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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 20 Apr 2000

Vol. 518 No. 5

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

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

There is a need to amend section 18 to make provision for management plans for natural heritage areas as presented in natural heritage orders. Part of the natural heritage area order should include the need for a management plan.

I want to refer to a number of issues relating to section 19. Neither the Minister nor local authorities should be exempt from requiring permission to carry out developments which affect natural heritage areas. Everybody should have to seek and obtain permission for works to be carried out in NHAs. Sites should be fully protected between notification and designation. Any damage done to a natural heritage area during this period should constitute an offence.

It should not be possible to obtain permission by default to carry out works in NHAs. This arises in the context of section 19(1)(b). Section 19(1)(b)(iii) states:

Where there is a subsisting natural heritage area order in respect of any land, no person shall carry out, or cause or permit to be carried out, on that land any works specified in the order or any works which are liable to destroy or to significantly alter, damage or interfere with the features by reason of which the designation order was made unless—

6 months have expired from the date of the notice under paragraph (a) and the Minister has not refused consent in writing to the works being carried out.

This type of provision is unusual and unsatisfactory. It should not be beyond the capabilities of the State to send either written refusal or consent within six months. I ask the Minister to examine that because the Department could make a decision to refuse permission but, through an error or oversight, fail to respond within six months. Surely it is possible for the Department to set up a system which ensures that responses are given to such matters.

Section 23 deals with the registration of a natural heritage area order as a burden on the land. It states:

A natural heritage area order and any amendment or revocation thereof may be registered under the Registration of Title Act, 1964 (as amended by section 74), in the appropriate register maintained under that Act, as a burden on the land.

The use of the word "may" is mystifying. I suggest the word "shall" should be substituted as there is no logical reason for the insertion of the word "may" which suggests that the legislation does not make it clear that there is a burden on the land if an NHA designation exists.

Under the terms of the Wildlife Act, 1976, an environmental impact statement is necessary when arterial drainage schemes are being carried out by the Office of Public Works. I am concerned that work on maintaining existing drainage schemes have caused damage. It should be a requirement for the Office of Public Works to consult with the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands prior to undertaking any maintenance work on existing schemes, particularly in NHAs or proposed NHAs. I ask the Minister to sympathetically consider this issue between now and Committee Stage and I look forward to her response.

Representations have been made to me about the provision of an independent appeals board which should be included in the Bill. It has been suggested that an organisation replicating An Bord Pleanála, such as an bord dúchas, should be established. This organisation would have responsibility for determining appeals on site designation. There must be transparency and accountability and everything should be judged on its merits so allegations cannot be made about untoward actions or political interference. The Minister proposes to alter section 51 which imposes new controls which were not intended.

I compliment the Minister on the Bill and I look forward to working constructively with her on Committee Stage to ensure this legislation is as comprehensive as possible. I hope she has an opportunity between now and Committee Stage to consider the points I made about consolidation.

I wish to share with my time with Deputy Andrews.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Its main features are to provide a mechanism to give statutory protection to natural heritage areas; to make use of that mechanism to provide statutory protection for important geological and geomorphological sites, including fossil sites; to improve some existing measures and introduce new ones to enhance the conservation of wildlife species and their habitats, for example, the protection of bat roosts, refuges and flora and a ban on hunting; to enhance a number of existing controls in respect of hunting which are designed to serve the interests of the wildlife conservation programme; to introduce new provisions to regulate the business of commercial shoot operators; to increase substantially the level of fines for contravention of the Wildlife Acts and to allow for the imposition of prison sentences; to provide a mechanism to allow the Minister to act independently of forestry legislation, for example, in relation to the acquisition of land by agreement; to strengthen the provisions relating to the cutting of hedgerows during the critical bird nesting period and to include a requirement that hedgerows may be cut only during that period by public bodies, including local authorities, for reasons of public health or safety; to strengthen the protective regime for special areas of conservation by removing any doubt that protection will in all cases apply from the time of notification of the proposed sites; and to give specific statutory recognition in light of Ireland's commitments to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to the Minister's responsibilities in regard to promoting the conservation of biological diversity, which is now a key concept in the area of global ecology.

I want to refer to the features of geological and geomorphological interest which the Minister highlighted during her speech. Up to now there has been no specific provision for the protection of areas or features of geological or geomorphological interest. Geological refers to the physical and biological history of the earth and geomorphological refers to the configuration of the earth's surface and landforms such as cliffs, caves, eskers and drumlins. There are many eskers and drumlins throughout Laois which are in important feature of the landscape and I am please that, for the first time, this issue is being dealt with in legislation.

These elements are an important part of our natural environment and fossil records in particular are an invaluable source of information about the very distant past. We have all learned with great interest about the fossilised footprints found at Valentia, County Kerry, which are considered to be of worldwide importance. Perhaps as long as 400 million years ago this creature left its footprints in a shallow tropical stream and the fossilised records of this event are one of the threads from which scientists are trying to weave a fuller picture of the planet's past. Our prime geological and geomorphological sites, including fossilised records, are extremely important and are worth protecting.

Sections 46 and 51 have attracted particular public attention and Members for Laoighis-Offaly have received many representations concerning their provisions. As a result of correspondence and dialogue between the Minister and myself and other Deputies, and consultations between departmental officials and interested parties prior to and following the publication of the Bill, it is now clear that sections 46 and 51, as published, would impose new controls on existing legal forms of hunting which were never intended. In the context of section 46, the Minister now proposes to apply the ban on the use of lamps and similar devices to protected species only. She also proposes to delete the provision in section 51 which would have made it an offence to hunt with a dog, ferret or bird of prey, or to have control of a pack of hounds on lands without the owner's consent. I am pleased that this is now on public record and the Minister wrote to me in this regard earlier this month. These changes will satisfy a number of people in my constituency who had understandable reservations about these provisions when first published.

I wish to refer to a number of issues of particular interest to me which are dealt with in the Bill. I am chairman of Castletown, County Laois, Tidy Towns committee which was the county winner in the national Tidy Towns competition. Last year the town was fourth overall in the national competition and was a national category winner for villages of its size. Over the past four years I have been pleased to note that a major element of marks awarded in the national Tidy Towns competition now deal with wildlife and natural amenities. In the past, these competitions were geared, primarily, towards tourism but now place greater emphasis on natural amenities. This area has not been sufficiently addressed by Tidy Towns committees in the past and we all need to work on it if improvements are to take place. However, caution should be taken when cutting roadside hedges during the summer months. The Bill highlights some difficulties in this respect but there should be a balance between the nesting season and making the countryside an attractive place for people to live in and visit.

Work is about to commence on a major development of the N7 and N8 through County Laois which will have a major ecological impact. It is proposed to designate a number of areas as national heritage areas and these matters have been fully taken into account by the NRA at the first stage of planning the route corridors. I implore all involved in such major projects to learn the lessons of the famous snail on the Kildare by-pass. Those who took this case to the European court have done Ireland a service by ensuring that these matters are properly considered at the planning stage of such major infrastructural projects. Sadly this has not been the position in the past. A lesson has been learned and people will have to take these matters into account at the early stages of future developments.

