Wednesday, 9 November 2016
Heritage Bill 2016: Committee Stage
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, between lines 17 and 18, to insert the following:“(5) The Roads Acts of 1993 and the Roads Act of 2007 may be cited together as the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007.”.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. We are discussing the Heritage Bill, yet I understand a primary concern for most people is the issue of road safety. I am tabling this amendment to ensure that road safety, which is paramount to public health and safety, is dealt with where it should be dealt with, namely, under the Roads Act.
This Bill, as formulated, does nothing to address or enhance road safety. I realise that issue is at the forefront of the concerns of all Senators. This is why I have proposed amendments Nos. 1 and 6. These amendments take steps to simplify and increase the ability of councils to apply the existing provisions of section 70 of the Roads Act and section 40 of the Wildlife Act. These sections already permit cutting of hedgerows, even outside the permitted cutting period, in the interests of road safety.
This amendment will allow landowners to apply to the local council to cut where a danger arises while maintaining necessary environmental oversight. These amendments will also go some way to ensuring that such necessary cutting can be centrally recorded in the interests of better data collection as well as to enhance the sensitivity of such work on the affected habitats.
These measures can form a new basis for the approach we take to hedgerow management and road safety, much like the approach being pioneered by councils in Clare, Donegal and Tipperary. These councils have initiated pilot projects to encourage a joint approach, involving communities and landowners, in the cutting of hedges and trees where they need attention. The Clare scheme provides a grant of €50 per kilometre of roadside hedge or overhanging trees requiring attention. The Bill is devoid of this type of innovation.
I wish to be perfectly clear. The Heritage Bill, as it stands, does nothing in terms of road safety. Road safety is already clearly provided for under the Roads Act.
I believe that the confusion that has arisen among councillors and the public in respect of the Heritage Bill is very much related to road safety. I put it to the Minister that it is incumbent on the Government to explain clearly that farmers, landowners and the public can make provision for road safety in the existing law under the Roads Act and these powers need not be included in the Heritage Bill.
I am keen for the Minister to recognise that the Heritage Bill, as it stands, has nothing to do with road safety in respect of protecting the health and safety of the public, farmers and the people. This amendment will go some way toward creating clarity on the matter.
I support the Senator's amendment. This matter should not be dealt with as part of the Heritage Bill. The Senator's amendment to deal with the matter under the Roads Act 1993 is the proper and most efficient way. If we want to be seen as a clean, green and environmentally aware, then attacking our hedgerows through a back door element is not acceptable.
Let us be honest. If the real fear is that hedgerows are blocking signage or junctions, there is already adequate legislation. If the existing legislation is not adequate, then the Senator's amendments clear up any mystery or confusion. I support the amendment.
I support the amendment. The amendment proposed by Senator O'Sullivan is indeed a proposal to deal with road safety. It is fundamental and important. The Roads Act is the correct and appropriate place to deal with the question of road safety. It is altogether discomfiting to see that the wrongly-named Heritage Bill and the Wildlife Act should be the focus of proposals relating to road safety.
Previously, the Government undertook consultation on the question of hedgerow cutting. The report following the Government consultation relating to hedge cutting stated clearly:
...any changes must be in line with Ireland's obligations to protect and enhance our habitats, birds and other species and not to increase the threat to them. This will be an overriding consideration in any proposals for change.
Instead, we are seeing the opposite approach whereby we are over-riding, in every sense, our obligations to nature to apply a blunt and inappropriate instrument to the question of road safety.
I will come back to the concerns relating to section 8 presently, but first I will speak to the amendment put forward by my colleague, Senator O'Sullivan. Her proposals amount to actual concrete measures to deal with road safety. The amendments set out how an individual or group who are concerned about road safety in respect of any area of hedgerow or overhang would be in a position to go to a local authority and request the use of a section 70 order. We are seeking something that would strengthen the practical implementation of road safety. We seek measures whereby those who are concerned can take immediate action and have a route to action.Under the Minister's proposals set out in section 8, there is no resource for a concerned member of the public, a pedestrian or a family with children who wish to cycle to and from work to act to strengthen road safety. They are reliant on the old measures and on the potential random will of a landowner.
Amendment No. 6 is a precise, useful targeted proposal to deal with a measure. It provides for the taking of responsibility. It provides that the local authority has responsibility and there is a root of accountability for how hedgerows are cut. The Minister also has responsibility. In the alternative that has been put forward we see an abrogation of responsibility for road safety. The Government and local authorities are saying that they will leave the matter entirely up to an individual landowner and that they will abrogate their responsibilities in terms of being fully accountable for issues of road safety. There is a washing of hands with respect to road safety. That alternative would disimprove road safety in Ireland. In contrast to that, I urge those who have genuine concerns to say that the inclusion of amendment No. 6 would be the instrument which would allow the Minister to address the concerns of those who may have contacted her on road safety issues. Amendment No. 6 provides for the insertion of the words "the removal or destruction of vegetation required by a notice served by a local authority under 70 of the Roads Act 1993" and the words "Such works shall be considered exempted for the purposes of section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976". We have a precision instrument which allows, where it is necessary, any exemptions already under the Wildlife Act. That is provided; we have that capacity.
Before we discuss this amendment further and consider voting on it, I would like to hear from the Minister why the precise instrument that is already provided for under section 70, which allows for a suspension of section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976 in clear cases where it is necessary where it serves a purpose of public safety, is not considered adequate. Moreover, why is the proposed extension of that to ensure that any concerned member of the public can take action not considered adequate for the purposes of road safety? I have not heard any concrete argument as to why this is not already an adequate solution, except that it abdicates responsibility and means that less responsibility is placed on local authorities to take action and to be responsible and accountable for the decisions. If something is dangerous in July, it is dangerous in August, and if it is dangerous in September, why precisely would we seek to change things simply in August and in March if there was such a fundamental problem with road safety? If there is an area where there is a dangerous overhang of an hedge, under the proposals set out in the Bill, no member of the public would have recourse to have it addressed. I have had extensive correspondence, as many other Members will have had, from many pedestrians and cyclists who speak about the protection offered to them by hedgerows and their importance to them. They are some of the most vulnerable road users yet they have been some of the most adamant in calling for a responsible targeted approach rather than the slash and burn approach we see being put forward.
I urge all Members to consider and support this amendment put forward by Senator Grace O'Sullivan and if there are aspects of it that are of concern, we will have an opportunity on Report Stage to further strengthen and amend our Road Safety Acts, to ensure that any concerns are addressed. I urge Members to support amendment No. 6 and change section 10 accordingly.
I welcome the Minister to the House again. I point out that the last time this Bill was presented by the Minister I was the only person in the House to put forward any opposition to it. I could not even get a Member to stand as a teller or to be a seconder. It is marvellous that we have this new group of people. The Labour Party has changed its stance on this measure as well. There is a possibility that we will get some of these amendments through today. There is a significant change in the political context of this House which makes it much more likely that this silly series of legislative proposals should be attacked. They were introduced for political purposes in the run up to an election to get the farmers' vote. That is why Fianna Fáil was very delicate. Its members could not come out against it because they did not want to lose the farmers' vote.
My name should have been at the bottom of all these amendments but there was a mix up even thought I indicated that I would put my name to them, but it does not matter and it does not prevent me from speaking on them.
One of the issues in this context that the Minister made great hay with, to use a metaphor that is surely appropriate, was the danger to life and limb on the roads. This situation is fairly unusual because if a hedgerow is maintained properly and cut every year when the opportunity arises, it is very unlikely there will be such an enormous growth that the road will be blocked. There maybe a little overhang of the hedge but nothing very much. It would only be in a few cases that this would occur. It seems the Roads Acts is the legislation within which to deal with this. The business about burning, grubbing up and cutting the hedgerows was all introduced willy-nilly by the Minister. Therefore, I am very happy to support this amendment.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. What is important to note in discussing this Bill is the great custodianship shown by farmers in the maintenance of our countryside over many decades and the fact that we probably would not have the great flora and fauna that we have without the respect that has been shown for it.
