Seanad debates

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Animal Welfare

10:30 am

Photo of Lynn BoylanLynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome this opportunity to ask the Minister whether the Government will consider banning slug pellets containing metaldehyde from discount stores and garden centres so they are not readily available to households. Britain recently introduced an outright ban on metaldehyde that will come into effect in spring 2022. It did this following research carried out by an expert group on pesticides and health and safety, which found incontrovertible evidence that pellets containing this chemical are harmful to wildlife pets and freshwater supplies, including ornamental ponds. While any outright ban would, of course, require consultation and a lead-in time, surely we could stop the use of these pellets in suburban gardens and public grounds? I volunteer with a hedgehog rescue and every year it takes in hedgehogs foaming at the mouth after ingesting slugs and snails that have consumed the pellets. As the Minister of State will be aware, hedgehogs are a protected species under appendix 3 of the Bern convention and the Wildlife Act 1976 and the amending Act of 2000. However, when it comes to the risks to wildlife from the use of metaldehyde, just hedgehogs are affected. Birds, including birds of prey, have been poisoned, as have foxes and family pets. In Britain it is estimated that at least ten family pets or dogs die a year just from ingesting slug pellets. When it rains, the metaldehyde is washed off the soil and into watercourses, which include ponds, and leads to the poisoning of fish, toads and frogs.

In 2019, we declared a biodiversity emergency and we were the first country to do so. Will the Minister of State consider as a bare minimum that we restrict the use of these pellets in household gardens? Today, anyone can just walk into any of the very well-known discount stores we see in all of our towns and villages and on the high streets and buy these slug pellets for as little as €1.50. I encourage the Minister to roll out a public awareness campaign. I do not think people are deliberately putting down slug pellets to destroy wildlife. They want to protect their plants and they are not aware of the alternatives. Ferric phosphate has been proven to work just as effectively as metaldehyde. Ultimately, we should show people that rather than using ferric phosphate they can make their gardens wildlife friendly by taking very small measures. There are simple measures such as creating a small entrance gap in the fence or gate to encourage hedgehogs to come in. If people encourage their neighbours to do the same, they can ensure hedgehogs have a viable habitat and food to survive in the suburbs.

Any of us who are into gardening, and particularly wildlife watching, will know that if we can encourage hedgehogs and birds into our gardens we definitely do not need slug pellets because they are the best slug and snail deterrents we can have in the garden. Will the Minister of State give a commitment to roll out a public awareness campaign and give serious consideration to at least stopping the sale of these products to people in ordinary households which do not need them for their gardens as there are other alternatives that are safe, and encourage people to make space for nature in their gardens?

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I have a response from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine but in quick response to the Senator's two asks on the restriction of use in household gardens I wholeheartedly agree. People can buy stuff off the shelf in supermarkets and garden centres for domestic use. People should stop doing it. I do not recommend people use those products. They are doing huge damage. We saw it in the past with song thrushes and the impact on wild birds. Certainly we will give consideration to a public awareness campaign from the National Parks and Wildlife Service side. We are more than happy to do this. I will give the Senator the response from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and then sum up and we can exchange views.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is the competent authority in Ireland with responsibility for the authorisation of plant protection products, including slug pellet products. Pesticide active substances contained in plant protection products are approved centrally at EU-level based on detailed assessments prepared by member state regulatory authorities and a rigorous peer review process managed by the European Food Safety Authority, EFSA.

Products are subsequently authorised nationally by the relevant competent authorities in accordance with evaluation and decision-making criteria agreed at EU level and taking account of local agri-environmental conditions. Products are only authorised if it can be reliably concluded that the intended uses have no unacceptable impacts on human or animal health and the environment. We have seen with the impending ban in the UK that there is a considered different view out there.

Potential impacts on small mammals, such as hedgehogs, and on other wildlife were considered as part of the active substance approval and product authorisation processes in all cases. Products may be designated for professional use only or may be permitted for amateur or domestic use, depending on the specific intended uses and their risk profiles. They may only be used for the purposes and in the manner for which they have been authorised as outlined on the approved product label.

Slug pellet products authorised for sale and use in Ireland contain one of two EU-approved pesticide active substances. The products are used to minimise the potential for damage to crops or garden plants. Products should only be used if necessary and users should always consider the potential for alternative control methods, such as sowing seeds to a greater soil depth or planting slug resistant crop or plant varieties.

Most of the products are authorised for domestic use by amateur users but some are for professional use only. Products allowed for amateur use generally have a lower risk profile, with less concentrated formulations and lower application rates. I agree with the contention that they should not be used in domestic settings.

Active substance and product authorisations are time limited. They are reviewed by member states if an application for renewal of approval of the active substance is submitted or withdrawn, or if there is no application for renewal. Subsequently, member states review authorisations for products containing the active substance based on the outcome of the EU review process, including amateur uses, in accordance with EU procedures.

The current EU approval period for one of the EU approved active substances used in slug pellet products is due to expire on 31 May 2023. An application to renew its approval is now being assessed by Poland on behalf of all member states. Poland is due to submit an assessment report to EFSA towards the end of this year. The authority will then arrange for a detailed peer review to be carried out, involving public consultation and input from member state technical experts. The assessment and peer review will be based on the most up to date scientific information available, including information on possible impacts on small mammals and other wildlife.

I want to give my commitment, and I want to say that I do not recommend that people use these products domestically. There are alternatives and people should not be using them. We will give active consideration to a public awareness campaign on this.

Photo of Lynn BoylanLynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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I really appreciate the response of the Minister of State from his Department and I would be happy to work with him on a public awareness campaign, as would the hedgehog rescue organisations with which I volunteer. I am disappointed we cannot get a commitment from the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine on putting a stop to them being sold in discount stores. I agree that farmers are trained on how to use these and they know when they should and should not be used. The incontrovertible evidence from the British expert committee on this has found they are very harmful. I echo what the Minister of State has said on encouraging people not to use these products at all. It would be better if they were taken off the shelves. We all know we might live in a bubble and follow the news but most people will just go in and pick something up. If it is cheap at €1.50 and they think it will protect their garden plants, they probably do not realise the damage they are doing. I appreciate the Minister of State's response.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator. She showed me photographs of some beautiful hedgehogs before we came into the Chamber. They are essential to our biodiversity. It is essential that we have connected habitats for nature. Natural pest control should work far better. Barn owls on a farm are natural predators and pest control in themselves. We need to restore nature as part of this bigger picture.

Looking at the pending UK ban, we will have a situation where one part of the island will have a ban on such products but not down south. An EU-wide review should take place in this regard. We are in the depths of a biodiversity crisis. It is very important that we do this. There are alternative slug control methods out there. Certainly there is a different set of circumstances for commercial crop growers and we recognise this. Once again, I reiterate to the public they should not use these products in their gardens.