Under the national development plan, European funding is conditional on ensuring that we fully implement the wildlife and habitats directives. This is important. Some regard such a measure as a nuisance and gross interference but it is a forward looking measure. The construction of roads may be a priority and this work needs to be done and has my support. However, such work must take account of wildlife and environmental impact assessments.

My eyes were opened as regards wildlife and geology when I was 12 years of age and I had the privilege of being taken on a field trip on the Castlecomer plateau near Crettyard, south County Laois, by Professor John Feehan, now of the department of environmental resource management, UCD. At that time he was studying for his H.Dip. Professor Feehan brought a group of young people to this area and showed us what I thought was just a piece of shale. However, he highlighted the fossilised marks of a tree which had rotted possibly thousands of years ago. He knew that, through scientific research, he would be able to tell us how long the tree had been there, for how long it grew and where and in what period it fell. This trip was an extraordinary eye opener as I could not believe it was possible to ascertain such vital information from a casual walk up the side of a mountain and along a riverbank. This was possible because Professor Feehan had the knowledge to understand what he was talking about and he shared that knowledge with us.

Professor Feehan wrote a famous book entitled Laois – An Environmental History which has been well reported. He was also involved in a more recent publication called The Great Heath. This publication deals with the heath in County Laois through time and tells us that the origins of the earth go back 4,600 million years and that the formation of limestones began in the oceans during the lower carboniferous period. It also points out that limestones were sculpted into the landscape during the tertiary era which led to the formation of features such as the Rock of Dunamase. These features are referred to in the Bill as geomorphological aspects of the earth's surface and the Rock of Dunamase is one of the classic examples of such an aspect.

The publication then covers the impact the ice age had on the landscape and points out that the first people came to live in what is now the heath in County Laois only 9,600 years ago. This highlights that man has been on this planet for a short time and this should be considered whenever we debate wildlife. The Minister should lend her support to and ask the Office of Public Works to co-operate fully with the management plan for the heath identified in Portlaoise and to work with the local golf club and farmers involved.

When preparing for this debate I thought of consulting older people about the importance of this issue. However, I also decided to consult my nine year old son because we should look to the future. He showed me a CD-ROM entitled Bellamy's Endangered Wildlife which showed moving images of animals from all over the world, including sound. He could have come into the House and given Members a lecture on this subject even though he is only nine years of age. This is an example of what is happening in our schools and what technology, education and science can achieve.

We will get this legislation right if we adhere to one simple philosophy – we did not inherit this earth from our forefathers, rather we have borrowed it from our children. If we bear this in mind we will look to the future and preserve the earth for future generations and millennia.

I am grateful to my colleague for allowing me share his very valuable time. His contribution was extremely well thought out. I apologise if I have interfered in any way with his right to speak in the House.

I am honoured to have the opportunity – which I would not have had if I were still a Minister – to speak on this Bill. I praise the Minister, Deputy de Valera, who is an excellent colleague. I do not think I am breaching Cabinet confidentiality by saying we had a particularly good relationship in Cabinet, where her contributions were always supportive of colleagues. I also do not think it is a breach of Cabinet confidentiality to say I supported the Minister very strongly on this legislation. It is an enormous achievement by her to bring so much legislation before the House. As she very wisely pointed out at the beginning of Second Stage, it has taken 15 years to get us to this point.

My main reason for speaking on the Bill, apart from the fact that I am a hill walker and a fly fishermen – those two elements are very strongly dealt with in the Bill – is that I made a strong intervention at Cabinet, as I do now, in relation to section 47 which, as Deputy Fleming said, deals with hedgerows. The Minister has introduced legislation to bring back the cutting of hedgerows from 15 April to 1 April, which I welcome.

As has been said, we need a balance. My appreciation of the contribution made by the farming community to this country over the years is second to none. They have had a terrible series of ups and downs in their professional lives. It is a cyclical way of life. I have great regard for them. I often travel the Galway-Dublin road, where I see the cutting back of hedges. I have never seen any transgressions, as such. However, I am a keen gardener and it is a well known fact that if one cuts a hedge often and regularly one will destroy it. The more often one cuts a hedge tightly, the weaker the hedge becomes. There are hedges on the Galway-Dublin road which one can see through and which have large gaps. That is the tragedy which occurs due to the constant tight cutting of hedges and hedgerows.

That defeats what the Minister is, quite properly, seeking to achieve, which is a balance between the right to have a neat and tidy countryside and the need to allow our wildlife survive in decent and proper circumstances. I thank the Minister for trying to achieve that balance. I do not make that observation by way of criticism. I would like to think it is a helpful observation in the interests of conservation of wildlife.

I come from a coastal constituency which I have represented for many years. I welcome anything which will achieve clean water in Dublin Bay – which the Bill sets out in considerable detail – and, hopefully, the final closure of Sellafield, which does harm to the Irish Sea and further afield.

As the Minister said, the Bill is long overdue. It has been in gestation for 15 years. There is a new system of natural heritage areas, including geological sites. There is stronger protection of special areas of conservation by the Minister's very proper amending of the definition. I particularly appreciate that the legislation has a broader scope and now includes fish and better protection for wild animals and birds and their habitats, which I dealt with in my remarks about hedgerows.

The Bill also includes greater control of hunting for conservation purposes, including the regulation of commercial shoot operators. Some of our visitors from abroad – I will not mention the countries – would shoot everything that flies, which is tragic. Blackbirds, robins and so on have been the victims of the desire to kill anything that flies. The Minister has, to a great extent, brought that under control in this and other legislation. When the majority of our citizens see that happening, they act as guardians of the environment and try to prevent it as best they can. However, they cannot intervene if they are not there to witness what is happening.

Tougher penalties, including prison sentences, will be allied to greater powers of enforcement. There are also provisions in the Bill to allow for ratification of the various conventions relating to heritage and wildlife.

There are very interesting statistics on the coastal zone. The diversity and dynamism of the coastal zone has already been noted, as has been the importance of the zone and the resources it contains for most maritime countries. We are a maritime country and an island nation. This is reflected in the heavy concentration of popu lation in the coastal zone. For example, two thirds of Norway's 4.5 million population live within 15 kilometres of salt water. The average population density of coastal counties in the United States is five times greater than non-coastal counties. Some 1.81 million of Ireland's population of 3.5 million would be described as living in coastal municipalities. Those are very important figures. For that and many other reasons, the Minister's hard work on the Bill is very welcome.

In recent years, natural habitats and species have come under increasing pressure. Economic success and development inevitably increase such pressure. Therefore, the additional measures which the Minister has wisely brought in are needed to ensure our natural heritage is protected.