It is important to note that many farmers are also involved in schemes such as the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, and green, low-carbon, argi-environment scheme, GLAS, which already ensure they have to maintain their farms in a very particular manner, particularly in a designated area. We will support the amendment because the scientific argument for the cutting of the hedgerows at an earlier time in the year has not been put forward as strongly as we would like. When we discussed this issue with Michelle O'Neill, a former Minister for agriculture in the North, we heard that they had a similar issue there. I note the timing of the cutting here is in alignment with the timing of the cutting in the North. We would prefer to err on the side of caution if the science is put forward that says that no damage can be done to the species in question in the hedgerows.
It is important to understand there is a great frustration among rural communities about the maintenance and upkeep of hedges in particular. The proposed amendment No. 6 goes a long way to address that. It would allow a farmer or another person in a rural locality to go to the local authority and highlight that there is a road safety issue or that people have to walk in the middle of a country road, which can be equally dangerous, to avoid an overhanging hedge. People can apply for permission in that respect from their local authority and that just needs to be notified. That is a logical provision. It is probably the prudent way to approach the issue.I hope the Minister will take on board the amendment in the spirit in which it is being put forward.
I welcome the Minister and thank Senator O'Sullivan for tabling the amendment, which raises an important issue relating to the Bill. I refer to hedge cutting and hedgerows, both on farmland and along country roads throughout the country. Farmers, by their nature, have been the custodians of the countryside and have protected hedgerows to the best of their ability, in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, for many years. There are issues which - not from a farming but, rather, from a road safety point of view - must be addressed to allow for the cutting, in a very restricted manner, of vegetation that is overgrown and that is causing a health and safety or motoring hazard. I include, in the latter regard, hazards to pedestrians, cyclists and runners on country roads, the hedges running alongside which become overgrown in the summer. As someone who runs a lot on country roads every month of the year - but particularly during the summer - I have some experience of being pushed into hedges when trucks come along because the hedges are overgrown and vehicles cannot get by.
There is an issue that needs to be addressed. The question that arises is how best to address it. I remember when Second Stage of Bill was debated earlier in the year. During the public consultation period, some 188 submissions were made on the issue relating to hedgerows by members of the public, interest groups, local authorities and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Indeed, very many good submissions were made to Senators by interested members of the public in recent days. I wish to thank those people for contacting us to raise their concerns.
One of the submissions was made by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which raised the issue of hedge cutting. The Department identified the possible discrepancy between section 40 of the Wildlife Act and section 70 of the Roads Act 1993. The Roads Act 1993 states:
The owner or occupier of land shall take all reasonable steps to ensure that a tree, shrub, hedge or other vegetation on the land is not a hazard or potential hazard to persons using a public road and that it does not obstruct or interfere with the safe use of a public road or the maintenance of a public road.
Therefore, if there was a road safety issue, one would imagine the landowner could take precautions to trim back the hedges along a public road. Unfortunately, this is contradicted by - or there is a discrepancy in - the Wildlife Act, wherein section 40 allows only for local authorities or other Government bodies to carry out such remedial works as hedge cutting during the closed season in the interests of public safety. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine suggests that an amendment should be considered to section 40(2)(c) of the Wildlife Act.
Given this discrepancy, there is a question around whether we are going to have carte blanchein this Bill and allow all hedges, whether they interconnect with a public road or not, to be cut back in the closed season or the extension of the closed season in August. That needs to be clarified. We support the cutting back of hedges in the month of August in a very controlled way, but only those that interface with public roads and only on health and safety and road traffic grounds.
Why is the position not defined in the legislation? Is it the Minister's intention to bring forward amendments on Report Stage? I would rather not see this addressed in regulation because, with no disrespect to the Minister, there will be further Ministers down the road who can amend that regulation without having to come before the Houses. The types of hedges to which we are referring need to be clearly defined in the primary legislation, otherwise what is proposed is very disingenuous. We are trying to say it is for road users and to make our roads safer in the month of August, but we are also allowing other hedges to be cut. There is an issue which needs to be clarified. I hope there is some rationale for this but, to date, from the departmental briefing documentation available and from what is contained in the Bill, I have received no clarification. Therefore, the questions being raised by members of the public and interest groups remain unanswered.
I welcome the Minister. This is important legislation, wherever we are coming from or going to. The issue relating to hedgerows is a major one in respect of which we have all been canvassed and there are very different views on the approach we need to take. The Minister's proposal of a two-year pilot programme is important and appropriate. In considering the hedgerow issue, we should step back and look at what we did in the past and what we aim to do in the future. There is an unusual situation in the Burren in County Clare whereby, because there was no burning, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is paying people to go in and cut out the willow this year. We have to look at how we manage our habitats. While I am not saying that this is the appropriate way to proceed, we must consider all angles. We do not know until we try. The Minister is trying something different and she must be supported in that. Ultimately, what has happened has not been effective.
On the issue of hedgerows being cut in August, this is very appropriate given that they die away in September in any event. What is the point of having local authorities spending large sums cutting hedgerows that are dying away? August is the peak time. It comes after the growth in July and when the deep, dense hedgerow is there. Something must be done to ensure the safety of rural roads and that the people who use them are protected. That is what the Minister is trying to achieve.
From an agricultural point of view, we all know how the weather changes in September. If a farmer is to do anything on a land holding, such as reseeding or other work, August is the appropriate time to do it, particularly as the weather turns so fast. Two years ago, nothing was done in September because the weather turned, which was due to nature and the environment in which we are living. The two-year pilot period proposed by the Minister is the appropriate step. We must take on board that pilot scheme and then make a conscious decision as to what has worked or not worked.
With regard to what has happened in the Burren, we decided 30 years ago we were not going to do any more burning there and that the habitat would be allowed to run wild. We are now paying contractors to go in to cut out the willow because it has taken over the Burren. We have to learn from the mistakes of the past. Let us look for something new and see what we can do. We can look at this Bill again in two years' time. I am sure the Minister will bring forward her report after two years and we will have a fair idea then of what has happened with regard to this two-year project.
I have been fortunate in the work I do to travel the length and breadth of this wonderful country of ours. It brings me such joy to see all the wonderful, beautiful wildlife we have in Ireland. Unfortunately, what is being proposed in the key provisions of this Bill would add one more month to the period during which hedgerows can be cut and destroyed. The latter will allow hedge cutting and removal in August and more burning in the mountains and uplands in March. This will have a damaging impact on nesting birds and the life cycles of other wildlife. While I am repeating much of what others have said, I think it is important that it should be said.During these months birds are trying to lay eggs and raise chicks, and other wildlife, such as bees and hedgehogs, are still dependent on these ecosystems. Our wildlife requires protection, at least until the end of August and in some cases well into September.
I have been inundated, as we all have, with letters and e-mails from citizens from all around Ireland who are extremely concerned about what is being proposed in this Bill. I have been touched by all the correspondence I received and I felt it was important that people's voices are heard here in Seanad Éireann. This is an e-mail I received from a woman in Tipperary and I hope she is watching in today because I was moved by it. It states:
Dear Ms. Black,
As I write this email I am sitting looking out my kitchen window at the bird feeders hanging on a nearby tree. I cannot tell you how much pleasure I get from looking at the birds who visit this feeder each day. I am more than certain that the pleasure I get observing their daily activities has helped me to be a happy and content person. Lots of my neighbours, many elderly, also have a huge love of nature and speak to me frequently about observing and feeding the little birds who visit their gardens. These birds fly to the feeders from the nearby hedgerows.
It has come to my attention that section 40 of the Wildlife Act is to be amended to allow hedge cutting in the month of August. From observing birds, I know that many of the species are still sitting on eggs or feeding their young chicks, which are still in the nests, in the month of August. This was especially apparent in the last two years when because of cold and wet weather the Spring/Summer season was delayed by almost 4 weeks. Hedge cutting in the month of August would be detrimental to so many species, many of which are already in decline.
I am not a member of any political party or group; I am just a concerned nature lover who is extremely upset at the prospect of what this amendment to the wild life act will do to the beautiful nature I see around me daily. I am pleading with you to do everything in your powers to block this amendment which in my opinion if passed will have a huge impact on our lovely countryside.
