland 2040, some €300 million is going into built heritage and natural heritage over the next period. That will give a boost although, again, we can have the infrastructure but not the people in it, so it only goes so far.
I have two further questions. Does the Minister have any comment with regard to unspent resources? Heritage week is something an awful lot of people look forward to every year, myself included. I always take the opportunity to get in the car and take the kids off to some facility they perhaps have never been to in the midlands or sometimes a little bit further away, but it is a usual event in my family that, on a Sunday, we tend to go off to one of our wonderful national heritage facilities. The Minister might take a moment to deal with that issue.
To tie in with what I was talking about earlier in regard to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport trying to tie into the whole idea of encouraging people to utilise the resources at our fingertips across the country, there is the idea of a "Destination (insert county name here)" - Fingal for myself, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown for the Minister or wherever it might be. We need to encourage the Department to hook in with those local authorities and the governing Department to try to encourage visits to certain facilities across the country. In the short time she has left, the Minister might provide an answer to that question.
The Deputy can rest assured we are in close contact with all local authorities. Most of the 31 local authorities have an in situ heritage officer who does a lot of work in the community and we also give them some funding.
Heritage Week will be going ahead but, obviously, it will be in a different format to previous years. Since the emergence of the crisis, we have been deliberating on how we can best deliver it. We will be inviting people to undertake projects that will culminate during Heritage Week. People can explore the topic and the theme this year is heritage and education and learning from our heritage. This year, Heritage Week will take place between 15 and 23 August. We will be able to showcase online most of what the public has gathered together. I thank the Deputy for his contribution.
To answer the other question, the Department never has a surplus and people definitely get bang for their buck and we use every cent.
This is national biodiversity week and the Minister will agree that the pandemic has slowed our pace of life, narrowed our scope of travel and silenced much of the noise around us. It has done so to a point where awareness of the living world around us has never been more acute. It is not just the big stuff, but insects, flowering plants and what is in rockpools. Incidentally, on entering Leinster House last week, I found a popular hawk moth on the ground and picked him up and put him somewhere safe. It is everywhere; it is in our cities, including here in the heart of Dublin.
We cannot say with certainty that the shutting down of economic and social life in Ireland has had a positive impact on biodiversity. Noticing nature more does not necessarily mean there is more of it about. What we do know, however, is that despite the best and vastly under-resourced efforts of conservationists, we are losing our wild plants, fish, insects, birds and mammals at an alarming rate. Last year, the House declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. At that time, the sixth report to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity painted a disturbing picture on the fate of global wildlife. In Ireland, a third of all bee species could be extinct by 2030, our butterfly populations have declined by 12% in a decade and more than half of our fresh waters are polluted. More than 90% of our protected habitats are classified as being of unfavourable conservation status, including our marine environment.
It is not all bad news, however. As a member of a local authority heritage forum for 16 years, I took part in some amazing work at local government level to raise awareness of our biodiversity. Our heritage officer network is, in my view, one of our great assets in promoting community engagement and participation in natural heritage. Heritage week is the culmination of that success in engagement. For a very modest outlay on the heritage officer programme, a great deal has been achieved.
In Kilkenny, we adopted Bombus hortorum, the garden bumblebee, as our county insect. Perhaps it was an obvious choice given that it is black and amber but it was not just a symbolic gesture, there was very real intent behind it. We also became the first local authority in Ireland to adopt the all-Ireland pollinator plan, a hugely successful initiative that needs to be expanded and adequately funded.
The National Biodiversity Data Centre is doing incredible work in promoting and mapping wild Ireland. I was fortunate to have been involved in several projects supported by the data centre; from Daubenton's bat surveys to the mapping of invasive species on the river Nore and her tributaries. An expansion of this citizen and science-led approach will have the dual benefit of filling in the gaps in data on species and increasing awareness and appreciation of our natural world. The void in our lives created by Covid can be filled and fulfilled by quieter time spent closer to nature.
I welcome the announcement yesterday by the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, that he will allocate funding for Tidy Towns groups throughout the country despite the cancellation of the 2020 competition. We are all aware of the amazing work being done by Tidy Towns groups throughout the country, particularly in the context of biodiversity, promoting no-mow areas, eliminating herbicide use and creating bug hotels and habitats for birds and bats. Tidy Towns, along with the green schools programme, is one of the great community-based environmental successes of recent years.
My colleague, Dr. Cathy Fitzgerald, an eco-social art practitioner based in Carlow, has stated:
Across the Irish Art Sector, we must urgently promote why independent cultural responses are vital alongside science in sustainability initiatives. Creativity has a key, if yet under-acknowledged role to inspire relevant Earthcaring values and practices to our communities, for all our futures.
She is referring to the role the arts community can play in encouraging a deeper awareness and consciousness of our natural heritage. Exploring such a notion within local authorities and within the Arts Council could help transform our relationship with nature and provide sustainable employment through arts practice development on ecological issues.
I hope that this can be explored further with whoever forms the next Government.