The objective of the Bill, which I appreciate, is to achieve a proper balance, whereby conservation and human activities can coexist. Protected areas will not become no-go areas for development, but developments proposed for these areas will have to be carefully assessed in the interests of the community, the nation and what the Bill seeks to achieve. Anything that would cause significant damage will be prevented or modified, but anything that would not can go ahead.

Existing legislation does not allow this kind of control to be applied. The Wildlife Act, 1976, was a good Act for its time. However, times have moved on. While it provides a generally sound basis for species conservation, it falls short of what we need today for the protection of sites of particular natural importance. It is also generally accepted that today there is a need for stronger and more effective protection of all elements of wildlife. The Bill addresses this matter across a broad front. I thank the Minister for the hard work which it is clear she has put into the Bill and for the manner in which she has received representations from people like me in this House. It is appreciated.

I join the other speakers in welcoming the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, 1999. I particularly welcome the decision to provide statutory protection for national heritage areas. That is probably the most important aspect of the Bill. It is essential that there be such statutory provision for these areas.

I welcome also her decision to improve and introduce new measures to enhance the conservation of wildlife species and their habitats. That is important also.

I welcome the new licensing system for commercial shoot operators who cater mainly for non-resident hunters. These are the tourist shooters to whom Deputy Andrews referred. Many of these non-resident hunters have scant respect, if any, for basic conservation laws. Deputy Andrews was correct in stating that they shoot blackbirds and other rare species in flight, but I have heard reports that they also shoot them on trees and on the ground. This licensing system for commercial shoot operators will be a great help.

The Bill, I am glad to say, recognises the need for applicants for hunting licences to undergo a competency test in knowledge of wildlife and species identification. There are many people who own guns and go out shooting but have a limited knowledge of the birds at which they are shooting. As a result, they shoot many protected species. They should be required to undergo this competency test. There will be a great deal of opposition to this nevertheless it is important. The National Association of Regional Game Councils, which represents about 20,000 club members, already provides safety and proficiency courses. There are about 60,000 licence holders and they should be asked to participate in this course.

The use of traps, snares, sets, poisons and other devices which are used for hunting wildlife needs to be carefully examined. People are far too callous and careless in setting traps, sets and snares. It is important that the Minister would impose restrictions on some of the methods which are being used. She is correct to move in that direction.

Deputy Fleming mentioned section 46. There should not be much dilution of that section which prohibits the use of lamps, mirrors, etc., in hunting. The Deputy may have been confused with the Principal Act, but section 46 is important in that it states that anybody who uses any lamp, light, torch, mirror or other artificial light-reflecting or dazzling device or appliance, or any device for illuminating, image intensifying or heat seeking a target, etc., in hunting any wild bird or wild animal, otherwise than while either attaching thereto any band, ring, tag or other marking device, shall be guilty of an offence. That is an important section. I do not believe the Minister intends watering down that section and I would be against any attempt to do so. Anybody who goes out at night and lamps birds is not a sportsperson. Such persons do not have any regard for wildlife. Anybody who is involved in the sport of shooting would regard that as blackguardly conduct. There may be some misunderstanding there on the part of Deputy Fleming.

The Minister should look again at section 51, to which Deputy Fleming referred also. There are considerable concerns about this section which amends section 44 of the Principal Act. Many people are concerned that the section would make people, who are involved in hunting, unwittingly guilty of a criminal offence. It also increases the liability of farmers and landowners on whose goodwill people in the hunt depend. Many farmers and landowners are pleased that the hunt provides a valuable service for them. I ask the Minister to conduct a careful review of this matter because the representations which have been made by a number of these people have the support of the IFA, the ICMSA and a number of other organisations.

I welcome the overall direction of the policy being pursued by the Minister. The work of her Department overlaps with that of many other Departments. For example, she has responsibility for the fish in the rivers but she has no responsibility for controlling pollution of the rivers which, to a large extent, would be under the remit of the Department of the Environment and Local Government and local authorities. I want to be blunt. The rivers, lakes and streams are becoming heavily polluted. Last night the House debated a motion on a River Shannon authority and many speakers and a number of the farmers who were in the Public Gallery to whom I spoke were concerned about the pollution of that river. Some of the lakes are heavily polluted also. The Minister does not need me to tell her that fish are unable to survive in these polluted waters and fish stocks are being depleted at an alarming rate. The Minister must do something to address this. On the continent one can see what they have done to clean the rivers in countries such as Sweden and Denmark, where they have managed to bring back fish life to a number of the rivers. We must see what we can do in this area.

I am particularly concerned about salmon. There is a problem in this regard, however, in that there is a lucrative illegal trade in salmon and the only person who would be able to resolve is not the Minister but the Holy Ghost. That trade has been going on for a long time and one would not know who is involved in it. It is a tricky and dangerous area in which to become involved. Certainly what is going on there is not right.

Earlier I mentioned that many people are being brought in by tour operators to shoot and fish. In addition there are many people arriving in camper vans. There is little curtailment on the quantities of fish which are being taken out of the rivers and lakes by a number of these people. They put them in the deep freeze in their camper vans and leave Ireland with them when they return home. I do not know whether they sell them or use it themselves when they return home. I have heard widespread complaints from people in areas where fishing is an important sport that many of these people take huge quantities of fish, put them in their deep freezers and return home. This is not acceptable and the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, together with the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, will have to address it.

Much of what the Minister is attempting to do can be achieved through REPS. In 1995 the REPS payment was £50 per acre; today the figure is £48 per acre. Perhaps this is because of the fall in the value of the euro, but one would have expected the figure to have increased over the five years. There are no allowances for inflation, etc. in the scheme. This is also relevant to the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, but nevertheless the Departments will have to co-operate. A further problem is the cost of complying with REPS, which has increased, while the income from it has decreased.

The last REPS scheme concluded at the end of December and it is expected a new scheme will be passed in Brussels in June. Implementation will be the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and I presume the Minister's Department will also have an input. I fear it will be the end of the year before it is up and running.

The costings used by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development in assessing farm buildings have not kept pace with inflation in the construction industry. Many farmers, therefore, are unable to afford new farm buildings, and this must be examined. There are approximately 45,000 farmers in REPS and many are leaving the scheme mainly because of the huge amount of bureaucracy, which must be addressed in the very near future.

The early retirement scheme is still causing problems and has become very bureaucratic. The Minister, in co-operation with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, might examine the scheme. The Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands is involved in liaising with the IFA. The bureaucracy of the old scheme, the fact that young farmer transferees were not allowed hold off-farm income and the enlargement clause all posed problems. I have a letter from a colleague solicitor which goes into considerable detail and I will raise this with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at a future date.

