Wednesday, 26 May 2004
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I ask that the ban on shooting on State lands be removed. I have no direct interest in that area but I believe everyone is entitled to fairness, no matter what group is represented. This Government has not been fair to the National Association of Regional Game Councils.
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, has treated the organisation with complete contempt. He has not replied to correspondence and reluctantly agreed to meet the group to discuss a report on the matter which was jointly published by the Department and the NARGC. A person attending the meeting travelled all the way from Buttevant in County Cork that morning. The Minister had not even read the report; he had only glanced at it. Deputy Brendan Smith, a Deputy for Cavan-Monaghan, was sent to speak at the NARGC national conference. He gave a clear commitment that the ban on shooting would be rescinded and shooting on State-owned land would be allowed on a trial basis.
The Minister, Deputy Cullen, then did a magnificent U-turn, of which he is well capable, on 9 January 2004 and climbed back from that decision. He misled the Dáil by saying the reason for the U-turn was because he was not aware of the small percentage of land involved which is approximately 1% of the total land in the country. That is a lie because he knew it and earlier correspondence proves he knew. It is also very disingenuous of the Minister to use that figure of 1% as it is obvious that shooting could not be permitted in urban areas. If the amount of State land is taken as a percentage of land which in theory could be used for shooting, the percentage is much higher. Many shooting clubs are discovering that the amount of land available to them is becoming smaller. Many land banks are being bought up by the State. One gun club in north Tipperary lost 75% of its shooting territory recently.
There is no scientific basis for the ban. A report drawn up by the Heritage Council did not recommend any change in the long-standing policy of not hunting on national parks and wildlife lands. That report has been scientifically discredited in two instances. The people involved in that report were proven to be in the anti-hunting lobby. There were a number of problems associated with that report. An active anti-hunting activist in the United Kingdom acted as an adviser to Mr. Foster, the first UK MP to introduce in the British House of Commons a Bill to ban hunting. Many of the organisations consulted by the consultants enjoyed anonymity in the report. They consulted with the Irish Council Against Blood Sports, whose contribution was solely an anti-hunting platform. The consultants read statements to support the scientifically, legally and factually incorrect recommendations that there should be no relaxation in the current policy. No one at the Heritage Council saw fit to check the statements.
The report mentioned some international agreements banning shooting on State-owned lands. That argument has been disproved as there is no international law forbidding shooting on State-owned lands. Another report was drawn up by an independent scientific group made up of representatives from the NARGC and three scientists nominated by the Minister. The group produced a report on 18 June 2002. It was very clear there was no justification for a blanket ban on hunting on State-owned lands. It further concluded there are no international agreements which prohibit the Minister from allowing hunting on State-owned lands.
Shooting is allowed on lands owned by Coillte. As far as I am aware and the Minister of State may clarify this, no record exists of any shooting-related accidents. Hunters operate very successfully and safely on the Coillte-owned lands. The argument about safety issues is not valid.
The Government should honour its commitment to consider the reversal of this ban, even on a trial and limited basis. The safety of the public in national parklands must be guaranteed. I suggest designated areas to which the public would not have access. Nobody is looking for new shooting rights but rather to ensure the current shooting arrangements can be extended, especially on newly-acquired State lands. There is no scientific evidence to support the report. One scientific group suggests it is natural for hunting to take place in order to conserve wildlife. People involved in hunting probably do the most to ensure there is a continuous supply of wildlife and to protect it.
The Minister comes from a rural background. I am surprised he has allowed this issue to come to such a head. I urge him to consider immediately honouring the Government's clear commitment given by Deputy Brendan Smith at the recent conference, which was obviously sanctioned by the Minister, that it would allow shooting on State-owned lands on a trial basis. The NARGC deserves better treatment than it is receiving at present.
There has been a long-standing policy of not allowing hunting on State lands acquired and managed for nature conservation purposes. The reasons for this approach are twofold: to protect the safety of people visiting and using national parks and to avoid compromising the nature conservation status of these lands. In 1999, the then Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands requested the Heritage Council to review the existing policy of no hunting on national parks and wildlife lands, taking into account the implications for wildlife conservation, sustainability, the interests of recreational users, potential impacts on the amenity value of the land, European and international policies and relevant issues of public safety.
The Heritage Council recommended the current policy of not allowing hunting on State lands acquired for nature conservation purposes and managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service should be maintained.
Following the advice issued by the Heritage Council and at the request of the National Association of Regional Game Councils, NARGC, the previous Minister agreed in early 2002, without prejudice, to a joint examination by a scientific group, comprising officials of the Department and nominees of NARGC, of the question of permitting hunting on State lands, from a scientific perspective only. One of the conclusions of the scientific group's report was that there are no scientific reasons for an automatic ban on hunting in national parks. The Minister gave careful consideration to this assessment, as well as to the earlier advice from the Heritage Council, in making his final decision on this matter earlier this year. This decision was to continue the prohibition of hunting on lands managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The reasons for the Minister's decision extend beyond the considerations of species sustainability addressed by the report of the scientific group and involve issues of amenity for the wider public, conservation of habitat for other non-quarry species and public safety. National parks and wildlife lands have been acquired, generally through the investment of public funds, for the purposes of protecting nature and providing refuges and breeding habitats for wildlife and for the enjoyment of these natural heritage assets by members of the general public. It cannot fairly be claimed that it is unreasonable to prohibit on these lands activities which are inconsistent with the purposes for which the lands were acquired and for which the National Parks and Wildlife Service is managing them.
It is also the case that the lands in question amount to only approximately 1% of the land area of the State, while extensive facilities for hunting are available on Coillte lands, as the Senator pointed out, privately owned land and foreshore.
The Minister also had to take account of considerations of public safety and confidence and of the potential exposure of the State to claims for damages by persons harmed or otherwise adversely affected by hunting on National Parks and Wildlife Service properties. Hunting on these lands could result in disturbing non-quarry species and their habitat, thereby reducing the value of the sites as reserves and refuges for wildlife generally.
We approached this matter with an open mind but on reviewing all the pertinent issues, it was concluded that in regard to National Parks and Wildlife Service managed properties, it would not be in the general public interest to change the current total prohibition on such shooting.
On the issue the Senator raised concerning Deputy Brendan Smith, I confirm that information was erroneously supplied from my Department to the Deputy in October 2003 indicating that consideration could be given to permitting some hunting on State lands on a pilot basis. This information preceded the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen's consideration of and decision on this matter, which was assisted by senior officials of the National Parks and Wildlife Service and concluded in January 2004.