Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, 1999: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The present wildlife legislation dates from 1976. Now, 23 years later, this Bill has been introduced to the House and, in general, I support its principles. All parties have as a common objective the protection of our flora and fauna and the preservation of our natural heritage.

There are major problems which this Bill must address and when it goes to committee we will have great fun. I recall the late Deputy Noel Lemass, when he was in Opposition, asking my late father, who was dealing with the Board of Works which had responsibility for Dúchas, all these wonderful questions about the Latin names of insects or bird migrations.

Today we can see the first signs of spring and the countryside looks very well. The rains of last year are draining away. The extent of hedge cutting which has taken place, however, is clearly visible. The Bill proposes that hedge cutting or the disturbance of hedgerows would be prohibited from 1 April until August – the critical nesting period. In some counties extensive hedge cutting has been carried out and is still being carried out now. Have the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands and Dúchas issued instructions to all local authorities that this should not take place until the end of the critical period? There is a law there from 15 April and that should be adhered to and monitored. When one talks to people involved in wildlife and those who are specialists in the field, they will say the hedgerows of Ireland are corridors of life for insects, birds and mammals and they provide cover, food and domestic habitats for many of these animals. In Britain, there is a very strict hedgerows Act, as the Minister knows, and elements of that could be incorporated into our wildlife Bill. Obviously, with the considerable development taking place all over the country in building and in construction, things will never be the same on a range of fronts.

When I was a child growing up in the country the way of life was much more simple and mechanisation, fertilisation and agricultural output were not what they are now. That has changed forever. The introduction of the REP scheme has given an opportunity to preserve a way of life or certainly elements of what used to be around. Farmers are very willing assistants in this and are happy to be involved in the REP scheme. It is a source of income for them and is an easier way of life in what has become a very competitive sector. While there has been considerable progress in the economy, the REP scheme has been widely availed of and it offers a significant opportunity to preserve the principles of the Bill in various parts of the country.

One will have read in the national newspapers in recent days that the Government is about to consider the massive development in Dublin and deal with the traffic problems there. Given residents of this city and its environs can expect serious traffic jams for the next 15 years because of the billions of pounds which will be spent on infrastructure, one can understand the frustration which will set in. When one considers that part of the national plan, which is very important, is to construct motorways from Dublin to Limerick, Dublin to Cork, Dublin to Waterford, Dublin to Galway and to other places yet to be determined and to carry out major road developments on national secondary and regional routes, one can see the problems which the Minister and the country face. On the one hand, it is necessary that we, as a modern economy and a young nation, do these things to keep abreast with developments in the foremost areas of Europe while, on the other hand, this is serious legislation which needs to be implemented properly.

When one looks at the controversy which arose in Pollardstown Fenn in County Kildare, the only one of its kind in the country, the original proposal by the National Roads Authority was to effect a leakage of about 1.1 million gallons from the Fenn on a daily basis. This gave rise to serious concerns about habitat and wildlife in the Fenn. There is now a proposal, a compromise solution by the National Roads Authority, to seal the Fenn. It leads one to believe that if the National Roads Authority is serious about pushing on with these major developments, the Minister's Department – I will support her on this – should have a full opportunity to carry out proper assessments on the consequences of roads without holding them up. The Department should be allowed to appoint sufficient staff to ensure archaeological and heritage remains are properly analysed, preserved and excavated where necessary. These are fundamentally important issues.

When one looks at what happened with the pipeline from Kinsale to Dublin, which was much narrower in extent than the proposed motorways, thousands of artefacts and archaeological remains were uncovered during those excavations. This will be multiplied thousands of times over by international contractors who will have a free rein to establish and close down quarries, where necessary, for fill or infill or excavation, as the case may be. As I said, I will support the Minister in arriving at a position where she has sufficient staff to carry out proper pre-planning, in sorting out the licence system and in carrying out analyses before these major developments take place. We do not want to see issues arising on a weekly basis when this starts like at Pollardstown Fenn where animal and insects of which I have never heard would disappear forever and which are important for those who are specialists in the area.

Since the TB eradication scheme began about 25,000 badgers have been taken out. I have listened to radio programmes, seen some television programmes and have read a large number of reports on the badger. I remain unconvinced as to whether the badger is deemed scientifically to be the carrier of bovine tuberculosis. As Minister responsible for wildlife, she should make a clear statement on what is the best scientific analysis available. Is this a smokescreen or is there val idity in the experiments conducted? Some of the reports would indicate that a majority of the badgers analysed or examined were not carrying bovine tuberculosis while others would suggest that a significant majority were. I am not a scientist and I do not know the answer to the question. This experiment has been ongoing for some time and TB is still as prevalent, if not more prevalent in some parts of the country, as it always was. That is an issue we need to clear up once and for all as far as we can.