The penalties imposed in the Bill on people who use lamps, mirrors and other dazzling devices for capturing or shooting animals are very important. There is a major problem in terms of a large number of our birds. I am sure the Minister's Department and officials are aware of the rapid decline in farmland birds. I am from the Shannon area and have been in communication with many people about the breeding and wintering birds on the Shannon callows. I refer in particular to the lapwing, which has undergone an alarming decline in recent years. People have told me that the lapwing will be extinct in Ireland in five years unless a major effort is made to ensure the species is preserved. Other birds, such as the corncrake, the skylark, the barn owl and the yellow hammer are also declining in numbers. There was a marginal increase in the number of corncrakes, but there had previously been a huge decrease. Those involved in the area both in terms of a hobby and a profession are afraid that some of these birds will be extinct within five to ten years. The skylark, barn owl and yellow hammer are beautiful birds and the Minister should see what efforts can be made to preserve them.

The decrease in numbers has occurred because of changes in agriculture, building construction, the works of local authorities, etc. It is important to ascertain how these birds can be preserved. There are a number of schemes in the Shannon valley area which should be improved and expanded to ensure farmers are compensated for complying with regulations which may mean delaying the cutting and harvesting of crops. The Minister will have the goodwill of the IFA in this matter. Much good work is being done but it is insufficient and we must see how the Bill can be further improved.

The 1976 Act provided many exemptions in terms of agriculture, forestry, road maintenance and building construction. Deputy Andrews spoke about the necessity to maintain hedgerows, which is very important. The continuing clearance of hedgerows will result in the extinction of wildlife. People who have cleared hedgerows are later often sorry for doing so. They can be cleared inside an hour, but it takes years and years to build them up. We should examine what can be done to ensure these vital habits for birds are retained. About two-thirds of our breeding birds require this habitat. We have a long way to go in this regard.

I understand the amended legislation will require the commitment of adequate resources by the Department in terms of money, manpower, facilities and equipment which will allow for the increased management and enforcement. It is important that Dúchas and the wildlife service, which have been understaffed for many years, are provided with personnel as I believe a number of staff in the Department are currently overstretched.

Natural heritage areas cover about 7% of the land of Ireland. It is essential that co-operation with farmers is increased or at least continued in this context. Similarly, there must be co-operation with local authorities because as far as I am aware a large section of local authority development will be exempt, which concerns me. We need to examine how national heritage areas can be preserved while so much road building and widening is taking place.

The Minister is engaged in work of great importance. The Esker hills in County Offaly are an important area of natural heritage, as are the natural habitats formed by the bogs. Deputy Fleming mentioned the Heath golf club communicating with the Department. I have a copy of its report; it is a comprehensive document and I will furnish it to the Minister. The club is anxious to co-operate with the Department, the Office of Public Works, local farmers and those in the Heath area to ensure this large tract of land is developed in a planned manner.

I welcome the Bill, and I compliment the Minister on introducing it. It is far-sighted legislation which aims to use the mechanisms available to us to protect our environment while moving forward as a society.

We are well aware of the importance of the environment. We have a duty to protect it and to hand it on to future generations in a proper state. The best way to do this is not to treat the environment as something so fragile it belongs in a museum. When we pass it on to future generations we want them to be able to enjoy the natural world, to live alongside it and to be comfortable with it. We do not want it to be something which can only be observed behind a glass shield or a barrier of prescriptive legislation.

This legislation realises the importance of the natural world and adopts a holistic approach. The natural world is not made up of prescribed lists of plants and animal species but represents an intertwining of all these species. The two most important aspects of the legislation are the establishment of the natural heritage areas and the greater powers it grants to intervene in a balanced manner. The natural heritage areas have been placed on a statutory basis for the first time. Provision has also been included in the Bill for the inclusion of areas of the natural world which are an important aspect of the environment, such as zones of special geological and other interest. Ireland has many areas which could fall within this category.

In the Cavan-Monaghan constituency the forces of nature covered the landscape with drumlins. For generations farmers have attempted to wring a tenuous livelihood from that landscape. They have been and continue to be the best protectors the landscape could have. For those people that landscape is not an abstraction, not something represented by a diagram in a textbook, but part of the earth from which they are expected to feed themselves and their families. The farming community lives at the cutting edge between mankind and nature and has learned to respect it. The names we use in our postal addresses owe much to the landscape around us. The lives of those in the farming community were intimately governed by the rhythm of the seasons for it was as a result of their pact with nature that they were able to survive. Before the arrival of modern medicine, the natural world provided remedies. We all know that a nettle sting was treated by applying a dock leaf, a practice which has a scientific basis. We must never lose sight of the important role played by inhabitants of rural areas, particularly the farming community, in looking after nature.

There is much ill informed comment which seeks to brand the farming community as polluters following a selfish, cavalier attitude to the environment. The best that can be said of such commentators is that they show a painful level of ignorance. I do not close my eyes to the reality of pollution but sometimes the best results come from an educational process. Part of our duty in protecting the environment is to identify areas where problems have arisen in the past and where they might arise again and to educate those involved about the risks of pollution and how they can be avoided. If people know the risks and still cause pollution, we must penalise them as this Bill enables us.

The REP scheme is a valuable mechanism for protecting the environment and it has worked well in many areas. It has been very effective in preventing effluent from farmland flowing into the lakes and watercourses which abound in County Cavan. Part of the reason for the scheme's success is the involvement of those on the ground.

This legislation brings us into line with European practice on the hunting, particularly the hunting, of birds. There is no argument for the banning of hunting altogether. After all, selective scientific culling is often resorted to for reasons of protection. We must ensure, however, that those to whom we give hunting licences are credible enthusiasts and participants in the sport. We must also ensure that hunters have a high level of respect for and knowledge of wildlife. In some countries, to apply for a hunting licence a person has to follow a detailed course and pass an examination in advance.

All Members received correspondence from the Irish Foot Harriers Association about this Bill. Some of those involved in the association in my county are concerned about section 51, which amends section 44 of the 1976 Act. The association indicated that this section would cause problems for a hunter who went over a boundary to land where no permission had been given to hunt and that could be in conflict with the main thrust of the Occupiers' Liability Act. I remember Deputy De Valera and me raising this matter on the Adjournment and tabling Parliamentary Questions about the need to introduce that Act. The Minister took an interest in that legislation because of its importance to County Clare.

The association also asked me to raise section 38 of the 1976 Act which will be amended by section 46 of the legislation before us at present. The association stated that it would prohibit the lamping of foxes and rabbits and could cause a serious problem for sheep farmers during the lambing season and to crops which could be damaged by rabbits. The association is anxious that the Minister should give further consideration to these sections. The people involved, with whom my constituency colleagues and I spoke, are keen sports enthusiasts. They go out of their way to conserve the environment and work in a positive manner with nature. The case they made is credible and I hope that their reservations and requests will be considered on Committee Stage. Other than that the association is quite happy with the thrust of the legislation and the detailed work that has been put into drafting it.

Its members raised one other issue. I may not put the argument correctly but I am sure the Minister and her officials will investigate it. It refers to the licensing of hunt hounds and kennels. Apparently, the fee for such a licence was £100 per kennel. A club only needed one licence to cover all the hounds owned by its members. However, the fee was increased to £200 and it is not clear whether each owner can keep his or her hound at his or her residence or whether the hounds must be housed in one kennel. This sport is important in rural areas and if all the hounds must be kept in one kennel, that would have a detrimental effect on clubs and their network. For example, if in a rural parish a club has 20 or 25 members, it is not feasible to house all the hounds in one kennel.