Thank you for reading this request; I am placing my trust in you.
This letter says it all. It brings us back to basics, to the importance of protecting our wildlife. I am not against progress and I understand that we are entitled to make a living, but it is really important that we think of the bigger picture here and what is good for us all.
The changes to the Wildlife Act proposed in the Bill are not supported by scientific data and do not improve the laws of road safety. We need a heritage Bill that is supported by strong Irish data. We need a Bill that is more substantial, that could help all farmers and their communities. We have a chance to do something right for the planet, right for our own personal legacies and right for nature.
This is an important debate. Biodiversity is one of these topics that is becoming more in vogue. That is a good development because there is much going on in nature around us the significance of which, unless it is described or pointed out to us, or explained, is hard to understand. It is clear in biodiversity that it is not merely an odd sentimentality. We all live in the shadow of one other that way. It is important that we take cognisance of the environment, but human beings have to live too and it is fair to say the minute somebody cultivates a garden, he or she is interfering with wildlife. It is about achieving the balance.
Obviously, there are a lot of concerned citizens. BirdWatch Ireland and a number of the advocacy organisations which have the interests of wildlife at heart have raised concerns. When the Minister is responding, I would be interested to hear what the National Parks and Wildlife Service has to say about this. It is to the fore in the defence of the environment and it is charged with doing that.
Of course, there are two parts to this under discussion - one is hedge cutting and the other is burning. The reality is the local authorities have six months of the year to cut back the hedges, that is, from 1 September to 25 February. The other reality is the urgency of hedge cutting among both the public and local authorities only seems to become apparent when there is considerable growth. We see a lot of growth in July and August. It strikes me that, compared with a lot of other tasks undertaken by the local authority, there is not as much forward planning involved. Hedges should be cut back, where possible, within the appropriate times that are allowed and that are deemed to be more favourable to give the wildlife a chance. It seems that in the case of a lot of local authorities there is not such forward planning and it only arises when the problem appears, whereas through local knowledge, one will be aware of the roads that lead to schools. The local authority and its workmen on the ground know there are certain roads that, because of the bends and twists, will cause problems and the local authorities need to be challenged about hedge cutting programmes.
Having been a councillor, I am aware that funding for hedge cutting is an issue. Perhaps that is why it is so ad hoc. Sometimes the hedge cutting is carried out on the basis of who is shouting the loudest about a road safety issue. Where I am from, roads leading to schools in rural areas get priority.
Another issue is a practical one. Sometimes equipment being used for hedge cutting is not of the best sort, in that it is blunt, it traumatises the hedges and leaves them prone to disease. They are not being cut back properly or, basically, are being butchered. I immediately add there are many responsible contractors who know what they are about but in respect of the specifications or the definition of the job to be done - invariably, it is contractors who do the work - the councils need to ensure the equipment is appropriate and the contractors know what they are doing. I refer to the proactive approach regarding Japanese knotweed. For example, Mayo County Council has approached all the contractors and has set out the way one is to tackle the spread of Japanese knotweed to ensure it does not spread further. It seems comprehensive. It would be a worthwhile exercise to do the same in respect of the hedgerows to ensure that what is being done is being done appropriately.
There is another point that has to be made here. When one has fresh growth into August, which is the month that is being talked about, birds are nesting in the heart of a hedgerow and out on the edges, it is really supposed to be verge trimming and not cutting right into the hedgerow. There is a distinction. I suppose, as I have made my own inquiries, including with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, I would be interested to know officially what it is saying.
I will pick up a point made by Senator Ó Domhnaill. It is something I wanted to put to the Minister also. There is merit in looking at the issue of distinguishing between hedgerows which adjoin public roads and other hedgerows. The vast majority of hedgerows are not along public roads. They are within fields and elsewhere. Some distinction should be made between those hedgerows where there is a road safety issue and others where there is not the urgency or compulsion that would require them to be cut.
Another point to be made about the August date is schools are coming back a lot earlier. Schools now return in August and there is the issue of road safety. It is not only about road safety because just as motorists fall foul of potholes, many people at times get their wing mirrors clipped on narrow country roads, which are well used. As I say, there has to be a element of practicality about this. As schools are coming back earlier, there is pressure coming from the public for the local authority to address the issue earlier.
We must go back to the basic point that if the local authorities had a plan in place - surely they know that these school roads would need to be done and that they should be well cut back in the first place at the appropriate time, that is, in advance of the February date - that would turn a lot of things on their heads because the way hedge cutting goes in a cyclical fashion at present, the derogation is used to do a lot of hedge cutting on the school roads and one would wonder if some of this can be avoided.
In relation to the burning, my impression from the legislation is that, while the Minister will being in regulations, there is another issue here. The burning of vegetation is nothing new and in traditional farming it was done to get rid of the coarse grass and get at the fresher grass. There is a debate about whether or not there is a necessity, but it did form part of traditional farming. I also believe that traditional farmers did not torch something and walk away from it. It is uncontrolled fires that lead to all sorts of environmental implications and there needs to be some sort of licensing system for the burning of old grass. I would ask what the Minister envisions under these regulations.I know my colleague, Senator Lombard, also mentioned the pilot projects both for burning and hedge cutting. It is a very pragmatic way to go at it and try to get a balance between competing demands of road safety, farmers and the rightful demands of environmental protection. Does the Minister envision a licensing regime in that regard?
While I am on my feet, I will make a point that the Minister might also address relating to powers of authorised persons under the legislation, specifically section 10(1). It is the amendment to section 69 of the 1976 Act through section 7B. The Minister might bear it in mind as I want to flag it.
It does not relate to the amendment before us but I would like the Minister to give it some consideration. I will not get into it in depth. It is a concern regarding the power of authorised persons, including officers in the national parks and wildlife section.
Today, the Minister is asking the Seanad to sign a blank cheque, particularly with regard to section 8(3), which I know does not relate to the amendment at hand. As a result, I am opposing this Bill for the sake of our beautiful countryside. I will address the amendment at hand.
This Bill is poorly structured and does nothing to address road safety issues. Road safety has been raised as an issue with regard to overgrown hedgerows, and as other Senators have already said, this is covered in existing legislation, namely, section 40 of the Wildlife Act and section 70 of the Roads Act. These Acts allow county councils to issue orders to landowners to cut hedgerows that are deemed a danger, even outside the permitted cutting season. The Heritage Bill 2016 does nothing to improve on this and creates greater confusion in the system. An amendment has been submitted that would widen the scope of section 70 of the Roads Act and allow members of the public and landowners to request that councils allow them to cut dangerous hedgerows, and that is what we should support rather than what is proposed in the Bill.
Sinn Féin holds a deep appreciation for the value of the natural, educational and cultural importance of hedgerows. They link our archaeological, geological, social and natural heritage. They are a utility in the present but mark the past and their values are multifunctional in both practical and spiritual forms. They enrich our understanding of history, ecology, rural society and farming practices. They give character to an area, giving aesthetic appeal and creating a sense of place. In practical terms, hedgerows are one of our greatest settings of biodiversity between our native flora and fauna, accommodating an array of bird life, insects, plants and mammals.
Equally, agriculture is one our greatest traditions and the farming community is a custodian of the rural environment, as has been mentioned. Many farmers are part of programme schemes designed to protect and enhance the environment, including providing deliberate and constructed habitats for wildlife, including birds. Senator Ó Clochartaigh mentioned Sinn Féin's record at Stormont in the last term of the Executive, when the Minister responsible for agriculture, Ms Michelle O'Neill, rejected an extension of the hedge cutting process. However, she did open her Department to listen to possible derogations from that legislation on a case-by-case basis, particularly where roadside hedgerows needed to be cut during the spring and summer months.
As part of this process, a forum should be provided to discuss how we are not the only species living on the planet and it is not here to serve us alone or the unjust economy we have created. Globally, capitalism and imperialism still eat away and erode the Earth, the fabric of which is devoured in the industrial process. Capitalism is not easily reconciled with sustainability and opportunities like this provide a forum to discuss and engage on sustainability. I look forward to speaking on section 8 and we will support amendments Nos. 1 and 6, as proposed by Senator Grace O'Sullivan.