There is a great need for a broad education policy, although perhaps that is the wrong term; there is need for information to be conveyed to people living in rural Ireland who are resident in special areas of conservation, in national heritage areas or in areas deemed to be important in a wildlife sense. When one looks at the directives issued from Europe, some of the changes are completely anathema to what used to happen. One needs the consent of the Minister of the day to operate sailing schools, diving tours, use of the soil or seabed for any activity, fishing by any types of nets, construction of fences, buildings or embankments, the killing of ivy and the grazing by livestock treated the previous week with pesticide. There are regulations laid down by various European directives most of which people have never heard. They are very detailed and include the burning of vegetation, reclamation, infilling, ploughing or land drainage.

The Government publishes White Papers saying it wants to populate rural Ireland, introduces the REP scheme to allow for the preservation of land in its former sense and we invite people to return from Australia, Newfoundland and other places to live in Ireland. When people decide to return to Ireland they get turned down left, right and centre for planning permissions which is a contradiction in terms of the Government White Paper. If a couple come back from America with three or four children who are sent to the local school, they may not want to live in the house their parents occupied as it might be very old and not suitable for their needs. However, because of planning restrictions, their application is turned down. Maybe they did not have pre-planning discussions but incidents of planning refusals are rising at an alarming rate in many counties. Common sense is one thing but the ability to live and rear one's family in rural Ireland is becoming very difficult. I do not mean there should be houses on every hill or promontory but there are times when refusals seem to be at the whim of a planner. There is a contradiction between what the Minister is responsible for – rural Ireland in its widest sense and wildlife – and what is in the Government White Paper which says we must keep rural small-town Ireland alive.

In my home parish many years ago I was a founder member of a gun club which was set up to prevent indiscriminate shooting by foreign shooters who used to come here and shoot everything in sight. While the experiment of raising pheasants in captivity was not a great success, it had value. I am glad the Minister is changing the regulations and streamlining the operation of shooters who come here because this has been a source of great contention among gun clubs, among legitimate holders of licensed shotguns or rifles. There were anomalies whereby one could use the same licence repeatedly and move to any part of the country without people's knowledge. In some cases dubious characters came in from abroad. I am glad that is being streamlined. I look forward to teasing out the details on Committee Stage.

The Minister has dealt with section 51 of the amendment Bill of 1999, which was a cause of grave concern to those involved in hunting with hounds, falcons and so on. Very little correspondence has been received about other elements of the Bill. People seem to be aware of its existence but they are not quite happy with its implementation in practice. Some people may be unhappy that it is being too well implemented in some cases. The Minister's announcement that she will deal with the issue of hunting with hounds, falcons, hawks or whatever seems to have dissipated the head of steam that was building up in respect of the Occupiers Liability Act which was a cause of great concern.

The Irish Wildlife Trust, which is a non-governmental conservation organisation and a registered charity, sent in a fairly detailed submission to the Department in relation to the amendment Bill of 1999. It suggested changes in a whole range of areas with which we can deal on Committee Stage – planning permission, compensation for compulsory acquisition, profits through illegal works and various other procedural changes. It also made the case that there should be no blanket exemptions for agriculture, forestry or construction works in relation to hedgerow removal during the critical period I mentioned earlier.

The argument with blood sports and anti-blood sports representatives will probably come to a head in the context of the snaring of hares and other animals. They will make their case fairly vociferously when we get to Committee Stage.

Despite all the indications to the contrary, there appears to be a huge increase in the number of foxes around the country. No less than three weeks ago I was astounded to see one on Merrion Square, heading towards Mount Street. Where it was headed, whether to Fianna Fáil headquarters or Fine Gael headquarters, I do not know.

Did it turn right or left?

Maybe it was a mongrel fox. I am not too sure.

People involved in Coillte Teoranta say that where we used to have huge areas of forestry – up to five or ten thousand acres in some places in the west – foxes used to breed but because of the lack of food in them now, they have moved elsewhere. There appears to be a huge increase in the population of foxes on the fringes of towns and smaller villages. I do not know what the cur rent situation is in terms of them being declared to be vermin. There used also be a bounty for grey crows, which was taken up by many gun clubs. That led in some instances to strychnine being placed in the wrong place, resulting in the deaths of children's pets from eating poisoned bait.

This is a major Bill. I support its principles. I would like the Minister to be given the resources necessary to implement the legislation. I would not like to go through the process of a Second Stage debate and a fairly involved discussion on Committee Stage only to find at the end of it all that fine legislation has been put on the Statute Book but that nobody gives two damns about it.