The vast majority of members of the Foot Harriers Association and others who hunt are keen sports enthusiasts and are very committed to the preservation and enhancement of nature. They keep hounds purely for sporting purposes. These animals are cared for extremely well by their owners and I hope the Minister and her officials will pursue this query and rectify the anomaly so that an impossible burden will not be placed on individual clubs or participants.

I agree with Deputy Enright regarding the importance of REPS and the control of farm pollution scheme. It was fortunate that this Government reintroduced a number of on-farm investment schemes, namely, the control of farm pollution and dairy hygiene schemes. They are of immense importance in Cavan-Monaghan because of the long winters experienced in the area and the fact that the soil is not free draining because of the number of drumlins there. There is a longer housing season for cattle in this area than elsewhere because of higher rainfall and the fact that the land is not free draining. Cattle cannot be kept on the land as long as in other parts of Ireland. I welcome the control of farm pollution scheme and I am glad that substantial funding has been allocated in the national development plan for on-farm investment measures.

The farming community, by and large, is keen to protect the environment. Unfortunately, in any industry or organisation there is always a small minority who will not adhere properly to the rules of the game and who will pollute the environment. The farming community and, indeed, farming organisations have worked extremely hard to create awareness about the need to conserve and improve our lakes and waterways.

Deputy Boylan and myself attended a meeting last Friday night in Ballyjamesduff, organised by the ICMSA as part of an awareness campaign on new draft guidelines and by-laws that Cavan County Council will introduce for the protection of the environment. It was a credit to the ICMSA that such a meeting was organised. Officials from the council and the fisheries board were present to outline the general thinking behind the new draft by-laws. The farming community was given an opportunity to make observations and submissions on the draft guidelines. However, a theme which ran through the meeting was that a partnership is needed between all the statutory authorities, the farming community, individual householders and industrial and commercial concerns. By working together and introducing practical laws and regulations, it can be ensured improvements which are necessary to protect the environment can be achieved and much progress can be made.

I pay tribute to the many voluntary organisations involved in angling and tourism development which over the years have played a constructive role in ensuring that we made the most of our natural resources. Such organisations have played a crucial role in creating awareness about the need to protect the environment in their own localities. Their promotional work and the awareness they created have generated much tourism revenue. That work has continued and has been supplemented by Exchequer investment in the development of inland waterways and fisheries.

The Office of Public Works did a marvellous job restoring the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell canal which is now the Erne-Shannon waterway. When that project went to construction there was a requirement that the flora, fauna and fisheries should be protected. It is a great credit to the officials in the waterways section of the Office of Public Works at that time that they did so much good work. They constructed a new waterway which is navigable by the most modern cruisers and ensured that nature was preserved and enhanced. That section is now part of the Minister's Department.

I have been concerned over the years about the ad hoc development of forestry. There is a great need to implement a proper planning process for such development. Forests have too often been planted on the edges of lakes and rivers and it is absolutely appalling that this has been allowed to happen. Many of my constituents contacted me when Coillte or private forestry companies bought land near them because trees were planted close to natural waterways and sometimes around individual houses. Planning regulations must be strictly enforced or new ones will have to be drafted to ensure planting cannot take place within a specified distance of private residences or beside waterways.

When flora and fauna are discussed, people naturally think of the Burren in County Clare as an area of international importance. A townland called Burren is located in the Cuilcagh mountain range outside Blacklion, County Cavan. Unfortunately, in the late 1950s the area was planted by the then State forestry company. In the meantime that timber has been extracted. The local community council have carried out a major geological and archaeological survey. It now transpires that the area has a vast array of flora and fauna, something similar to its namesake in County Clare. It is a tragedy that the area was planted at that time but, thankfully, due to the work of the local community council in Blacklion and our local councillor in that area, Councillor Eddie Feeley, funding was secured to carry out proper research. The first stage of that research has been completed and further studies are being undertaken to try to develop a natural mountain park. It will be a cross-Border project because some of this area runs into County Fermanagh.

I take the opportunity to compliment Councillor Feeley and the local community council on their initiative in seeking funding and having a detailed professional study carried out which highlights the importance of that area from a cultural, heritage, archaeological and geological point of view. I look forward to the further development of that area.

Perhaps it would be possible for the Burren in County Clare, which is internationally known, to be twined with Burren in County Cavan, which is only nationally known at the moment. Perhaps it will become internationally known in the future.

There is no point in the Leas-Cheann Comhairle or myself hunting for votes in west Cavan because Deputy Smith would seem to have them all tied up with his compliments to the local councillor which are well deserved as that man has a good interest in that locality.

I compliment the Minister on introducing the Bill as it is important to update legislation. However, there are some aspects of this Bill which will cause much discomfort to many people involved in the very work the Minister is trying to do. I agree with Deputy Smith that we must approach this project on a partnership basis as a "them and us" attitude will not succeed.

The people in the hunt clubs and the gun clubs are as interested as the Minister or I in the preservation of wildlife and the protection of rural life. They have approached me about aspects of the Bill relating to kennels, the keeping of hounds and beagles and the new levies which will be imposed. The levies will make life impossible for these ordinary law abiding people who are interested in and have a tremendous understanding of wildlife. Before she dots the final "i" and crosses the final "t", I suggest that the Minister talk to these people as they have information and knowledge.

What annoys me is the individuals or groups outside Leinster House with the placards and gruesome photographs of foxes, badgers and other wildlife which have been killed, battered to death and torn apart by terriers and beagles. There is not an iota of truth in one of those photographs. The Minister or I could take such photographs any night of the week. When travelling along a road one will see foxes, which darted across the road and were hit by a passing car or lorry, lying dead. It is a terrible sight. We could take a photograph of that and say it is the result of a hunt. The people involved in hunt clubs do not brutalise or abuse wild animals. The same applies to badgers which one regularly sees dead along the roadside. It can be quite dangerous to try to avoid them. They can cause motor accidents. We need to take a balanced approach. The sooner that person or those individuals move away from the front gates and stop blackguarding people who have a far keener and better interest in wild life the better.

The sport and enjoyment associated with wild life has to be understood. Many people are involved in hunt clubs, horse mounted hunts and walking hunts. It is a beautiful sight to see a hunt and the beagles. The beagles chase the fox and those on the hunt take off after them on their horses. It is not for the kill – the last thing they want is for the fox to be killed. Usually the fox is not killed as he is far smarter than the hound and he gets a good start. It is a healthy exercise. Those hunting on foot are more ordinary and are not into horses and the gear which goes with it as that is for more affluent hunt people in Meath and Kildare, and we wish them well.

