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.