I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Today I am presenting to the House, for Second Stage consideration, the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, 1999. I regard this as an extremely important item of legislation which will considerably strengthen the protection that is afforded to our important natural habitats and our wild flora and fauna. The Bill has, for various reasons, had a long gestation period of 15 years. Deputies will be aware that during that time its publication has been called for by politicians from all sides and by a wide range of conservation groups and people interested in conservation issues. I was one of those politicians who called for publication of the Bill while in opposition and it is a source of great satisfaction to me, therefore, to present it to the House.
Despite the delay in introducing the Bill, the final product is a good one which seeks to approach the sometimes very complex issues arising in nature conservation in a measured and balanced way, but also in a way that will effectively achieve the desired objectives.
Ireland has been no different from most of the rest of the world over the years in that its natural environment has come under increasing pressure. Increased industrialisation, other development pressures, more intensive farming and a young and ambitious population that quite legitimately seeks to better its material standard of living have contributed to an increasing level of encroachment on all elements of the natural environment, including wildlife. There are a number of encouraging signs, however, that the tide has turned, or is at least turning, at global level and key international initiatives illustrate this. For example, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD, is an initiative to stop the wholesale loss of species and habitats on a global basis, which has been progressing at an alarming rate in recent years. Ireland has ratified this convention, to which the Bill specifically refers, and we are committed to its effective implementation.
The EU Birds Directive was given effect in Ireland in 1985 and in 1997 the EU Habitats Directive was transposed into Irish law. These two directives provide a comprehensive system of protection for wild habitats and species that are important from a European Union perspective.
We in Ireland are perhaps better off than many other countries in that we still have a great deal that is worth protecting from the environmental perspective. As the Minister responsible for the conservation of Ireland's wildlife, I am committed to doing what is necessary to that end and this Bill is a key element in that effort. Effective conservation does not mean disregarding human needs or the need for ongoing development. The objective is to achieve a satisfactory balance whereby the needs and concerns of all can be reconciled. Conservation is achieved by ensuring human activity takes due account of the needs of conservation and is sustainable, but this in no way implies people should be excluded from ecologically important areas or that it should become progressively more difficult for people to live in such areas.
The Bill is a logical development and extension of our wildlife conservation effort and seeks a balanced and effective solution to some of the major issues before us. Broadly, it seeks to provide a mechanism for the statutory protection of natural heritage areas – NHAs; to make use of the NHA mechanism to provide statutory protection for the first time for important geological and geomorphological sites, including fossil sites; to generally strengthen the provisions for the protection of wildlife species and their habitats; to enhance, in the interests of conservation, a number of existing controls in respect of hunting; to introduce new provisions to regulate the activities of commercial shoot operators; to ensure and strengthen compliance with international agreements, in particular, to enable Ireland to ratify the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – CITES – and the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds Agreement – AEWA; to increase substantially the level of fines for contravention of the Wildlife Acts and provide, for the first time, for the imposition of prison sentences, where appropriate; to provide mechanisms to allow me, as Minister, to act independently of forestry legislation, for example, in regard to the acquisition of land by agreement; to strengthen the protective regime for special areas of conservation – SACs – by removing any doubt that protection will in all cases apply from the time of notification of proposed sites; and to give specific statutory recognition, in light of Ireland's commitment to the UN Convention of Biological Diversity, to my responsibilities, as Minister, for the conservation of biological diversity, which is a key concept of global ecology.
As this is amending legislation, it is relatively complex and I acknowledge that certain parts of it are quite technical in nature. I do not propose, therefore, to speak about every provision in it, but rather to concentrate on the main areas where it will make a difference and where public interest has been concentrated. I will begin with NHAs. One of the most significant impacts of this Bill will be the establishment of a system to afford permanent legal protection to NHAs against destruction or significant damage and provide for a system of compensation and appeals for NHAs similar to that already in place for SACs.
Members will be aware that NHAs are sites that have been identified as being among the most important areas for nature conservation from a national perspective. They differ in this from SACs and special protection areas – SPAs – which represent our contribution to the EU conservation network, although national and Community priorities coincide to a significant degree. When I took up office, the provisions included in the draft Bill proposed that protection for NHAs would consist of a six month moratorium on works backed up by compulsory purchase powers. There were grounds for believing that such an approach might not be the optimum one and I asked that a fundamental reappraisal of the NHA provisions take place as part of an overall review of the Bill.
As a result, there has been a major shift in emphasis from a six month temporary protection regime, backed up by compulsory purchase powers, to a system of permanent protection for NHAs which provides for restrictions on damaging activities and a compensation mechanism, and dispenses with the need for compulsory purchase. The provision of such a permanent protective system for NHAs is the right way forward. However, I was concerned at the proposal to include specific powers for compulsory purchase in the draft Bill. I was pleased, therefore, in light of the Government's agreement to provide for permanent legal protection against significant damage to NHAs, to agree to the deletion of the proposed provisions to allow for the compulsory purchase of land for wildlife conservation purposes. The fact that the European Commission had decided that the same level of financial incentives under REPS should be paid for both SACs and NHAs strengthened the logic of applying similar prescriptions to SACs and NHAs.
On the general issue of farming and conservation, there are frequent reports about the environmental impacts of farming and such reports are often couched in negative terms. It must be acknowledged that farming, as the principal activity in our countryside, has the capacity to exert a major influence on our natural heritage. However, I do not believe that most farmers want to damage their land or compromise the richness of what they can pass on to succeeding generations. It must always be remembered that the bulk of the areas that we are trying to protect consist of semi-natural areas, which have already been to some degree modified by human activity. These areas are often the result of traditional farming methods and yet they are now seen as among our most valuable ecological areas and worthy of preservation. Such areas require the continuation of sustainable farming activity for their survival and this must always be borne in mind when conservation regimes are devised.
The proposals in this legislation for the designation and protection of NHAs will be of interest to the farming community. The proposed package offers an equitable and effective way of safeguarding our nationally important sites of ecological and geological significance, while balancing the requirements of both the farming community and the environment. Farmers and other landowners should be assured that the designation of their land as NHAs will be dealt with fairly by the provision of incentive payments through REPS, or, in cases where it is not applicable or availed of, and where losses can be shown, by direct compensation through an Exchequer funded system. The new system will have no effect on land ownership.
The appeals mechanism that has been put in place for SACs, can, if necessary, be extended to cover any NHA appeals that might arise. The provision of such a mechanism for compensation and appeals – similar to that already in place for SACs – should be seen as a signal to landowners and farmers that the State intends to deal with them in a fair and reasonable way.