In County Cavan one sees ordinary people going out on foot every Sunday with their little terriers or hounds. They may chase a hare up to the highest hill top, watch the hunt, listen to the hounds and see the hare scooting off as happy as Larry. The last thing they want is a kill. It may happen – so be it – but that is wild life. The fox will kill rabbits and hares for food. We must have balance in that regard.

Given the number of badgers and foxes in our countryside, they must be curtailed. Sheep farmers must protect their sheep. It is not uncommon for people in urban areas, many of whom have an interest wild life, to see the urban fox which cannot get food in farmland. Sheep are now brought in for the lambing season and the fox is making its way into our towns and villages. It is not uncommon for people to see them in their back gardens and I have been told they have been seen raiding refuse bins. Such a fox is desperate and dangerous. If he cannot get lambs or rabbits, he will rob the nests of partridges and pheasants when they are not nesting. He might take the pheasant itself and we are left with the little chicks unattended. We need a balance in nature.

There is also the problem of the spread of disease. I do not know whether the fox is responsible for the spread of bovine TB in our animals but there is a serious question mark over badgers. The badger population, therefore, has to be curtailed and dealt with. I will leave that to the people in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development who are doing research on that and who are removing badgers in certain areas in a humane manner by gasification. I know people will say it is outrageous and should not happen, but it must. We must have commonsense. I appreciate and understand that people who have tremendous knowledge in this area are there to protect the wild life.

The practice of farming has changed. When I, Deputy Martin Brady, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Minister were growing up, meadows were not mowed until the end of June or the beginning of July when the corncrake had nested, the chicks were able to look after themselves and had made their way to safety in the hedgerow. Now the practice of silage making begins at the end of April so those birds are practically extinct, which is sad. It is, however, because of farming practice. If there had been a little more foresight in regard to the preservation of these species, which are not totally extinct and are found in some parts, part of the meadow should have been left aside and the farmer would have had to have been compensated.

As Deputy Smith said, in the constituency we represent, every inch of good soil is important and one cannot mow a meadow and leave a portion of it aside without some compensation as it is needed for hay for cattle for the following winter. If it had been possible to leave some ground in the centre of the field where these bird generally nest, the farmer would have done that. At that time the farmer mowed with horses and would have been annoyed to come across a corncrake's nest when it was too late and see the little eggs smashed. The farmer would have been annoyed that he had not lifted the blade and passed over it. The advent of the tractor, however, made that impossible.

In regard to grant-aid to gun clubs for restocking, more money should be made available to them. It is ironic but only last week the Cavan and District Gun Club approached me about developing a sanctuary in the area I represent around Butlersbridge, which is a small village and farmland. They want to develop a sanctuary and to stock it with pheasant and partridge. I wholeheartedly support that, as do my neighbours. However, they have little funding for this project so they will fundraise, run a draw and so on. If we are serious about it, grant aid should be available for that type of work. Nobody can set foot on a sanctuary or do any shooting there, not even the landowner. That is a positive approach to preservation, and it is not unique. That happens countywide in Cavan, constituency-wide and nationwide. I emphasise that there are people who have a great interest in hunting, but to blackguard them as people who are out to trample across people's land and shoot all forms of wild life is unfair. There are cowboys in every walk of life, even in politics. However, 90% of people involved in the preservation of wildlife, gun clubs or hunt clubs are honourable, upright and decent people who want to protect what is a benefit for all. There is nothing nicer than to go out for a walk on an evening in May or June and see pheasants, partridge and so on. It is beautiful.

I want to raise another aspect relating to hunt clubs. The Minister may have heard the suggestion that she take out of the Bill a reference to the control of beagles and terriers. When the hunt starts and the hare or the fox takes off, one cannot tell the hounds to stop at the farm of Andrew Boylan or Síle de Valera, that they cannot go in there. The people following the hunt know that, but we are talking about wild animals. When the dog is up and the hunt is on, they take off. I understand that the people who drafted this Bill felt they could impose this regulation and make the hunt club responsible for trespass. If that is the case, it is a cynical way of winding them up instead of being forthright and saying they do not want hunting to take place. I know that is not the intention. In her reply the Minister might state whether she is withdrawing that proposal or whether it is to be part of the Bill. As a rural Deputy it seems silly to me to suggest that a dog can go up this hill but not into that field. I do not know how that could be controlled. I hope that is not the intention.

Let me address the question of pollution. I too was in Ballyjamesduff for the ICMSA meeting. I compliment ICMSA and IFA members who have tremendous interest in the environment. The meeting was an open night of awareness for farmers to inform them about controlling pollution, what grants are available and how to go about it on a partnership basis. Cavan County Council was represented there and there was a tremendous discussion. No farmer would wilfully pollute the waterways adjacent to his farm because his cattle depend on them for drinking water. However, it has happened that silage effluent and the runoff from a farm have made their way into streams and rivers, although not intentionally. The Minister and her officials may not believe it but 15 or 20 years ago when silage making started here, there were grants for putting in silage slabs. Part of the grant included a little drain from the silage slab leading to the nearest stream. This was grant aided, and the grant was not paid unless the drain was completed to take away the runoff. The Minister's officials can check back to see whether that is a fact. I stand over it because I benefited from it. The ignorance was not all on one side. It was not just farmers who were ignorant about the problems of silage effluent. Officials who had done the research came up with the idea of silage slabs rather than making silage on ground that would soak up the effluent which would eventually make its way to streams and rivers. That has all changed now. Farmers must have a tank and farmyards have improved.

There are tremendous benefits from the REP scheme which can be seen on farms which are involved in it. However, there is one problem which is raised time and time again. It relates to the continuous cutting of hedgerows. Under the REP scheme hedges have to be cut. However, these hedges are the habitat of nesting birds. It is not necessary and does not improve the appearance of hedges to cut time like this. They should be tidied, cut on each side, but they should be allowed to grow to their full height so that birds can nest and be safe. The insistence on topping them at three or four feet high takes away shelter for animals and a place for birds to nest. That is not necessary. I agree that hedges should not be allowed to grow wild and should be faced on both sides, but they should not be topped. Not only do they provide a habitat for wild birds but shelter for animals on cold days or from a sudden shower of hailstones. The old farming stock long ago made land of rocks and stones and channel clay and they developed hedgerows for the purpose of shelter. They knew what they were doing. These hedges provided a habitat for wildlife. The Minister should ask the REPs people about that and about the approach to farmyard waste, which is not waste but farmyard fertiliser. Modern tanks hold animal manure which can be used to fertilise the land and should not be described as waste. If it is properly applied, we can cut down on the use of artificial fertiliser, which is the greatest source of pollution. In weather such as we have, when growth is slow, farmers are advised by their Teagasc advisers to spread nitrogen, but the grass is not fit to absorb it and it flows off into the streams. Modern spreaders are so powerful that unless they keep a distance from a drain or a river, it is sprayed directly into them, unlike farmyard manure which is put on with a slurry tank so that the farmer can target the field exactly and protect rivers, and it is not as polluting as artificial manure. If farmers had a different mind set in relation to applying farmyard manure rather than artificial fertilisers, we could cut down substantially on the cost of farming because artificial fertilisers are extremely costly, and we would get the same grass growth and the same benefit, albeit a little later in the year. However, it will be equally rich and give as much benefit as grass grown with artificial fertilisers.