I too very much look forward to speaking against section 8 later and I share some of the concerns expressed by Senators on section 2 as well. We might have the opportunity to highlight future amendments to that section.
Returning to the question at hand, I ask for what is really a clarification in responding to Senator Ó Domhnaill. I absolutely share the Senator's concern at the lack of precision, nuance and detail in how this might be followed up and what are the measures and tests. That is why I am hoping the Senator and others in his party might support our amendment No. 6, as it allows precisely that kind of decision on what hedge can be impacted and why. It leaves a chain of accountability and we know which hedges have been cut and why. At a very basic level, it gives us tracking of the kinds of hedges that will be affected and why, as has been mentioned around the House. The proposal is in amendment No. 6 and it allows people know how and why hedges are being cut.
The Senator mentioned that in March and August, only local authorities or road safety authorities could cut hedges. Local authorities and road safety authorities can issue a section 70 notice to a landowner and that allows him or her to cut those hedges. Moreover, the amendment we are considering clarifies this and makes it easier for the landowner to request a section 70 exemption much more easily and effectively. If the landowner wants to cut, this will ensure he or she can do so. As has been stated, a member of the public can also be involved. There is a section 70 system that is functional and perhaps it can be improved. We have set out concrete and effective improvements. I would like the Minister to speak specifically to her view on the amendment, if she can support it and if there are road safety concerns extending beyond it.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh spoke about the role of farmers and landowners as custodians of nature, which is important. There are dual roles in this regard. There is the responsibility of a landowner with respect to road safety and there is also the responsibility that many landowners and farmers have directly in the funding they receive under the Common Agricultural Policy. A section of the funding they receive relates to their role as custodians of green space and nature. That role of custodian being taken on by farmers and the role they have relating to road safety is currently balanced in the system we have. Now we are placing all the risk and endangerment of their role as custodians of nature on landowners alone; in August, only the landowner could make the decisions in this regard. We are saying that instead, by accepting amendment No. 6, the Minister can ensure the local authority and the Minister remain accountable in that the balancing of these roles is being properly achieved and there is tracking.
I will speak to my overall concerns about section 8 shortly but I would appreciate if the Minister could address that question of the road safety proposals put forward in amendment No. 6, whether she can support them and why she feels there is a road safety concern extending beyond that. In August, there are busy roads and hedge cutting in itself creates a danger or road safety concern. That is something to borne in mind, particularly during our tourist season and times when many people travel on roads they may not be used to. We should consider how this is affected by hedge cutting with no notification to local authorities or clarity. It would be ad hocand there would be no measures to know whether it is taking place. It could happen anywhere in Ireland at any time in August.That is a very serious concern for road safety, as well as tourism.
I wish to make a couple of points. The first relates to the custodianship of farmers. This is a relatively recent phenomenon. I am the oldest person in the House today and I recall that in 1940s to the 1960s the hedgerows in Ireland were a jungle. The animal and flora life we have there is a result of neglect. There was a history of neglect. This hedge cutting is only happening in comparatively recent years, with EU grants and so forth. Quite a large proportion of tillage farmers make 37% of their income from being guardians, so there is a motivation. I used to visit my Irish uncle in Rutland, in England. The difference between the manicured hedgerows of England and the jungle we had in Ireland was quite remarkable.
I compliment Senator Ó Domhnaill on making the point, which was not made previously, that the overwhelming preponderance of hedgerows are internal or within the field structure. They are not on the roads at all. That is not referred to in the legislation and it should be. The internal hedgerows should be excluded from this additional permission.
I had intended to make the point made by Senator Mulherin, although slightly later on, regarding the massacre of the hedgerows by the inappropriate use of machinery that is not kept up to date or properly sharpened. One can see the splintered shanks of trees, shrubs and so forth. The machinery simply slashes across the hedgerow. It is like a cartoon. There should be some training of the personnel running these machines as well as supervision of the machines.
The other issue in the second amendment has been raised by Members. I strongly agree with it. The Minister was advised strongly about this. There is no scientific basis for this legislation. There is simply no information. No surveys have been carried out and no data, or very little, have been collected so this is a shot in the dark. It is completely blind in terms of scientific information. The scientific research that has been conducted points directly away from this Bill's provisions on enlarging the period for grubbing, burning, cutting and so forth. People talk about the number of submissions they receive, and the pile I have with me is just part of them. I am sure every Member has a similar amount. However, we have received additional information about the number of rare wild birds that are threatened by this legislation.
I hope there will be a strong vote on this today. I am delighted Sinn Féin is on board this time. That is excellent. I believe we can win this one.
I mean amendment No. 1 and subsections (1), (2) and (3) of amendment No. 6. First, I thank the Senators for their contributions. With regard to the first part of amendment No. 6, section 70 of the Roads Act provides that where a tree, hedge or shrub is considered a hazard or potential hazard to persons using a public road, a local authority may serve notice on the owner or occupier of the lands where the hedges and so forth are situated requiring the cutting, trimming or removal of the hedges or shrubs. This amendment provides for the inclusion of these notices under section 40(2) of the Wildlife Act as an exempted activity. I have considered the amendment and am prepared to accept it in principle, as it goes some way towards harmonising the provisions of the Roads Act on works to be undertaken for safety purposes along public roads with the provisions of section 40 of the Wildlife Act. However, I intend to consult the Attorney General and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on the wording of the amendment. I will bring forward a further amendment on Report Stage to reflect the Senator's proposal. I will also bring forward an amendment on Report Stage with regard to amendment No. 1 on the collective citation for the Roads Acts. I thank the Senators for raising this issue as it clarifies an area of doubt.
With regard to subsection (2) in amendment No. 6, there are provisions in section 40(2) of the Act for some strict exemptions from the prohibition on burning and cutting during the closed period, for example, for health and safety reasons, the destruction of noxious weeds and during works permitted under statute. Specifically, section 40(2)(c) provides that public bodies such as local authorities can carry out hedge cutting for public health and safety reasons. The amendment provides that all public bodies will have to notify me of all such work during the March to August period. It should not be mandatory for public bodies to notify me of all such works, which I view as an onerous task which could potentially delay the carrying out of urgent work on health and safety grounds. I have existing powers under section 43 of the Act to request details of such works from local authorities, with a statement of the public health and safety factors involved. I have used these powers on a number of occasions in recent years. I believe my existing powers are sufficient in this regard. The subsection provides for over-regulation and I cannot accept it.
As regards subsection (3) of the amendment, the proposed amendments are to the Roads Acts, which are outside the remit of the Bill. Roads legislation is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. Accordingly, it is not possible for me to accept the amendments.
I wish to make some general points on the legislation. I am trying to allow managed hedge cutting and burning within the current closed period on a pilot basis for two years. Currently, from 1 March to the end of August it is an offence to carry out burning or hedge cutting. There have been repeated calls for this closed period to be amended, primarily to allow for better land management. I am introducing some flexibility into the system. Managed hedge cutting will be allowed under strict criteria during August to help ensure issues such as overgrown hedges impacting on roads can be tackled. Controlled burning will also be allowed in certain areas around the country, to be specified by the Minister, during March should it be necessary, for example, due to adverse weather conditions. I announced a review in late 2014 of section 40 of the Wildlife Act, which relates to hedge cutting and burning. These measures are being introduced as a result of that review.
I have tried to strike a balance. Hedgerows and scrub are important wildlife habitats, but they also must be managed in terms of biodiversity and land management. I am not changing the closed period. I am allowing for cutting and burning in a managed way within the current closed period. I also wish to collect more information on the impacts, if any, of these changes. We will collect the information on bird life on different types of hedgerows during this pilot period.
Some of them told me when they were out canvassing in the recent Seanad election they experienced some narrow roads with hedges growing out. I said "Hopefully now you will understand what I am trying to do." I know how dangerous it is. It is dangerous and I know about it.
These reasonable changes and level of flexibility are important. Senators should remember it is on a pilot basis. I do not know what parts of Ireland Senator Norris is viewing but I have been living on a farm for many years and I assure the Senator it was never a jungle and the hedgerows-----
I have one other point. I propose to table a small textual amendment on Report Stage to subsection 3(e)(ii) of section 10, pages 15, line 25 to 29, with regard to occasions where authorised officers know or suspect that a vehicle, in particular, has been used in committing an offence. I propose to table that amendment on Report Stage.