I hope the Minister gets the necessary resources to enable the Bill to be implemented. I look forward to Committee Stage because there are some very interesting concepts in this Bill and some interesting angles to be explored. I hope that, with the resources we have on the Opposition side consisting of the various cases that have been made to us and the expertise the Minister has available to her, we can put the best legislation possible on the Statute Book, because what is passed now in respect of wildlife will probably have to carry us through the next 50 years. Given the building up of the environment in terms of construction and economic expansion, this legislation is critical.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá áthas orm seans a bheith agam labhairt sa díospóireacht thábhachtach seo. Tá an Bille seo, An Bille um Fhiadhúlra (Leasú), 1999 thar a bheith tábhachtach agus beagáinín casta freisin. Ach tá mise ag tabhairt tacaíochta don Aire sa mhéid is go bhfuil sí ag iarraidh na h-éin, na h-ainmhithe agas na hionaid chónaithe ar fúd na tuaithe a chosaint. Dar ndóigh, beidh díospóireacht againn ar Chéim an Coiste agus beimid ag iarraidh cabhrú leis an Aire feabhas a chur ar an mBille.

I speak as someone who comes from an urban area but who had many relations in the countryside and spent a good deal of my childhood there. In addition, I was a pigeon fancier and always had a great interest in birds. One great regret I have in relation to the bird population in my area is that although it is not very long ago that the little tern used to nest on the strand at Tramore and rear her young there, that is no longer possible since the area became popular for exercising dogs and so on. There were fields close to where I lived in Waterford city where now there are houses, and I can remember the fields being absolutely covered with golden plover. I see very few golden plover nowadays. There are all sorts of reasons different species disappear or have their numbers dramatically reduced. The food chain and all the elements of it are very important in that regard. Protecting our wildlife, our flora and fauna is important because tá siad fite fuaite lena chéile, as we would say in Irish. They are all interlinked, and if links in that chain are lost, it has a huge impact.

Another aspect that fascinates me is the change in habits of animals. Deputy Kenny referred to seeing a fox in Merrion Square. When in town for Dáil sittings, I used to stay in Northumberland Road. One night when I parked the car, what I thought was a dog walked past me, and suddenly I realised it was a fox. It walked down the bank of the canal. Obviously its den was close by. There are quite a few dogs in the area but the fox seems to have survived. I have noticed in my own area that foxes come much closer to urban areas.

There is an important colony of kittiwakes that nest in the cliffs in Dunmore East harbour. One of the locals told me that years ago they would leave in September and would not return until the spring but now they leave in September and return six weeks later. Whether that has to with global warming or changed eating habits I do not know. As our landfill tipheads multiply and get larger we see seagulls feeding there. It is difficult to keep abreast of these changes and introduce measures to protect our flora, fauna and wildlife.

I hope at the end of Second Stage the Minister will reply to my comments. We can debate them in greater detail when the Bill is referred to the Select Committee. The Minister said the Bill had a long gestation and that is true. It is important legislation. However, I cannot understand why the Wildlife Bill, 1999 and the Wildlife Act, 1976 as amended by regulations in 1985 are not being consolidated as is the case with the l999 Bill on planning. I have had difficulty moving backwards and forwards between the references in this amending Bill and the primary Act. There are references to 12 Acts including the Wildlife Act. I do not say this just in relation to this Bill but as a general practice, greater effort should be made to consolidate legislation. It would be of benefit not only to those who implement the legislation but more particularly to those who want to study these important Acts. The Minister should see if it is possible to do so even at this late stage. Obviously there is a great deal of work involved.

Much of the terminology used in the Bill is the customary legal jargon but I remain to be convinced that it is necessary. The parliamentary draftsman should look at the terminology used with a view to reducing the number of words in phrases and sentences and making the legislation more readily understandable to the person in the street. The Minister should examine this issue. I realise it has taken a long time to put the Bill in place and to cover all the areas as comprehensively as the Minister has, but in terms of knowledge and understanding of the framework that exists, consolidation of the legislation would be a positive step.

We should have an extension of the interpretation Act. There are certain concepts and descriptions that recur in legislation. If these could be in one Bill we would be doing the nation a service. Possibly we would reduce the income of the legal profession but legislation is there to serve the people and that must be our first objective.

The Bill is technical and complex. One criticism made to me is the absence of any reference to sustainable development. That should be defined in the interpretation section and should occur in all the appropriate places in the Bill. Whether it is dealing with statutory protection of natural heritage areas or generally strengthening the provisions for wildlife species and their habitats or enhancing the existing controls in respect of hunting or regulating the activities of commercial shoot operators or ensuring and strengthening compliance with international agreements, sustainable development must be a key concept.

As regards the food chain, with NHAs there is need for a comprehensive approach and a full analysis of all the components of the food chain within a particular NHA or area of conservation. None of us can stress too much the importance of all elements of the food chain being protected.