The national biodiversity expenditure review carried out by the NPWS found that there remains a historic underspend on biodiversity as a percentage of total Government expenditure. Within that spend, 80% is through agricultural subsidies, 10% operational costs and 6% on salaries. The disparity of spend between the State and local government is quite telling. Some 96.6% of all spend on biodiversity is by central government, with only 1.2% spent by local government. However, it is through local government actions that people and communities engage most on awareness and conservation. Even a modest increase in funding to local government and to the National Biodiversity Data Centre could be transformative. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, whose chief executive spoke at the national biodiversity conference at Dublin Castle just last year, recommends that countries spend at least 0.3% of GDP on biodiversity. We are way below that minimum. Agriculture accounts for 75% of Ireland's expenditure on biodiversity, through agri-environmental measures in subsidies. Some 90% of the spend was linked to terrestrial ecosystems, a shameful neglect of our marine ecosystems which are many times greater in extent. The scariest thing is that only 2% to 4% was linked to actual capital investment in nature. Capital investment in nature is what is needed to reverse biodiversity loss
When do we actually decide to take nature seriously and spend accordingly? When do we decide that nature, the web of life on which all humans depend, is a need to have, not just a nice to have? Do we need to wait for our pollinators to be threatened with extinction? Do we need to wait for the entire country to be a monoculture of rye grass and Sitka spruce? Can we say that now, in Biodiversity Week 2020, one year after the declaration in this House of a biodiversity and climate emergency, that we will transform how we fund and support through policy our biodiversity? I understand that the NPWS is working on a financial needs assessment to determine the level of expenditure that is needed to deliver the national biodiversity action plan. Funding to environmental NGOs must be increased through this.
Access to nature can be a refuge of healing and calm during these dark days. I would like to think we all value it more through this pandemic and would want our policy makers to invest in conservation and restoration. I do not doubt the commitment of the Minister towards nature but we need a renewed commitment in this House that we will not only halt biodiversity loss but enhance, conserve and protect our natural world with leadership and a shared vision.
I agree with some of the Deputy's points and do not agree with others. We have done a huge amount over the last number of years. I have been in this Department for two and a half years and we have significantly increased the funding. Primarily, what the Deputy spoke about is biodiversity and species, really. We have the national biodiversity action plan, which commenced in 2017 and will conclude in 2021. There will be an opportunity at that stage to perhaps draft another biodiversity action plan. It is based on the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the overarching international agreement which underpins the global biodiversity framework. My Department is the lead authority for that biodiversity action plan but we work with other stakeholders as well. It is the third one and it is an all-of-Government document. The progress is monitored through the biodiversity working group, which meets twice a year, and the independent advisory group, the Biodiversity Forum.
I think the Deputy or perhaps Deputy Farrell mentioned local biodiversity projects. We have given €2 million over three years to local authorities. We have a partnership with the Community Foundation of Ireland in terms of 56 projects that it was working on last year. My Department gave €100,000 towards that. We also have the heritage plan, the strategy of which I launched in November 2018. It is now out for public consultation. This will be an all-encompassing heritage plan. We can make it as ambitious as we can, including from a practical perspective. It is so important when we are talking about biodiversity, and certainly from my experience, that we bring people with us. It is often the smallest projects that really make such a difference.
It is about getting communities involved. A number of Deputies today said that they developed green fingers over recent weeks and that they have really taken an interest in biodiversity in a way they had not before. Deputy Noonan's comments on species are important, as is the status of protected habitats and species, which I am acutely aware of. In 2019 I published a third report on the assessment of the status of habitats and species that Ireland is required to protect under the EU habitats directive. They make up much of our mountains, lakes and coasts, our fresh waters and our seas and are the large part of our territory and heritage. The report is based on a substantial body of scientific work that has been carried out over the past six years. Overall, the picture of the plant and animal species is substantially better with more than 70% stable or increasing mainly because Ireland is the stronghold for many of the listed species. It is also encouraging that a wide range of species from whales to tiny plants have healthy populations and prospects. Some species, however, such as freshwater pearl mussel are still in trouble. We have prepared a priority action framework up to 2027, which we are currently looking at. This identifies the financing needs and priorities that need to be dealt with. They are directly linked to the specific conservation measures that are encompassed in the Natura 2000 network of protected areas.
Kind of, yes. I am certainly a nature lover. I am a committed angler and like other Deputies and many people throughout the country I have seen a silver lining in this pandemic by enjoying nature and in being allowed to enjoy nature more than we usually are.
I shall front load my contribution with some questions and I would appreciate a written response from the Minister to anything she does not get to reply to here.
The all-Ireland pollinator plan is reaching the end of its natural life. It is a five-year plan from 2015 to 2020. My assessment is, as Deputy Noonan has also said, that it has been a successful plan. I believe it has been successful because it won the hearts and minds of people around pollinators and raising awareness. Eight or nine years ago our local authority introduced a wildflower meadow policy. It was deeply unpopular. People living in housing estates felt it was just an excuse by the local authority not to cut the grass. The hearts and minds had not been won. When we go canvassing now and meet people we see grass verges that have been appropriated for wildflower meadows or little wildflower stretches. It is a wonderful success. Is the Minister or her Department planning specific measures to improve the next five year all-Ireland pollinator plan 2021-2025?
I shall now turn to the destruction of hedgerows. It is happening up and down the country in almost every county. It can happen on a relatively large scale or on a smaller scale. Each occurrence of it, be it inside or outside nesting season, is a disaster for biodiversity and nature. Is the Minister satisfied with the detection rates for hedgerow destruction and with the prosecution rates against these crimes? I am aware the National Parks and Wildlife Service works very hard to combat this and I commend the service on this element of its work, which is a difficult job. I would appreciate the Minister's comments on this.
I wish to raise again a matter that was raised last week which is the raptor buzzard deaths at Timoleague. The deaths occurred in December but we were only made aware of them recently. This is only the latest incident. It happens in Wicklow, but is also happening up and down the west coast from Donegal down to Cork in particular. Our birds of prey and our raptors are being targeted. The majesty of these birds and what they bring to tourism and to the variety of our nature offering cannot be quantified. It almost hurts more when one sees this happening. It is an awful crime against nature. Does the Minister support conservationists' calls for setting up a wildlife crimes unit? If not, does the Minister have a better idea for how to tackle these crimes? There are very few crimes against nature more wounding than seeing the deliberate poisoning of our birds of prey and our raptors.