Is the Minister saying she will look at amendment No. 1 to section 1 on Report Stage, which concerns the Roads Act 1993, and yet with regard to amendment No. 6 she cannot come back to us because the Roads Act 1993 is a matter for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport?
If the Minister can come back on Report Stage on amendment No. 1, why can she not come back on Report Stage on amendment No. 6 pertaining to section 10(3)? It is a bit of a cop-out for the Minister to say she can only go ahead with the Minister's approval, whereas on the first one, she can come back on Report Stage. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that.
As I said, I will come back on Report Stage on amendment No. 1 because I am prepared to accept the amendment in principle as it goes some way to harmonising the provisions. It concerns an aspect of this legislation so I am able to amend it but I cannot amend the Roads Act because it is a matter for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.
What the Minister is saying is an absolute disgrace in terms of sustainability and biodiversity. I am also from a rural area outside of Dublin. The Minister is missing the point on this because hedgerows are part of our culture and part of a tradition going back to the late 1600s in Ireland. The Minister is proposing to do a pilot study in months that have never been part of the provision, so it does not work. We need to do a baseline survey. With regard to hedgerows, I propose we do a pilot study in the month of August because of their enormous value to the farmer, the landowner, the public, to the health of Ireland and to food production. I too have spoken to many farmers about this. They said the issue of cutting the hedges in August is not really a huge deal to them at the moment but that the issues of Brexit, farm gate prices and lots of other issues are much more pertinent. Nevertheless, I propose we do the baseline survey and the pilot study within the existing arrangement. We should not allow the cutting in August or the burning in March and should continue with the existing legislation and from when this is agreed by the Minister, we should start the pilot project and baseline survey. We should start collating the scientific data over a period of three to five years, gather the data and then base our decisions on those data. We should not go in now and start cutting, grubbing and tearing the ditches down. We should start the research now and in a period of three years, based on the gathering of good information, we should make the decision as to whether the cutting, grubbing destruction of the hedgerows should take place in August or whether the burning in the uplands should take place.
If the Minister looks at the all-Ireland pollinator plan, she will see the value of the hedgerow system and the value of the uplands system in terms of pollinators, which we heard from a farmer in Cork today. They are critical to the farmer, the development of agriculture and the health of our landscapes. We need to recognise that what the Minister is proposing will have a negative impact on the ecological system for the farmers and the people of Ireland. The hedgerows are not just for the birds; they are for the mammals and the bats. I do not know if any survey was done with regard to bats and hedgerows. The Minister does not have the data. She cannot provide us with the data at this point in time. She had a public consultation carried out.
The first thing I wanted to do was look at the report as a result of that to get information but there is no report. I have heard from NGOs that the Minister has not been available over the last two years to discuss this issue with them. She has made herself available to other agencies but not to people who are also stakeholders. These people represent more than 25,000 people who have signed a petition. I turn to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and say those 25,000 people are their voters too. This whole argument is skewed in favour of a small minority of farmers who are probably putting pressure on the Minister. I appeal to the Minister to do the research but let us not open the season of August to hedge cutting because it will impact on a wide range of biodiversity. Equally, with the uplands, the gorse and furze is hugely important to the bees and pollinators in March. I received a letter from a full-time bee farmer in County Louth. His income is from the production of honey and he said if the upland areas are burnt, if that uncultivated land is destroyed, it will affect the foraging capacity of his bees, which will impact on the production of the honey. That will impact on the income he, as a full-time bee farmer in this country, will have for his family. We are developing artisan foods and products such as honey are extremely important as we try to put out an image of Ireland as the green country. This is a regressive step and I am shocked it is on the agenda. The Heritage Bill, in this regard, is far from a heritage Bill in terms of protection of the Irish environment. We have received huge numbers of letters from farmers, environmentalists, schoolteachers and pupils in the schools who value our nature and the beauty, aesthetic value and economic potential of the hedgerows.I ask the Minister to take account of what I am saying and, please, before we go any further, to provide us with scientific data or data from her consultation process that will convince us. We are far from convinced on the issue. It shows that we, as a nation, are showing no regard for our biodiversity and sustainability.
It is regressive. It is bad for the environment, farmers, the landscape and the people of Ireland and I ask all Senators not to let it go forward until we get more convincing information. I want Senators, having listened to the Minister, to be convinced that what the Minister is proposing is worth supporting. The Bill is not worth supporting and I ask Senators to take their time on it and not to allow it to go forward as it stands.
Returning to section 6, I was disappointed with the Minister's response and there was considerable contradiction. The amendment does not require that the Minister sanction or delay the process of any road cutting. It requires that the Minister be notified. It means there would be a central repository for tracking what is happening in our hedgerows and when and where cutting is taking place, and that the Minister would not abdicate responsibility for the overview of the matter. I would first clarify the point given in response by the Minister which suggested her approval would be required for each instance of hedgerow cutting and, thereby, lead to a delay. This is not what is set out. It is a matter of a notification, bringing together the big picture and placing together the patterns in cutting and in our environment.
The Minister also spoke about having sufficient powers. If the Minister feels she has sufficient powers regarding the area of road safety and hedge cutting, why are we proceeding with the proposals that are being set out? Why, at the end of the Minister's speech, did she talk about driving along roads and the hedgerows? Is it, or is it not, a road safety consideration? If it is a road safety consideration, and the Minister is satisfied that they have sufficient powers, why are we proceeding? At times, we hear it is a land management issue. There is need for clarity. Is it a land management issue or a road safety issue? Later, I will speak on our amendment on data and the huge richness that is needed in research in the area. Regarding road safety, we are going on an anecdotal, ad hocbasis. The word "managed" is used regarding cutting. There is nothing managed in the proposals. It is deeply ad hocin terms of the responsibility placed on individuals.
The Minister said something which is of extreme concern to me. When we talk about our hedgerows, let it be clear that the hedgerows are not simply the preserve, responsibility and interest of those who live right beside a particular hedgerow. I am from the west of Ireland and I know hedgerows and gorse. We all live in Ireland together and, more to the point, we all live on a shared planet. The hedgerows of Ireland are not simply a matter of interest to one person's commute. They are a heritage for generations to come. They are part of who we are as a nation. They are the conduit of our wildlife and nature. When we go to Europe, we do not go as individual landowners but collectively. The Government goes to represent Ireland and to explain that what we will do for our environmental responsibility, given that we lost our woodlands in previous times, is to have hedgerows. We list hedgerows when we go to Europe and say we are doing our bit for the environment. We argue for hedgerows, an argument that will be much less credible in the future when we argue for our hedgerows to be included in the allowance we receive under the Common Agricultural Policy. It is a collective argument and responsibility.
The Minister's fellow Minister lodged his commitments on climate change and said Ireland would do its part regarding climate change obligations. Is this another conversation with another Minister that we cannot have? The Minister is part of a Cabinet, and can speak to her colleague regarding roads, put forward workable amendments on road safety and ask where a policy fits in terms of climate change. Has a conversation even happened regarding climate change concerns?
The idea is that we would gather data along the way, although where we would gather the data appears nowhere in the text. What will we do? Do we gather data on the next national bird song day and see if it sounds a little quieter? There are no proposals for gathering data. If the Minister has responsibility for heritage, is it not her first responsibility to know what she is doing regarding heritage and gather the information that is needed, not to slash and burn and ask questions later? At a time when our planet is possibly more fragile than it has ever been, when we all feel the dangers and threats that exist and there is great instability, is it the time for a slash and burn approach to measures whereby we throw in a quick fix and abdicate our responsibilities? It is a time for thoughtful, informed, careful and caring debate. Let us have caring, thoughtful and evidence-based proposals. We do not "shoot first and ask questions later", a phrase that was used in one e-mail I received.