I know the Minister has a keen interest and a great awareness of the problems. I suggest that she talk to the people who are directly involved and ask for advice before she finalises the Bill, and she will have the full support of the House.

The Minister and her officials are to be congratulated on bringing this extensive and balanced range of protective measures before the House. This Bill contains a range of what might be described as disparate and individually unrelated measures. However, they all serve the common purpose of increasing the range of protective measures aimed at protecting our wildlife and ecological heritage in the widest sense.

The provisions of the Bill seek, in a flexible way, to create a positive environment for the protection of species, natural habitats, biological diversity, fossil remains and so on. It seeks to balance the rights and interests of individual citizens, property owners, voluntary organisations, business interests, economic development and all users of our natural environment. It seeks to do so in so far as possible in a constructive, consensual, educational fashion without recourse to compulsion or coercion except as a last resort where it is patently clear that unscrupulous elements and predatory criminals are prepared to defy the law, custom and the common good and place their own greedy short-term and short-sighted interests before everything else.

We are fortunate that we came late to economic and industrial development. We have been given enormous opportunities for preserving our natural heritage by virtue of the fact that, for a variety of historical reasons, the Industrial Revolution passed us by. I hope that future generations will be spared the physical depredations that development and the operation of heavy industry have wrought on the landscapes and wildlife of many countries, including that of our nearest neighbour, over the past few centuries.

We are also fortunate in having a relatively unspoiled and under-populated countryside, at least by European if not by world standards. One has only to visit the Netherlands to fully appreciate how well endowed Ireland is in terms of unspoiled, undeveloped countryside. We are experiencing economic growth on an unprecedented level and prosperity is, with some exceptions which the Government in conjunction with the social partners is intent on tackling, generally benefiting society. One of the benefits of rising prosperity is that it gives us the opportunity and freedom from economic pressure to reflect on our surroundings and consider what we can do best to fulfil ourselves as individuals and as a people once we have satisfied basic economic needs. One of the key areas that can contribute to the physical and psychological well-being of the nation is the care and preservation of our natural environment and the flora and fauna that inhabit it. We are doubly fortunate – I keep repeating this because it is unprecedented in Irish history – that we can, because we have the means to do so, plan our further economic and social development with due regard and equal consideration being given to our natural surroundings as opposed to it having to take a poor second place to activities, some of which were undoubtedly destructive, but were driven by development needs, economic want and so on.

We must be practical in what we do and in this regard it is ironic and not sufficiently appreciated by the public at large that the landscapes in which we live are entirely manmade. This island has been continuously farmed for more than 5,000 years, as anyone who has visited the stunning landscape and interpretative centre at the Céide Fields in Mayo will know. What we see as landscape anywhere in this country has been shaped and fashioned by human beings. It is doubly ironic that if existing legislation to protect our environment and natural surroundings had been in place 4,000 or 5,000 years ago we would not now be protecting the Burren as we know it because it is a landscape that did not occur naturally. It resulted from the depredations of Neolithic "slash and burn" farmers. The development of industry – thankfully nowadays most of our industries are clean – and the development of our physical infrastructure can go forward in a careful and planned way which will have full regard to the needs of citizens and society and will preserve our environment, its flora and fauna for this and future generations.

The Bill provides for the establishment of a system to afford permanent legal protection to national heritage areas against destruction or significant damage and provides for a system of compensation and appeals for NHAs similar to that already in place for special areas of conservation. Many of the areas to be designated are already well known and local authorities have been furnished with maps of what is expected to be included in NHAs so they can take full account of them in their planning deliberations. This level of co-operation is most welcome and it is vital if our natural heritage is to be properly protected. In the circumstances, it is important that in framing legislation and in giving effect to statutory measures the fullest possible consultation takes place across Departments and proper cognisance is taken of policy development in related areas or areas which could impact on the protection of the natural environment. Deputy Boylan referred to this and mentioned that there are open meetings where farmers are advised on pollution and the damage it can do. There are incentives to encourage the elimination of pollution, which is good.

It has not always been the case that the natural environment was protected at either national or EU level. I have in mind particularly the damage caused to many of our important western landscapes and wildlife habitats by overpopulation of hillsides and consequential overgrazing by sheep. The vast increase in sheep numbers is directly attributable to the headage payment system devised in Brussels to support farming populations. This policy now has to be modified, if not reversed, at some cost but only, unfortunately, after widespread environmental damage has been done. On the other hand, it is important to ensure the updating of planning law currently going through the House in the form of the planning Bill, which is designed to remedy the defects of existing planning laws particularly the 1963 Act, is not negated in any way. The 1963 Act has been used to all intents and purposes as a cranks' charter and has been repeatedly used by minority interests to disrupt and delay many worthwhile and necessary social and economic projects. I hope the very necessary measure in the planning Bill designed to eliminate obstacles, free up bottlenecks and generally render the planning process more speedy and efficient will not be negated by the additional protective measures for wildlife set out in the Bill. In this connection I would welcome an assurance from the Minister that there has been full consultation with the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, his Department and the Attorney General on this matter.

The Minister has been at pains to describe the Bill as a balanced one that strives to take account of a multiplicity of interests, some of which are competing, and I hope that due consideration has been given to the concern I expressed about possible conflicts of interest at policymaking level. I am pleased the Minister has devised an appropriate legislative strategy for the protection of NHAs which enables her to secure her ends without having recourse to compulsory purchase. This exemplifies the positive and co-operative philosophy of the Bill.

I am also pleased that farmers who join REPS in these areas will qualify for additional payments for adhering to appropriate or traditional farming practices in proposed NHAs. The REPS is becoming increasingly popular among farmers who are beginning to realise that intensive farming is a mixed blessing rather than the economic panacea it was touted as being some years ago. It has downsides in the degradation of the farming environment and biological diversity generally and many farmers are content to revert to traditional and natural conservational practices if they receive adequate encouragement and support. There may be hope for the corncrake yet, if they take that line.

I also welcome the extension of the existing protection for hedgerows. This has been a concern of mine that I have consistently pursued with a number of Ministers. Hedgerows are also manmade constructs but they are, in both rural and urban areas, a most important source of wildlife. Reference has been made to birds nesting and so on. As Deputy Boylan has stated, hedgerows are being cut down but there is no need for that. They should not be topped but tidied up. They offer shelter and are a habitat for birds. The extension of the period of protection and the restriction on local authorities and State agencies on cutting during specified periods, except for health and safety reasons, is a valuable contribution to further protecting nesting birds.