My final question relates to the EU biodiversity strategy that was published yesterday. As it was made public only yesterday, the Minister has probably not had a chance to digest it, but there are some interesting elements in it. A proposal in the strategy calls for one third of nature protection sites to be strictly protected. We interpret that as meaning that they should have no human activity. Particularly in the case of beaches or elements of bogland that are open to the public and that the public respect and use appropriately, would it preclude people from using parts of our beaches and that kind of land if the strategy were implemented in the way we have interpreted it? I am interested in the Minister's thoughts on that.
I will conclude with a comment. The National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, does a very good job - a very tough job - of protecting wildlife and biodiversity. It is a battle it fights against local, national and global environmental trends. Nevertheless, it is not always right and it does not always make the correct decisions. In the context of coastal erosion at the Burrow in Portrane, the NPWS would not listen to local people, local public representatives or independent experts when we all said we needed coastal protection measures to protect the dunes and the very habitat the NPWS wanted to preserve. We lost many years in our fight against coastal protection at the Burrow in Portrane because of the NPWS's intransigence, rigidity and inability to communicate effectively, not only with public representatives and local people but also with the local authority.
Those dunes are now gone. Property has fallen into the sea, homes continue to be threatened and local businesses are on the verge of also falling into the sea. Important local amenities such as public toilets are only centimetres away from being destroyed. Measures are being put in place but those lost years will never be got back. Thanks to the proactive nature of the Minister of State, Kevin Boxer Moran, who visited the site a couple of years ago, he managed to get the various stakeholders on board, including the NPWS, but it was too slow. It continues to be too slow and those years are gone.
I hope the Minister hears this message clearly and the intent with which it is given. While I acknowledge, as I have done previously, the great job the NPWS does in respect of hedgerow destruction, in its job of protecting wildlife, habitats and, ultimately, the community in Portrane it failed utterly. That habitat and the terns that were nesting there, for which they were protected, are now gone because they have nowhere left to nest. The community is vulnerable and more properties will go. It is important the Minister is cognisant of that and that a clear message goes to the NPWS that sometimes it is important to listen to the community, representatives and independent experts.
I will try to cover all the Deputy's questions. The coastal protection measures in Portrane have been enabled by the National Parks and Wildlife Service so, with respect, the Deputy is not correct in that regard. The agency with primary responsibility is Fingal County Council, as he may be aware. The National Parks and Wildlife Service responded within weeks to the temporary sea protections being put in. From a special areas of conservation perspective, natural erosion takes place and it would not be appropriate to put protective structures in place for them, although that is perhaps slightly different.
On the EU biodiversity strategy, the Deputy is correct that it was released only yesterday. It is to be very much welcomed. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, and I will have a meeting next week with the parliamentary state secretary to the German federal minister, Dr. Maria Flachsbarth, specifically relating to the contents of the strategy, in advance of the German Presidency of the European Council. It will be a good opportunity to discuss the strategy in more detail.
The Deputy raised the issue of the national pollinator plan. That does not just relate to my Department but is a cross-agency initiative, as the Deputy is probably aware. I take on board some of the points he made. Animal pollination plays a vital role in regulating ecosystems, but we can always look at enhancing and improving plans that are already in existence.
The Deputy mentioned buzzards. The incident that happened with them in Cork was shocking. I know we are speaking about buzzards in general terms but I did an interview on "Morning Ireland" on RTÉ Radio One specifically on that incident and also answering the question whether we need a wildlife crime unit. We have such a unit in the Department, which is headed up by principal officer John Fitzgerald. There is strong legislation on wildlife. In section 74 of the Wildlife Act 1976, one of the penalties on summary conviction is a six months' imprisonment. There is also a fine not exceeding €100,000 on indictment or two years' imprisonment or both. I am not sure if we can go any further than that. We have had a number of different prosecutions in recent years for poisoning. The grey heron in County Louth was the last one in 2016 but there was also a case in 2014 where two defendants were poisoning birds in quarries in Waterford and they were fined €8,000. In fairness to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, it does a huge amount of work with An Garda Síochána. We have a memorandum of understanding there as well. The raptor, our bird of prey, is one of the success stories we have in Ireland.
The Deputy mentioned the cutting of hedges. The Wildlife Acts dictate when hedge cutting can take place, namely from September to February, and the Minister does not have any discretion in that. Roadside hedge cutting will always be allowed for safety purposes. Other hedge cutting is allowed for agricultural and forestry purposes.
It is a little over a year since Ireland declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. We were one of the first countries in the world to do so and it was a significant milestone for our nation. It was a time when we made a public acknowledgement that we needed to place a much greater emphasis on our wildlife and nature and our place in it. At the time, I was a councillor on Wicklow County Council and Wicklow was the first county in Ireland to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency. The momentum for that declaration came from the ground up. It came from ordinary people such as mothers, fathers and children in Wicklow. They wanted us to hear their concerns about how we were managing our environment. They wanted us to acknowledge that the approach we had been taking was wrong and that we needed to step up and start protecting our natural world.
At the time, I was conscious this could not just be a virtue signal but that this declaration had to be followed by action because action is what the environment needs. There has been a lot of action. There has been a lot of talk about biodiversity and the all-Ireland pollinator plan and there is a much greater awareness in our communities about how individuals can improve their local patch. That is to be applauded because a lot of good work is going on. At a national level, we need to work a lot harder, faster and smarter. We need to make decisions that are science-based, ecologically sound and have an environmental objective at their heart. When it comes to addressing biodiversity loss, one of the key things we need to do is to protect the biodiversity we have.