The people of Ireland who wrote to us are monitoring and know what is happening in the hedgerows. They spoke about the detail and the change from one season to another, what they showed their children and what they cannot now show their grandchildren. Where is all this detail and nuance? Where is any of the evidence? We are addressing it in terms of road safety and will return to it regarding section 8. However, a 20-line throwaway is being justified by the Minister calling it a pilot. Why will the Minister not pilot innovative measures regarding road safety, such as the proposals enumerated in County Clare? Farmers there receive an incentive payment when they take measures during a difficult season and there are practical, real proposals that examine the issue hedge by hedge and identify the areas. Communities know where the road safety concerns are. Let us talk to them and come up with solutions that address the area. I ask the Minister to take responsibility, not abdicate responsibility. When the Minister returns with amendments regarding amendment No. 6, would the Minister give amendments in respect of amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, and all the areas and speak to her fellow Minister about it?
It is great to see Senators speak with such passion on the issue. Far be it from me to defend a Fine Gael Minister, however, what might have been missed is that a door is being left open, from what I can see based on my number of years in the Seanad. In similar situations previously when Ministers have said they were willing to examine amendments and take on board the rationale of an amendment, it leaves a gap for discussion. I share the confusion of Senator Kevin Humphreys around the difference between amendments Nos. 1 and 6 to section 3. Both of them seem to relate to the Road Traffic Act and while in one scenario the Minister seems to indicate that one can bring forward an amendment on Report Stage which will do what it says on the tin-----
The Senator is way ahead of me. The passion behind the arguments is very relevant and genuine and we are trying to make a piece of legislation that will work and trying to be progressive with it.As we are co-signatory to the amendment, I would be open to a dialogue, possibly with the Minister's officials, between now and Report Stage to try to agree a wording of amendment No. 6 that would be agreeable to all parties that have signed up to the amendment. I suggest that we at least enter into that dialogue to see if such an agreement can be arrived at. I hope then, on Report Stage, we would have an amendment to which everybody could be agreeable. That would be useful and it might be a positive way of moving the legislation forward. If that is not possible, we will think about what the Minister has said and reserve the right to bring forward different Report Stage amendments around this area because it is an issue we feel must be addressed within this legislation. We have some fantastic civil servants in the Houses and the Departments and clever legislators could take on board the essence of the third section of amendment No. 6 and make it relevant to the legislation so that the concerns being addressed as part of the overall amendment could be taken on board in a new amendment. I ask and urge the Minister to facilitate that dialogue between the proposers of the amendments and her officials to see if an agreed wording, which is acceptable to all sides, can be found.
I will reiterate a question, to which I ask the Minister to respond. What is the official advice of the National Parks and Wildlife Service on the proposal of hedgerow cutting in August and the proposals regarding the burning of vegetation, specifically the scientific basis for these? We can go backwards and forwards here, but could we have that kind of input?
This has been a welcome debate. Issues have been made of hedgerow cutting and when it happens, whether it is August, September, October, November or December. Whenever hedge cutting happens, health and safety must be paramount, and it is up to the individual or the contractor involved to ensure his or her health and safety is paramount. If one is cutting hedgerows in the month of August, that does not mean one's health and safety is less than when one cuts one's hedgerows in the month of December. I do not see any issue regarding the amount of traffic or any other impediment regarding the cutting of hedges in August if proper health and safety procedures-----
-----are in place. Those issues need to be clarified. It is a health and safety issue regarding the people on the roads themselves, the people who have the buggies and the cars. These people need to be protected as well. I live in a place called Minane Bridge, which is a very small rural community. We do not have much down there. When people walk on the roads, it is helpful if they walk safely. In the month of August, is it too much to ask that we might have the hedges cut for that four-week period?
I do not think it is. We do not have the luxury of footpaths or public lights. What we have is the luxury of a road if we are lucky. Sometimes we do not even have that luxury. This Bill is about two things: health and safety to make sure that young people, old people and people of my generation can walk and drive safely on roads, and, when it comes to the agricultural community and the people who set the winter barley or want to reseed, that they have the possibility of cutting back the hedges so they can make sure that the land and the fields can be properly promoted. We are not talking about cutting every hedge in every field. We are talking about, when it comes to the 12-year cycle of reseeding a field in the month of August, having the possibility of cutting back that hedge so that it can be ploughed and the grass seed can be planted. It is a practical element of farming and a practical issue that must be considered. This Bill is what it is. It is a very positive step forward, and there is a two-year pilot period so we have an open door and an issue to come back to, and we should consider that issue. I have been canvassed literally on every section of the Bill, but my view is that it is a good Bill and we should support it.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for the opportunity to make a number of comments on the amendments. The big point here - Senator Lombard touched on it as well - is striking a balance. Yes, as Senator Norris pointed out, it is about minding the birds, but it is also about minding the people and achieving a balance in that regard. The Bill asks us to extend the hedge-cutting season for one month, to include August, and to allow burning of vegetation in March. The major point is that this is on a pilot basis in order that we can ensure that the best possible evidence is put forward and that an in-depth analysis and assessment is undertaken to look at any potential impact this would have on bird nesting and vegetation in order to inform any decision beyond the pilot phase.
The farming community has been mentioned. Allowing hedge cutting in August is a practical step in that it will allow our farmers more time to complete the job. We have also touched on safety. The Bill will also help to improve safety because farmers will have increased daylight hours. It will allow them to carry out these tasks when soil conditions are better. We must also think of being able to facilitate this work to ensure better land management, which the Bill will also allow, and better road safety, while being mindful of the necessary protections for wildlife and habitats. Vegetation such as that found in scrub and hedgerows is an important wildlife habitat but it also needs to be managed. I stress the importance of being able to strike a balance here. This is on a pilot basis for two years, during which time an in-depth analysis and assessment will be carried out to investigate any potential impact it will have on flora and fauna, but it is about achieving a balance between the birds and the people. That is what we need to do in this Bill.
I have listened with interest to the debate so far. As all Senators know, I am from a farming background and live in a rural area on small country roads. From what I have heard so far, it is important that somebody set the record straight on behalf of the Irish farmer. Even the phraseology, "slash and burn", suggests that farmers are trying purposely to harm, damage and inflict suffering on birds. There is a big expense involved in the hedge-cutting we are all talking about, an expense the farmer could do without. If it were not in the interest of the safety of the road, farmers would let their hedges grow for three, four, five or ten years because it costs them every year to cut them. They are not doing it to get the birds; they are doing it for road safety.
Regarding road hedges in particular, the main reason farmers want to go out in the month of August to cut hedges is that it is their busiest month and they are on the road with large tractors and trailers, drawing silage and grain. They are at a height and can see cars coming. The car is down low where the hedge and the grass is lying out; the car cannot see the farmer. The farmer is cutting hedges in the interest of somebody else's safety. If there were - God between us and all harm - an accident, the farmer is safer in his tractor than the person in the car. Farmers here are acting diligently in favour of the motorist, cyclist and pedestrian. They are also very cognisant of birds. As a farmer, I can honestly stand up here and say that I have sown more hedges than I have removed or cut. Farmers have the best interests of nature in their hearts at all times, but by some of the phraseology and the language here today, they are being damned. As I said, cutting ditches is an added expense for them, yet they do it every year in the interests of the motorist, cyclist and pedestrian.
I listened with interest to what the Minister had to say about this. She informed the House that such burning as will be done in March and such hedge-cutting as will take place in August will be done subject to very strict conditions, but where are the conditions? If one looks at the proposed legislation, it is clear that this House has no input into fixing what the conditions are. If there are no conditions set out, this House will be in a position that it can do nothing to retrieve the situation. I would have thought that the very first thing we should do, bearing in mind what has just been said by the previous speaker, is differentiate between on-road hedges and off-road hedges for starters. The road safety argument only goes so far.As the great majority of hedgerows in Ireland are off-road hedgerows, the road safety arguments that are being made simply do not apply.
Although section 8(1) of the Bill provides for burning in March to be restricted to "such part or parts of the State as specified in the regulations", section 8(2) does not provide for the capacity to limit hedgecutting in August to any part of the State. The implication is that it will apply everywhere. The pilot scheme we are being told about is a Twenty-six Counties pilot scheme. If one's interest was really confined to researching the possibility of hedgecutting in August, it strikes me as odd that one would extend this provision to all Twenty-six Counties with a view to working out what its consequences might be.