Section 46, line 46, begins with a definition of what habitats include. It has been put to me that subsection (c) which states: “A specific locality where a particular fossil, mineral, geological or geomorphological feature is to be found” is not a habitat. “Habitat” is a term usually applied to living systems. It is essentially where birds, animals or whatever life form live or exist. At the end of the day, that definition of habitat is very much in relation to inanimate objects. By definition, a habitat is a place where there is some form of living creature, organisms or whatever. I ask the Minister to examine that issue and, if possible, to respond at the conclusion of Second Stage.

Section 11 deals with the acquisition of land and rights by agreement. There is an issue here that I ask the Minister to address. The Bill provides only for the acquisition of lands by agreement. Obviously this is the preferred route and we would like to see this agenda moved forward by agreement. However, local authorities have compulsory acquisition powers as regards road development. There can be rare cases where a natural heritage area of outstanding merit cannot be acquired by agreement and its value to the State could be so great that compulsory acquisition would be appropriate. The use of such powers would have to be applied sparingly but their absence is a weakness in the Bill. There will be occasions when agreement is impossible and it will not be possible to acquire a particular natural heritage area. The Bill should address that issue.

Section 15 contains the definition of "works" for the purpose of natural heritage areas. It includes any activity which destroys or significantly alters, damages or interferes with the integrity of any site or any of its species, communities or habitats. A definition which has been suggested to me as being superior, which I put to the Minister for her perusal, is an activity which is unsustainable and could lead to the loss of the site or any part of it, or any of its species in the short or long-term. What I am seeking is a definition that takes a more comprehensive view of what "works" entails. Compensation should only be available in respect of activities which have begun at the time the Bill is enacted and not future activities. The Bill is weak in this regard. Otherwise, An Taisce contend that a landowner can claim State money to compensate for the refusal of a development which he or she had no real intention of carrying out. Once a site has been notified but before final designation takes place, there should be a moratorium on development at the site without permission or licence. There should not be compensation for unsustainable development in respect of natural heritage areas. I ask the Minister to review this section.

That section 16 does not provide for conservation NGOs to be consulted in regard to natural heritage area designation is a matter of concern. The point has been made to me that a number of conservation NGOs should have a status in relation to the Wildlife Acts similar to that of An Taisce in relation to the planning Acts. In respect of natural heritage areas, interested parties other than landowners should have the means by which to suggest sites. It has been further suggested that NGOs should have the statutory right to propose sites for consideration as natural heritage areas. I would appreciate the Minister's views on whether NGOs in the conservation area, the wildlife area and so on should have a status similar to that of An Taisce in relation to the planning Acts and whether the public at large and wildlife would benefit.

On the question of the designation of sites, only landowners or the Minister have powers in that area. Should there be an effective input in relation to identification and proposing of natural heritage areas by bodies other than the Minister's Department and the landowner involved? Another suggestion was that Dúchas should have a right of veto over all developments within natural heritage areas whether or not they are covered by the planning Acts. I have some sympathy with that line of argument. However there is another concern. If somebody in a local area is applying for planning permission and there is an SMR reference and a referral to Dúchas the person involved may be asked by Dúchas to carry out some excavation on the site and to employ an archaeologist approved by the Department. This is at a time when it is becoming more difficult for people to provide their own housing. This extra cost should not be borne in full by the applicant. When the excavation takes place and nothing shows up there is a loss of money. I would be concerned that a right of veto by Dúchas over all developments is too broad. However, I would like to see an enhanced role for Dúchas.

Section 17 deals with decisions not to make natural heritage area orders. This section needs to be strengthened so that the Minister's decision not to make a natural heritage order is presented in a transparent and scientifically justified way. If the Minister, for whatever reason, decides not to make the order it is important that justice is not only done but that justice is seen to be done. When the Minister of the day decides against making a natural heritage area order there should be an onus on the Minister to provide a report which would be available to the public giving the scientific justification for not going ahead. This should be done in a transparent way. I want to avoid any allegation that there was a political motive in respect of any decisions taken by the Minister. If all the facts are available and can be inspected that situation will not arise. I am not suggesting the Minister would decide anything for a political motive – I know full well she would not. However, at a time when the credibility of politicians is not what we would desire there should be a mechanism to demonstrate that fairness had been applied and that justice was done.

I wish to raise a query about section 19(2) which reads:

Where the Minister is satisfied that the carrying out of the works are necessary for imperative reasons of overriding public interest, which interest may be of a social or economic nature, and, in the absence of an alternative and viable solution, the Minister may decide to give the owner, occupier or user consent to undertake the works.

This is about carrying out works which the Minister believes must be carried out in the public interest. In the interpretations sections the words "public interest of a social or economic nature" should be more clearly defined. The Minister should explain more fully what this means. I have already mentioned the importance of transparency in the decision-making process.

Debate adjourned.