In recent weeks, we have seen a number of incidents where we have failed to protect our heritage, environment and wildlife. First, there have been a number of illegal fires burning across the country. At a time when the nation was in lockdown, huge tracts of land were destroyed by fire. In my constituency of Wicklow, there were six fires in April, mainly on State land in national parks. More than 400 ha of protected land was destroyed along with the wildlife therein. It also impacted heavily on the air quality in the area, the headwaters of the Liffey and the drinking water that feeds Dublin. It puts the lives of our firefighters at risk to deal with these fires. Unfortunately, these fires are not one-off events. In one area of commonage in the Wicklow Mountains National Park, there have been illegal burns on the same land for 11 years out of a 19-year period up to 2019. This land will take years to recover from an environmental perspective.
We can no longer tolerate these annual illegal fires and all efforts need to go towards ensuring they do not happen. I welcome the fact that the Department is going to use drones to monitor the affected areas. The National Parks and Wildlife Service and fire service have done considerable work on fire prevention but these services are stretched to capacity and need more resources.
Our national parks need active management plans. Currently, only two of our national parks have management plans and both of these are 11 years out of date. Our national parks have very few by-laws to enable the rangers to manage what happens within them so in many instances their hands are tied. These are problems that could easily be rectified and this should be a focus of the Government. What are the Minister's plans to update and develop the management plans for the national parks? Will she agree to create a series of by-laws to enable our rangers to protect these important natural resources?
In recent weeks, we have been made aware of the illegal killing, in January, of 23 buzzards in Cork, as mentioned in the Chamber. The enormity of this killing is shocking. Twenty-three birds of a protected species that until relatively recently were considered extinct in Ireland have been killed. It is also shocking that the public became aware of the incident, which happened in January, only in May, via social media reports. I understand there is an ongoing investigation but I would have believed a killing to this extent, which occurred without the landowner's knowledge and involved the use of a highly toxic, illegal chemical, would have resulted in a public safety issue. I acknowledge the landowner who notified the Garda and the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the crime and I thank him for his vigilance. It is great to see him working with the authorities.
This was one of the largest known killings of raptors in this country. I imagine, however, that many more such incidents occur regularly and that what is being reported is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the persecution of birds of prey. How, therefore, do we go about protecting these vulnerable species and environments? I strongly believe we need greater transparency and accountability where wildlife crime is concerned. Until the true extent of the issue is laid bare for all to see, it will be easy for it to go unreported, unacknowledged and unmanaged.
Will the Minister consider establishing a register of illegal fires, whereby they may be recorded as they happen in our national parks and special areas of conservation each year? A mapped register would be an important visual record of where fires are happening and how often they are happening. Once the true extent of this problem is known, we will be in a better position to manage it.
The Minister, in addition to holding people to account for illegal fires, which was mentioned, should consider establishing a wildlife crime unit within the Garda to assist the National Parks and Wildlife Service. I am aware there is already a good relationship between national parks and the gardaí at local level but it needs to be formalised and resourced fully through a specialised central Garda unit, as was done in the United Kingdom. This would assist in ensuring that those who perpetrate the crimes are held to account.
There are ways in which we can fix the problems but we also need to celebrate the positives. Many positives were talked about earlier. Many of us will have seen the amazing images and footage of the basking sharks swimming off the west coast over recent weeks. This species was once brought to the brink of extinction owing to commercial hunting but now, with that pressure having been removed and with NGOs working to monitor and protect the species, it would appear to be starting to recover. We are now being treated with the inspirational spectacles we saw online. We need to take this success and build on it with the creation of marine national parks, marine conservation zones and management plans to protect and enhance this still-endangered species. We need to resource properly the agencies and NGOs to undertake this important work. When we talk about rewilding our environment, we need to be talking about these success stories. We are giving a species some space and protection to find its ecological balance again, which means it can thrive. Ireland has the potential to have an amazing natural environment, one that we can connect with, enjoy and be proud of.
When Wicklow County Council declared the emergency last year, I was talking to two young boys in my constituency, Seán and Conn, who had been campaigning for the declaration. They were very worried about the environment and the direction we were going in. They asked me why politicians always say they will aim to do something and why they cannot just do it. When it comes to protecting our environment and biodiversity in Ireland, it is time we just did it.
The Deputy is right in that we do always aim but we also do. You have to aim in order to do. It is important to say that.
My track record on heritage for which I increased the budget by 15% last year demonstrates my commitment to this area.
The Deputy has gone through a number of different issues. There were six fires in County Wicklow. I acknowledge that she welcomes that drones will now be used. It is important to note that if the National Parks and Wildlife Service had not been on duty, there would have been multiples of that number of fires in Wicklow alone. Last weekend, the Department, with other partners, covered all threatened areas with the drones and we will continue to do that. We work continuously to enhance, as the Deputy mentioned, the resources available to the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Regarding the buzzards, members of the public locally were aware of the poisoning with carbofuran, which is extremely toxic and dangerous to human beings and has been a banned substance since, I believe, June 2009. However, people buy it illegally. There were therefore two crimes, namely, the purchase of the substance and the deliberate poisoning in such a malicious act. NGOs were involved and eventually the matter became public knowledge. However, because wildlife crime, in particular poisoning, is notoriously difficult to prosecute, the Garda had specifically asked us not to raise the matter publicly because they did not want to jeopardise the chances of success. That is why, even though the incident occurred in January, it only came to light recently. We are still in that process. We have had a lot of success, as I mentioned, in trying to tackle these types of crimes. Wildfires are also a type of crime, and we have had prosecutions in that regard. I appreciate that the Deputy is from Wicklow and is particularly conscious of this issue. In Wicklow 418 ha were burned. Preliminary investigations indicate this was done for agricultural purposes. The National Parks and Wildlife Service and my Department have supplied cross-compliance to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
It is a long time since we needed the environment and nature so much. The darkness of the pandemic has drawn us to parks, canals and other amenities to which we would not normally be drawn, and that is a very good thing. There is a new appreciation for our surroundings, which is also a really good thing. Canals such as the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal are probably being more used than ever because they are good amenities, they are near people's houses and there are no cars in their immediate vicinity.