Although this has been described as a two-year pilot scheme, it seems to me from the way the Bill is proposed that it could be a permanent part of the law of the land as long as it gets annual renewal from the Houses of the Oireachtas. I suggest it would be a contradiction in terms to describe as a pilot scheme something that would be perpetually rolled out everywhere across Ireland for the month of August. I say that without wishing to stretch language too far or use it in an inflammatory way.
Under section 8 of this Bill, the Minister is seeking the power to make regulations in relation to burning "subject to such conditions or restrictions specified in the regulations to ensure the protection of fauna or flora", and in relation to hedgecutting in August "subject to such conditions or restrictions specified in regulations made by the Minister in relation to hedgerow husbandry, management or maintenance to protect fauna or flora". Does this Bill provide any direction in respect of the "restrictions" that might be provided for? What does one do if one wants to protect birdlife in a hedgerow? Does one inform the relevant farmer that the regulations provide that he must inspect the hedgerow carefully for nests before he starts work? Who is going to be in the field watching such operations to ensure the regulations are complied with? In the absence of a busybody staring through the hedgerow to try to see what is happening on the other side of the ditch, how will anybody know whether the regulations are complied with? It is all very well to say that the Minister may specify in regulations "conditions or restrictions " in order to protect fauna or flora, but that really does not assist us very far in the matter.
I am sympathetic to farmers who want to keep their land properly maintained. I have a small písín of land attached to my house in County Roscommon. I am always amazed by the extent to which the hedgerows shoot out and expand constantly unless they are disciplined, so to speak. For that reason, I sympathise with any farmer who wants to ensure the square footage of his fields under cultivation is not encroached upon by uncontrolled hedgerows.
As I have been listening to the debate, I have kept asking myself why it is so important for the cutting to take place in August rather than September. The point was made that farmers want to be able to take the machines they use onto roads in conditions of safety. I could appreciate the sense of that if there was a differentiation between on-road hedgerows and off-road hedgerows. Maybe I am missing some point about agriculture when I say I cannot see why September is not just as good as August for carrying out off-road hedgecutting. Given that the vast majority of hedges are off-road, it seems to me that the Minister could indicate some willingness to differentiate between on-road hedgerows and off-road hedgerows and consider whether it is really necessary to allow off-road hedgerows to be cut in the month of August when, as we know, a considerable amount of wildlife and birdlife is at risk from such activity.
I have noticed something surprising at my own boundaries. When the county council's contractors come up the road, they seem to create quite a deal of spectacular damage to the hedgerows. While their machines may be crude, everything goes back to normal within one growing season and the extent of the damage done is no longer noticeable. I just wanted to add that in to show a bit of balance.
I am unhappy that this House is being asked to give the Minister these powers without being given any real assurances regarding the protections she could put in place to protect flora and fauna. I am unhappy that the Bill does not differentiate between on-road hedgecutting that is necessary for road safety and off-road hedgecutting that is done purely for land management reasons. I am unhappy that no explanation has been given as to why off-road hedgecutting cannot be done in September. Why does it have to be done in August, which is a busy period for farmers, as far as I am concerned? The reason they would set to their own off-road hedges in August escapes me. I do not believe most farmers would do this work in the month of August. I certainly think the protection for wildlife under the current situation is not a major intrusion on the right of farmers to use their land in a proper and effective way.
As this debate goes on, it is clear that the Heritage Bill 2016 is poorly thought out in respect of a range of on-road and off-road measures. If there is a real road safety problem, we should be improving the Road Safety Acts. I am not here to knock farmers. I would not want to do that at any stage. I do not want to get involved in the kind of slash-and-burn language that has been mentioned. Farmers make a substantial contribution to the economy. They will come under significant pressure as a result of the UK referendum and what is happening in the markets. If they are to get a quality price, it is important for them to have a quality product that is developed in an environmentally friendly way and has a story attached to it. The hedgerows must be part of that story, but instead we are attacking our own environment. We are noted for our hedgerows. When I talk to tourists, they always tell me they amazed by our hedgerows. Senator Lombard let the cat out of the bag earlier when he said that the down week which farmers normally have in August is the best time to do this job because there is no way of knowing how the weather will change in September.
The Senator is a good farmer who knows a lot about farming. He obviously knows more than me. If he says there is a down week in August, I will accept him at his word. We should not be attacking our hedgerows. The last time this Bill came before the House, Senator Norris referred to hedgerows as larders. It does not make sense to cut down the hedgerows that feed the birds and mammals that live in them at the exact time when berries, pollen and everything else is in there.
The Minister referred to fears like "health and safety reasons" and "roads with overgrown hedges". Those issues can be dealt with and boxed off because they are covered in Senator Grace O'Sullivan's amendments.Some of the amendments Senator O'Sullivan has proposed cover that ground. Let us box it off. Let us get up and agree to examine it. Let us separate, in the first instance, the hedges that are off-road and internal to farms from hedges along the highways and byways. Let us take time out. Let us take a couple of weeks to examine this. Let us engage with Senators and agree to find a solution.
No one wants to be attacking farmers. Everyone wants farmers to make a good livelihood and to have a good future for their families. However, the future not only of the country but of the planet will only be assured if we protect our environment. Only yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency published a document on our rivers and how the quality of our rivers has regressed over a period.
I believe the Bill is an attack on our heritage, and to call it the Heritage Bill is a nonsense. The Minister should take some time and then come back. Then, when the Minister is responding to the contribution of Senators, she should say that the Government will take everything into consideration and bring forward amendments on Report Stage to cover the genuine concerns of Senators and the public.
We have not even got to section 8, which is the fundamental element of the Bill. I have problems with section 3, which undermines local authorities throughout the country. It does not give them an opportunity for input into by-laws on account of the 21-day consultation period. Local authorities will not have any opportunity to contribute.
The Bill should be withdrawn now in its entirety and should be reconsidered. It should go out to proper public consultation. It should be factually-based rather than based on the views of a small group. I do not believe the majority of farmers support the Bill, because they can see the possible long-term damage to their futures.
I am somewhat confused about why the scheme is being called a pilot scheme. I have worked in research for years. We have always carried out pilot schemes to research how well an idea works. However, there is nothing for us to compare this with. There is no pre-test or post-test analysis. The Minister is going straight into the post-test plan. A baseline study should be set out to allow those involved to compare whether any intervention has had an effect on wildlife. Cutting and then carrying out a study or looking at how it impacts on the environment will skew the results because there is absolutely nothing against which to compare them.
In the main I am completely confused about why we have this pilot. Is the purpose to carry out research? If we have absolutely nothing to compare it to, it makes no sense to call it a pilot programme.
Senator McDowell referred to the pilot operating across the Twenty-six Counties. Pilot schemes undertaken for the purposes of research are always carried out in isolation to allow researchers compare the data with other places. Researchers carry out a pilot somewhere to see how it works and to find out the impact it has, while monitoring another county to compare the situation. Why is this pilot being implemented throughout the country? Why not carry out research first to produce comparable data with a proper pilot scheme?
I am keen to respond to my colleague in Fianna Fáil to be clear. I would be concerned if there were any perception of an attribution of any malice of intent towards farmers. I have spoken about this previously. My colleagues, who have worked with a number of farmers on this matter, have spoken about it too. We have discussed the crucial role farmers play as custodians of our green space. They have responsibility for a vast part, not only of our economy, but of our society and heritage. Many of them take this seriously and have a passionate concern in this regard. Many of the letters and expressions of concern I have read have come from farmers.
Let us consider the proposals at a practical level, for example, the measures taken in Clare. Indeed, let us consider the proposals from Fine Gael on how we support farmers with the costs and management of appropriate hedge cutting. Practical measures can be put in place. What is being offered by Fine Gael does not provide support to farmers. It is not a help to farmers. It will not produce additional supports. It has no clarity or further means for them. It is simply a blanket ad hoc provision with additional responsibilities that have been thrown on farmers alone, especially with regard to the August extension.