Many people will holiday in Ireland this summer. The vast majority of people will not travel outside of the State. Will the Department consider making the cultural and heritage sites in the State available to families at concessionary rates or free of charge? These sites are quite expensive for families. Will the Department consider making sites owned by the State free of charge to families who present at them?
The Deputy is right that the coming months will be very difficult for the heritage sector. I am not sure whether he was here earlier when I mentioned cafés, franchises and so forth on historical sites. There has been a huge loss of revenue for that sector, and the Heritage Council has carried out a number of surveys in which we have seen that. Some of the sites are free; some are not. There has been increased awareness about heritage, so it would be good to see families continue to use such sites. As the Deputy said, most people will staycation, to use that word, over the coming months.
Although the national parks and reserves have been open the entire time, the centres have not. We will always consider everything but this needs to be put in the context of resources and the fact that there has already been a demonstrative impact on the economics of heritage in general. The point Deputy Gino Kenny is making is really that we should give a boost to or kick-start it. Obviously, we are considering all of those options.
My second question is topical. In recent months, car access has been restricted in the Phoenix Park. I think the Phoenix Park is the second largest city park in the world. Central Park in New York is the biggest, although I might not be correct on that. Anyway, it is an amazing amenity in the city of Dublin. Will the Minister review the use of cars, especially around the side roads of the Phoenix Park? Obviously, the main thoroughfare should be available for car use. Will the Minister consider banning cars from certain roads in the Phoenix Park?
My sister lives close to the Phoenix Park so she would be delighted to have cars banned but I am not in a position to say that they will be. My understanding is that it would be primarily the responsibility of Dublin City Council in terms of car parking. It would not be via my Department. It does not come within my remit. Certainly, it is something the Deputy could raise with the local authority in terms of car parks, etc.
Many artists, singers, poets and so on have lost their livelihoods over a short period and the future for them is uncertain. Would the State support the idea of having gatherings in public spaces where physical distancing is adhered to? There could be performances by poets and singers and so on in spaces such as the Phoenix Park on a small scale that adhere to physical distancing as instructed by the authorities.
I meant to say that the OPW looks after the Phoenix Park. The Deputy may wish to contact the OPW about the previous issue.
While it is good that we have many artists using online media to showcase their work, it is not desirable in the long-term and we want to see artists able to perform in an outdoor space such as the Phoenix Park or other such places. Obviously, that can be explored. We are constantly in contact with the Arts Council, which primarily deals with artists, in respect of how we can do that.
I want to ask a question on the National Famine Commemoration Day. First, I wish to pay tribute to the National Famine Commemoration committee volunteers. The committee has done an extraordinary amount of campaigning work and has pushed for proper appropriate commemoration of the Famine. Part of the work has involved pushing for a full recognised State day with a consistent date in the calendar. A Bill relating to this matter passed Second Stage in the previous Dáil. The Famine was commemorated last Sunday and the Minister was present. Will the National Famine Commemoration Day be brought under the remit of the Minister and that of her Department? Will we have a fixed day that will be consistently the same every year? I understand that it will be the third Sunday of May each year.
A reply to a parliamentary question suggests that the event will be held in Buncrana, County Donegal, in 2021. Will the Minister confirm that the event will be held on the third Sunday in May in Buncrana next year?
I recall the Bill relating to the National Famine Commemoration Day.
It was a real shame it could not be held in Buncrana this year and they were looking forward to it. Last year we were in Sligo and although it rained for the entire afternoon, it was very poignant. The Taoiseach attended with me last year.
It is an important commemoration and I felt this year it received much more attention. That may well be as a result of Covid-19 and the fact that people relate, to a certain extent, more with the Famine than they used to. People often saw it as something abstract that happened between 1845 and 1849 and which did not have any impact on a day-to-day basis. Now people realise that one can die not from dysentery, smallpox or famine fever, as they did more than 100 years ago, but from Covid-19. It is why the commemoration was such a success.
This falls under my remit and I was very pleased with the attention it got this year. It would be wrong to say the Famine, to a certain extent, has been neglected but perhaps it is not in people's consciousness in the way that it should be. This year people realised how poignant and important it is to commemorate it. Our commemorations this year primarily focus on Cork and I launched that programme on 2 January. We are trying to work with Cork City Council and Cork County Council to commemorate the election of Tomás Mac Curtain and some of the assassinations in Cork. Other commemorations will take place later in the year, including a commemoration of the burning of Cork. We will be doing everything we can to work with people to commemorate adequately in a socially distancing world.
I note the same conversation was had five years ago in this Chamber and we are no further along in that regard. The matter I raise was also raised five and ten years ago in this Chamber and we are still no further along. Moore Street is the birthplace of the Irish Republic. The lanes and buildings that surround the street reverberate with the heroism of the people who were out in 1916. The Moore Street battlefield site was the location of the final stand of many of the volunteers who fought in the GPO in 1916 and they came under heavy machine gun fire in the laneways around Moore Street. They set up the final headquarters of the 1916 Provisional Government of the Irish Republic and the final council of war. Moore Street is also wonderfully rich in architecture, with one of the last extant 18th century streetscapes in Dublin. People will also know it is populated by a rich trading culture and when I was young the Moore Street trading culture was synonymous with Dublin culture.
The actions of the people out on Moore Street in 1916 were the precursor to the independence of this State and, I hope, on some sunny day the northern state as well. The freedoms that we hold in this country are as a result of the heroism and actions of these men and women. Interestingly enough, the Minister holds office in large part because of the actions of the people who were out in 1916. There would be no Fine Gael Government in place today if not for the actions of the men and women out in 1916 and the action that took place on Moore Street.