Many farmers have contacted us and many people are talking about this. We spoke today with upland farmers who are seriously concerned about gorse burning. I am not using the term "burning" in a pejorative sense. Burning is the act; that is what it is. Gorse burning has an impact on their farms. Of all people, farmers understand the interdependence, interconnection and intricacy at play.
Others have spoken previously on the Wildlife Bill, which originated in this Chamber. They spoke about the magnificent subtleties present in wildlife as well as the complex interaction. Farmers understand that, and this is why many farmers have concerns about the damage that burning can do to soil. They have concerns over hedgerow cutting as well. They have deep concerns about pollination.
We have a national pollinator plan, but it is not referenced anywhere in the Bill. Hedgerows are absolutely core to pollination. They are the centre of the bees, butterflies and all the pollinators in Ireland. They are the key to the green Ireland that we seek to promote to the world. We have heard about the bees and the honey industry. We have also heard about many of the high-quality food industries here. A great festival took place recently in the west of Ireland. There were talks about the high quality of local artisan food. Hedgerows and hedgerow plants play a key role in that regard.
Reference has been made to the question of the two-year pilot. Let us not underestimate the concerns over what might happen in a two-year pilot. Ireland has a number of birds on the red list. These birds are at risk of absolute extinction. The birds on the list include the barn owl, the yellow hammer and the curlew. There are 150 nesting pairs of curlews. That is all we have of the curlew in Ireland. What guarantees do we have? Will we check after two years to see whether we still have 150 pairs of curlews? Maybe we will have five, maybe we will have none or maybe we will have lost another species of great deep historical significance and resonance in Ireland. We could also talk of the golden plover and the meadow pippet. These birds are on the red list as well. Then there are many birds and species on the amber list and they are vulnerable too. What is the projection of the number of our birds and animals that are now in jeopardy and that will move into the endangered category over a two-year period?
Senators Humphreys and Norris made reference to the larder. Let us not assume the larder will automatically be replenished. We need to ensure that it is. We need to protect it. The hedgehog, for example, has been absolutely depleted in the United Kingdom. The species is now the subject of extensive re-integration in urban areas. Those involved are trying to bring it back.
I have tried to highlight several concerns. Others have spoken to the many technical problems of the pilot, as proposed. Another problem we have is the estimated damage. Normally, we would not put anything through this House without a cost benefit analysis. There is no benefit analysis in this case. I concur with Senator Humphreys and I call on the Minister to reconsider the Bill as a whole.
I commend the Minister on bringing the Bill to the House. We need some balance in this debate. First, I want to declare that I am not a farmer. However, I can bring something to the debate because I live in a rural area, side-by-side with farmers. I see at first-hand what the land means to them in terms of sustaining their livelihoods in future.
From listening to some of the language today one could be forgiven for guessing that an act of terrorism and destruction is being wrought on the countryside. That is not the case.Farmers I know and live beside are responsible people. I can see their practices and the way they manage their lands on a daily basis. They do not want to destroy something that is on their land-holding unless something is needed, from a health and safety perspective or in terms of road access, to sustain their land and agricultural practices.
It is important that, first, we protect our wildlife. The Minister and her Department are ensuring that we do that through regulation. If there is evidence of wanton destruction, there will be the power to bring those people before the courts and to sanction them appropriately. It is also important that we have sustainable land management practices in the agricultural sector. It is important that farming people and country people reside alongside wildlife in a sustainable way. That is something we all want to achieve. Who is best placed to ensure that happens? I do not mean any disrepect to some of the contributors, but I believe the people who reside and manage those lands are best placed to do that. Therefore, we need to bring those people along with us in terms of having best and sustainable practices in the context of this Bill.
Senator McDowell queried why we would have off-road land cutting being allowed for an extra 31 days. We will have a further opportunity to engage with people who know about this but it is my understanding that the month of August is a prime period for farmers to prepare the land for winter grain and for the setting of grass seed. Sometimes when there is bad weather during the months of September and October, as has happened in recent years, that opportunity is lost and, by extension, a period of sustainability in food production is lost. This is where conflict comes into our debate. Some people speak about food security and the need to produce more food for the world, but they then try to restrict that by imposing more regulation and barriers to producing the food that we all need. We need a balance. The Minister's approach strikes that balance in having a regulated system but working with the various interests, including farming interests and people living in rural Ireland. The road outside my house is very narrow and two cars cannot pass each other on it. If the hedgerows are not maintained, there is a serious danger of car accidents. It has to be dealt with in a balanced way. From my experience, local authorities try to manage it locally to the best of their ability. I welcome the Bill in that regard.
I want to draw two other areas to the Minister's attention. As a Minister of State in the former Government, I acted on another issue. This refers to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Minister's Department, the Department with responsibility for the environment and the Office of Public Works, OPW, when a river has breached its banks and extensive flooding has occurred. By the time farmers and others living in the countryside are allowed to repair that bank - bearing in mind that they have to apply for licences, permits and must have approvals from the Minister, Deputy Humphrey's Department and possibly two other Departments - their livelihoods, and the lands they manage and its sustainability are put at serious risk. There is a need for a practical consent arrangement between the Minister's Department and the Department with responsibility for the environment and the OPW. In areas where extensive flooding occurs, it puts farming livelihoods at risk and a fast-track approach to repairing and enhancing river banks needs to be put in place.
If we keep going down the road of imposing increased regulation on the people who live in the countryside, we will lose their support. We need the support of those people on the ground if we are to have successful regulation and successful by-laws. If the people on the ground do not buy into this regime, all we will have is further problems down the road. I ask the Minister to take that into account. I understand the Minister, Deputy Coveney, is examining the consent aspect with respect to river banks and I expect this Minister's Department will be involved in that also.
There is a canal in my home town of Portlaw in County Waterford. There are many canals throughout the country and they are very important infrastructure. This legislation will have an impact on how those canals will be managed and sustained into the future. Other colleagues have said that there is a need to extend the consultation period on any new by-laws or changes that occur. Many local authorities, community groups and individuals who use the canals value them and it is important that we as policy makers also value them. It is also important that those people have an adequate opportunity to make themselves aware of any impending by-laws or changes to how canals are being used. The 21 day period provided is far too short. If we consider the cycle of local authority meetings, their plenary meetings are held once a month. If by-laws are being introduced, at the very least local councillors should have the opportunity to debate those at a plenary meeting. Some notice is required for those meetings. I ask the Minister to extend that consultation period substantially, at least to 60 days, to give local authority representatives an opportunity to raise any concerns there may be about new by-laws and that they can be brought up for proper debate before local authorities.
On the canals, I have read the by-laws and I have major concerns about the 21 day period provided from the date of their publication. The timescale is too short. The fines and regulations, which are excessively severe, will not encourage people to use the canals. They are not in place on other Irish waterways. There is a five day move-on rule, forcing boats to move every five days. If they do not, they may have to pay €150 a day if they are moored. That is not acceptable. The provision for the application of other penalties in the legislation with no independent appeal mechanism is disgraceful. There is no adequate provision for elected local authority representatives to be consulted on any proposed by-laws, and there is provision to apply other penalties with no warning or independent mechanism. Proper pre-consultation and engagement with the canal communities should involve the users, the customers and the elected local authority representatives.
With respect to some of the contributions, I will deal with them within the context of section 8 and with others under section 4. This is a pilot project and there will be restrictions. I will elaborate on those further.
In response to Senator Humphreys, this Bill was thought out and approved by the previous Cabinet.
In response to Senator Ó Clochartaigh, I can amend the Bill in respect of the first part of amendment No. 6, and, as I said, I will examine that aspect. I am prepared to accept the amendment in principle. Regarding the difference between it and the third part of amendment No. 6, what I am dealing with in terms of the first part of amendment No. 6 is amending this Bill but I cannot amend the Roads Bill, which is referred to in the third part of amendment No. 6. I cannot amend that one.
I want to be clear on that. I am well aware of the value of the hedgerow system. What I am trying to do in the Bill is find a balance in that regard. I have been available to meet with all stakeholders. I have met with the environmental pillar.
I say to Senator Mulherin that I have worked closely with my officials and the staff of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, in preparing this legislation.