Moore Street offers an opportunity as well as it is just off O'Connell Street and ideally located to serve as a vibrant new historical, cultural and trading quarter. There are opportunities both for commercial interests and a successfully strengthened and rejuvenated street trading system. I do not know if the Minister read The Irish Timestoday but Mr. Justice Max Barrett, a High Court judge, has stated that Moore Street is now a byword for urban neglect.
Shockingly, after ten years of Fine Gael in government, the most important battlefield of the Republic is shrouded in grime and dereliction. It is a place where people urinate and defecate and traders are assaulted. Is it not an incredible indictment of our society and of the Government's actions over the past ten years that the birthplace of the Republic has become an open latrine? It is so frustrating because this discussion has been had in this Chamber over the past ten years. There have been expert groups, committees, reports, forums and never-ending discussions in Leinster House about Moore Street, but the net result of what the Minister and her predecessors have done is that Moore Street is still an isolated area of dereliction. Will she implement the agreed recommendations of the Moore Street advisory group?
I will focus on another matter relating to Moore Street. It has been reported that a significant archaeological discovery of a midden has been found underneath the street. It has been reported that this midden is Wood Quay II and could be one of the richest archaeological finds in the city in the past 30 years. Courtney Deery has compiled reports on the midden, copies of which, I understand, are in the Department's possession. Given the discovery's importance, will the Minister make a digital copy of the reports available to me and other Deputies? Specifically, we are looking for "2016:713 - 14-16 Moore Street, North City, Dublin 1, Dublin". Its author is Ms Linzi Simpson and the licence number is E004536; C494. A second document is "2014:603 - 14-17 Moore Street, Dublin, Dublin", again authored by Ms Linzi Simpson, with the licence number of E004536 C392/C494. I am giving this level of detail because I am worried that we will get another document that will not contain the specific information we need.
The State owns the buildings of 14-17 Moore Street. There is nothing stopping the Government from carefully renovating them and creating a heritage centre befitting the men and women of 1916, one that would rejuvenate the street and bring traders and other people back to it. Will the Minister commit to doing this?
There has been a radical collapse in the retail trade internationally, not just because of Covid-19, but as a result of the migration of retail from the high street to the Internet. We know that the developer behind the battlefield site is in difficulty. I am concerned that we have left the rejuvenation of Moore Street to be developer-dependent. If it remains so, it will stay isolated and in dereliction. Will the Government take responsibility and purchase the battlefield site? Is it not time for the Government to become the engine of the site's rejuvenation rather than the agent of its dereliction?
My final question on heritage relates to the Croppies Acre, a mass grave for the Irish rebel casualties of the 1798 rebellion. The National Graves Association maintains that it was used to bury veterans of that conflict well afterwards, including Matthew Tone, brother of Theobald Wolfe Tone, and Bartholomew Teeling, who was hanged in Provost's Prison. I understand there is a Fine Gael councillor on Dublin City Council who wishes to build a playground on it. What next? Are we going to build a café on Arbour Hill? Are we going to build a gym in Glasnevin? Can we not at this stage state that it is a nonsense to treat an important heritage site like the Croppies Acre in this manner?
Galway 2020 events have been cancelled for many reasons over the past year and Galway City Council has been paid a significant amount of money for licences for events that never took place. Will the council return that money to Galway 2020 and what has been the cost to the taxpayer to date?
I may well owe my position as a Minister to 1916 but I dare say I owe it more to the suffragettes who, had they not fought for the right to vote for women not to mind my standing here and being allowed to speak in this Chamber, we would not be here at all. I would give them my gratitude in that regard.
The Deputy asked a number of questions. Moore Street does not have an extant 18th century streetscape. The only surviving 18th century buildings on that street which are largely intact and have verifiable remnants of the Rising are the national monuments at 14-17 Moore Street, which the Deputy mentioned.
I do not propose to comment on the letter from Mr. Justice Barrett. It is highly unusual given that it appears to relate to a live planning application.
The midden is not Wood Quay 2. The report is on the Department's website.
The archaeological discoveries and paraphernalia are with the Department's National Monuments Service. The report on finds is on the Department's website. Other reports are usually in the Department's archive unit. The quarry-brickfield is a recorded monument and included in the record of monuments and places under the National Monuments Acts. There are usually other reports on the Department's archive unit but they have been suspended temporarily as well because of the coronavirus.
With respect to Deputy Tóibín, he spent several years trying to prevent the development of a visitor facility at 14-17 Moore Street. The Deputy and I have engaged many times over the last few years on the issue of Moore Street, in particular when he was spokesperson in another party. My intention is to have the conservation of the national monument buildings, 14-17 Moore Street, completed as soon as possible, along with the 1916 commemorative quarter and overall redevelopment of the north inner city. The National Monuments Service, the Office of Public Works, OPW, my Department and other agencies are liaising to progress the plans for the presentation of the monument to the public.
The Deputy also mentioned Galway 2020. This Government is fully committed to providing all of the funding it promised for Galway 2020, which amounts to €15 million in total. I have spoken at the EU Council of Culture Ministers on the issue, including the possibility of European Culture Programme funding for it into the future. One of the main issues in regard to Galway 2020 is the legacy project. We hope to do at least half of the programme later this year or early next year.
I have a number of questions on which I would appreciate a response from the Minister. Arts and culture are the cornerstone of our society. Creativity is vital to our health and wellbeing. Culture and creativity are helping people through this crisis. People are looking to the arts for inspiration and consolation. Expectations of financial commitment will need to be revised across all sectors in light of the significant and necessary emergencies being introduced in response to the Covid-19 crisis. It is imperative that investment in arts and culture in Ireland is safeguarded. Can the Minister ensure that artists and organisations can plan for next year by immediately guaranteeing that, at least, the same level of investment in the Arts Council and Culture Ireland will be committed for 2021? Can she provide a clear road map for the doubling of arts investment by 2025, including the commitment to double investment in the Arts Council and Culture Ireland over the same period, which are the agencies that directly support artists and their work. As per the Minister's statement in October 2019 that we are on a good trajectory and we have a good road map ahead in terms of doubling the funding by 2025 and the Government is committed to doing so, will this now happen?
I have questions on other issues. The Minister's decision to rule out a derogation for shooting pigeons during summer months has tillage farmers throughout the country and in west Cork furious. Shooting pigeons is the only way to control their numbers and protect crops such as brassicas from ravage during the summer months. Every year, pigeon shooters come here to help control the pigeon population. There is no other way to control the pigeon population. If they are not controlled they will be an even bigger problem in the future. Will the Minister make public the scientific evidence on which she decided not to sign the derogation? In light of the issues raised by the farmers and others, will she change her position and sign the derogation?
In the UK, a similar rule was introduced in 2016 but was reversed afterwards. In the event of the Minister not signing this derogation, what realistic steps can farmers and horticulture growers take to protect their crops from serious attacks by pigeons?
I have a question for the Minister about dangerous rural secondary roadsides. Between March and September, the verges on those roads cannot be cut. There is a lot of confusion in this regard, although the Minister said earlier that there is no such confusion and that the roadside verges can be cut. However, contractors who are trying to cut are being told they are not allowed to do so. We need clarity. There is too much confusion on this issue and the Minister is the only person who can provide clarity. The contractors either can or cannot cut between March and September. It is quite simple. They are trying to save lives and stop people from having accidents.
Finally, the islands cannot reopen until 10 August, which is understandable. If that is the rule, we cannot argue with it. There are eight islands in my constituency, including Heir Island, Whiddy Island, Bere Island and Sherkin Island. Most of our islands are dependent on tourism. What is the plan for the people living there and how they will survive if the islands are closed until 10 August? It will be a very slow reopening, so they will lose the summer season. What is the Department's plan, if there is one, for their survival?
The Deputy speaks very quickly and I did not have time to write down all his questions, but I will do my best to respond. We had a culture debate last week during which I spoke about the arts in general and outlined in considerable detail the amount of funding we have given to the arts sector over the past number of years. People often talk about 2008 as a benchmark in terms of the amount of money going to the Arts Council, which was approximately €82 million at that time. My Department gave €80 million to the council this year and we had an overall 2% increase in culture spending. That budget was negotiated with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, in the context of Brexit happening.
We are now in a situation where we have a Covid-19 crisis and, as the Deputy knows, a projected deficit of €30 billion this year and €14 billion next year. More than 1.1 million people are now availing of social welfare supports. That has to be taken into account. The National Campaign for the Arts, NCFA, and other arts organisations lobby the Government and my Department seeking more funding, and I understand that. I understand that every sector has representative bodies and it is their job to lobby Government. All I can say to the Deputy at the moment is that if I am still in situin my Department, and it is probably unlikely that I will be, I certainly will do all I can. I always have done so and I managed to increase funding significantly for the arts overall.
I do not know if the Deputy was here earlier but that issue has already been sorted out. If he would like, I can get him a written response, but I have stated that there will be a derogation allowed for the summer months.
The Minister has dealt with the issue of the wood pigeon derogation. From a farming point of view, the farming community has already taken a major hit. I am delighted to see that common sense has prevailed on this issue. After speaking to the Minister earlier, I think it must come from her big Limerick connections, which are great to know about. It will make it a lot easier for me to be coming for extra bits and pieces for Limerick knowing that she has so close a connection to the place.
An issue was brought to my attention during the week which I want the Minister to check out and give clarity on. I understand the CEOs and senior management of some heritage sites have been paid their full salary since the start of the Covid-19 crisis. This was up to last week. Since last week, they have decided they are going to take a reduction in their pay, plus the Covid payment. I highlighted this in a tourism meeting that was chaired by Deputy Carey. Since then, I have been getting inklings that they are trying to backdate the payments and are running for the hills. Will the Minister confirm whether some of the CEOs and senior management of heritage sites have been taking a full salary even though there have been no visitors to any of the sites?
If CEOs and senior management have been doing this, I want full disclosure. At a time when there are no visitors to some of these heritage sites, how can we justify paying a full wage? I ask the Minister to answer that question.
I do have Limerick roots of which I am very proud, as my grandparents are from Limerick. I am not sure exactly who the Deputy is alluding to and I should not comment in any event. I do not have the information he seeks. Some of the sites in question are also probably not under my remit. They could be under the remit of the OPW or they may be independent tourism sites. Tourism, per se, is not under my remit, which is more focused on heritage. I suggest Deputy O'Donoghue direct his question to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.
I will redirect my question. I will also contact the Minister with the names of the sites that have come to my attention. They are heritage sites. The Minister can then determine whether they fall under her remit. If it is the case that these CEOs have taken their salaries and the sites fall under the remit of the Minister, I want full disclosure with regard to any CEOs and senior managers who have taken funding.
The second point I intended raising concerned wood pigeons and has already been dealt with. The common sense approach that has been taken is welcome.
The Department was about to receive a deluge of section 42 licence applications from tillage farmers arising from faecal contamination by wood pigeons, which are also a scourge on crops. We would not have been in a position, because of Covid-19, to deal with all those applications. For this reason, I reinstated the derogation for the summer months.
While we are talking about connections, I should mention I was born in the maternity hospital in Limerick. I am minded of the statement that being born in a stable does not make one a horse.
I want to discuss two issues with the Minister separately, if she does not mind. The first concerns the decision on wood pigeons, which I am glad to note the Minister has reversed. There is a perception among some people that those who shoot and, to a lesser extent, those who fish do not particularly care about nature. In fact, they are often the people who care most about nature and conservation. Notwithstanding that the Minister has reversed her decision, I ask her to publish the advice upon which that decision was based. It is important that we see exactly what the position is, lest the issue evolve or return next year. I also ask the Minister not to make this type of change in future without entering into consultation in advance, where possible. I appreciate that emergencies sometimes occur and consultation is not possible, but perhaps this was not one of those situations.
While the Deputy makes a valid point, I was presented with strong scientific advice from the National Parks and Wildlife Service that wood pigeons were not as much of a danger to crops as had been previously thought. We can be fully transparent on that advice, which is in direct contrast to what tillage farmers believe and what many Deputies have said to me recently. The Deputy is correct that public consultation is extremely important and should be undertaken.
The other matter I wish to raise concerns UNESCO-designated sites, of which there are several in Ireland. There is a proposal concerning a site that is close to me, not only physically but also because I care a great deal about it. Five early monastic sites, the better known being Durrow, Inis Cealtra and Clonmacnoise, were included in a proposal submitted to UNESCO by the Fianna Fáil-led Government that was in power with other parties until 2011. Very little happened afterwards. I asked numerous questions in the House of one of the Minister's predecessors but got very few answers. I know the Minister may not have an answer to this question right now and I am not expecting her to be aware of matters such as this.
As I had received very few answers, I went to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The staff I met there stated that they have heard nothing from Ireland for many years on this issue.
Although I could be wrong, I understand that one of the problems is that these five early monastic sites are in different local authority areas. A UNESCO designation would be very welcome because it would protect the sites, but it would also have planning implications for the area around the sites. One no more expects to see a shopping mall alongside the famous ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey than one expects to see a Clonmacnoise shopping experience. It is to be hoped that that will not come about any time soon. Some local authorities are reluctant to co-operate as much as one might expect due to the planning implications. If that is the case with some of these sites, is there a case to be made for splitting them up? If one or two of the local authorities do not wish to take part in this process and departmental officials or the Minister are not in a position to persuade it or them that the greater good would be to take part, perhaps we could proceed with the other sites. I ask the Minister to consider that proposal.
There are many advantages that derive from UNESCO designation, such as the protection of the site. Obviously, Skellig Michael has been protected as a result of the efforts of the Minister's Department as well as its UNESCO designation. Such a designation puts it on the international tourist map. I would like that to happen with Inis Cealtra, colloquially known as Holy Island, which is a beautiful monastic island on Lough Derg. There is a lot of scope to move forward on the matter. If the Minister does not have the answers before her now, I ask that she provide them to me in writing.
I have great memories of Lough Derg in County Donegal. The retreat is quite tough. As the Deputy is aware, local authorities are expected to take the lead in nominating potential world heritage sites. For his information, the new tentative list will be submitted to UNESCO by July 2021. We extended the application process. I am not aware of the place mentioned by the Deputy or its status. Applications can be accepted until 31 March.
As the Deputy is aware, Skellig Michael is a world heritage site. As I stated, it is important in terms of tourism. There are certain criteria that such sites must fulfil, including that they have something very special about them. I take the Deputy's word on the suitability of the site to which he referred.
I realised as I was listening to the contributions that one of the matters I intended to raise probably falls under the Office of Public Works, OPW, rather than the Minister's Department. That might indicate the problem with heritage in Ireland: much of it is the responsibility of the OPW while other areas are the responsibility of the Department and so on. I will come to that in a few minutes.
Deputy Paul Murphy raised the issue of the National Famine Commemoration Day. It is vitally important and should be considered. The Famine should, perhaps, hold a more important place in the national psyche. It has had far-reaching impacts and still impacts on us today because of the decline in population.
The population never reached a level which would allow us to develop businesses that could grow to a certain size and then move to markets outside, as most other European countries were able to do over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Famine had an enormous impact, and it continues to have an impact to this day. In that context, it is something we should look at. We must also remember the psychological impact on our people and our heritage too.
I want to speak briefly about the wildfires that occurred right across the country in recent weeks. North-west Donegal was particularly badly hit and somebody was arrested on suspicion of starting a wildfire. How many wildfires are started deliberately and how many are natural occurrences? In some countries, particularly the US, a lot of wildfires happen naturally as part of the life cycle of forests. How much of that happens in Ireland? Do we have any figures on that? Is it something that is considered by the OPW? A register of fires, as mentioned by Deputy Whitmore, might go some way towards helping us collate that information.
Finally, I wanted to ask about the reopening of heritage sites and then realised that many of those I thought of as heritage sites in Donegal are actually OPW sites, which is part of the problem. These sites need to reopen because they are an integral part of rural Ireland's tourism product, not to mention their use by local people. They need to be carefully managed and reopened as a matter of priority. I am thinking of places like Donegal Castle which is used by the local community and is also the location for a Famine commemoration every year, which illustrates the importance of heritage from both a tourism and local community perspective.
In general, we do not have the phenomenon of spontaneous combustion in Ireland. I can get more details for the Deputy but I know that since the restrictions came into place on 12 March there have been seven wildfires. One occurred in Killarney and the other six in Wicklow. I am not personally aware of the fire in Donegal. The Deputy referred to a register of fires but we already have one within the Department. We keep track of all fires. Some of the fires in Wicklow seem to have been for agricultural purposes. However, sometimes wildfires are not for such purposes and are set deliberately. I do not know if the Deputy was here earlier when we talked about the use of drones. We are conducting one of the biggest eye-in-the-sky operations in an effort to clamp down on this type of activity. The sheer scale of the land involved and the remoteness of the locations causes difficulties. It is impossible for all of the rangers to be everywhere all of the time. Most of them are on patrol until 9 p.m. and most fires take place in the afternoon or early evening.
On the opening of heritage sites, under the road map most of the visitor sites, cafes and so on will reopen on 29 June but we will be very much guided by public health advice on that.