I welcome the concept of a competency test for hunters. The shooting scene has changed radically over the past 40 to 50 years with the decline of game bird and rural human populations. When I was young and growing up in a rural area one automatically acquired a knowledge of wildlife, firearms and hunting practices. These were imbibed as naturally and as unconsciously as mother's milk and were passed on traditionally from father to son. The key element in such traditional training was respect for game birds and their conservation as well as that of the hunting environment. Those days are gone and many of those now hunting have never experienced such formative and educational processes which provide a naturally solid grounding in conservation as well as the pleasures of the hunt. The provisions of the Bill are an important effort to remedy this deficiency. I am glad to hear the Minister will only put systems in place following close examination and consultation with the relevant parties.

The proposed measures in relation to the regulation of commercial shoot operators, which are a related issue, will put this important source of tourist activity and revenue on a proper statutory footing and will ensure that only those who have full regard to wildlife law and conservation needs are permitted to operate.

I welcome the increases in penalties provided for in the Bill. They will provide effective deterrent powers and are far more commensurate with the scale of the offences, which are not only crimes against wildlife but crimes against society, in that they deprive us of our natural heritage and the sense of well being and completeness we derive from it.

Stiff penalties, including for the first time prison sentences, are essential if we are to protect our wildlife. They are a necessary supplement to such initiatives as the recently announced programme to introduce the golden eagle once again to the national parks on the western seaboard. In this connection I note that some of the farming communities are raising once again the ill-informed and falsely based view that eagles are major predators on new born lambs. This is the type of factually incorrect, irrational and emotional response which led to the slaughter and extinction of the eagle population over 100 years ago. In this context as in many others, I would ask the Minister and her Department to put more resources into educational programmes for conservation and the protection of wildlife. Bodies such as ENFO do valuable work in this area but much more can be done to educate citizens of all ages. I strongly urge the Minister to support the many positive measures in this wide ranging and complex Bill with effective publicity and educational programmes. I thank the Minister and her officials for bringing the Bill before the House.

I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I understand the Minister had a difficult task formulating this comprehensive Bill. I purport to highlight and support many of its initiatives and to bring to the Minister's attention the widespread concerns in respect of certain elements of the Bill. Some of the matters I wish to raise are common to the Minister's constituency and mine.

A few weeks ago the Minister expressed concern, through the media, about the application and effect of many EU directives following implementation at ground level. Therein lies many of the problems and controversies highlighted in the past few years since the legislation on EU directives on SACs, in particular, were signed. Various concerns have been expressed in regard to signed EU directives. I have no doubt the Minister is aware that Fianna Fáil people have said the former Minister, Deputy Michael D. Higgins, has responsibility given the way he accepted them. Given the views he expressed when signing the EU directives on SACs and the boglands, he was of the opinion that they would eliminate the use of the sausage machine and the destruction being caused by them. It was the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, who put the final signature to it because it came within his area of responsibility at the time. He has since disclaimed responsibility for his actions.

Be that as it may, the Minister has an opportunity to redress some of the mistakes, if they were mistakes, by introducing amendments to address these serious concerns which will not go away. Recently a national group, the SAC Alliance, held a recent meeting in Portumna at which some of the Minister's officials attended. Also in attendance were representatives from Waterford and from Kerry to Donegal, including all the western representatives. That organisation has serious reservations. While some of its demands are unreasonable, its legitimate concerns must be taken into account. I urge the Minister to consider those concerns and to allay its fears.

I ask the Minister to make a definitive statement, for the benefit of those who have used the situation to misrepresent anybody who has taken account of it, on access to and availability of bogs for cutting turf. Those who want to misrepresent facts say one must have planning permission while others say it is not necessary and that they will do so with or without planning permission. The Minister would do a fantastic job for many if she were to make a definitive statement outlining the position clearly and unequivocally. I hope she will express the view that those who have traditionally gone to the boglands, whether to raised or blanket bogs, and do not want to be prevented from doing so will be allowed to continue without interference and without seeking the permission from rangers. When one mentions the word "ranger" in our part of the country, what is one talking about?

Very much so. They really think it is the guy with a short draw and the holster.

There are a few cowboys around here.

We will not bring the cowboys into it. That is the reality and there are people who are convinced that is the situation. I heard one of the Minister's officials say one has to get permission from a ranger. I have no doubt about that. I asked him to clarify the situation. I can give an example. There are people who have traditionally gone to Clonmoylan bog on the verge of the Shannon to cut domestic turf – two or three tractor/trailer loads annually. They do no harm and do not desecrate the environment. If they have to ask permission from a ranger, where would they find one? This is so ridiculous that it would not deserve comment but for the fact that it is a real concern.

I ask the Minister to clarify the position once and for all. I recognise there are commercial operators but that is different. Will the Minister acknowledge that these people will have to operate within the law and do what is necessary? Nobody wants to turn that on its head. They are ordinary small landowners and individuals who have had turbary rights for generations. The idea that they would be taken from them is foreign. Irrespective of who steps in their way, politicians, Ministers, Governments or the EU, they are intent on levelling that once and for all. They are emotional about it but sincere.

I have serious reservations about planning permission even for the commercial operators. Local authority officials are already under extreme pressure because of staff shortages and another layer of planning procedure will create chaos. I have nothing against conservationists but they are the most likely people to object to every planning notice they see. In the interest of ordinary every day activities we must be fair and try to accelerate planning applications for the commercial development of boglands. Otherwise a planning application could be submitted early in the season and delayed by planning procedures so that the season would have passed before the turf could be saved.

There must be consistency among Departments. For example, a few years ago the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications gave grants for the drainage and development of bogs. Important work such as road building in bogs was carried out to make the extraction of turf easier. This was at a time when oil prices were escalating and it was felt that we needed to use our own energy source. In a short time that policy has been reversed and the commercial development of bogs is being discouraged. Other Members have referred to other inconsistencies.

There is also inconsistency in the administration of the REP scheme. A few years ago the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development gave grants for the removal of hedgerows in order to make large open fields. These grants were important for farmers who did fantastic work to update farming techniques and made farming more profitable. That policy has also been reversed. Some officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development appear to be making up the rules regarding REPS as they go along. Last week The Clare Champion reported the Minister's statement that she welcomed the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development's decision to rectify the situation with regard to winterages and commonages. That decision was prompted by my request that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development rectify a blatant inconsistency in the REP scheme. When the announcement was made the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltach and the Islands welcomed it. I also welcome it because it has had a serious effect on the smallholders of north Clare and south Galway, adjoining constituencies. It is time the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development put in place a workable scheme which the Department can defend when challenged. It is good that the Department can accept criticism of a scheme and correct it, but in many cases the application and interpretation of schemes by officials is inconsistent and differs from one area to another. Officials in the Galway office appear to be particularly stringent. My criticism has been proved well-founded in many cases. Often what is judged to be good for County Galway is not good for other counties. As a result of this legislation, other Departments which share responsibility in this area must be brought together so that the situation can be streamlined.

In the callows of County Galway parties and individuals from outside are invited to hunt and particularly to shoot. French hunters are the most notorious and will wipe out anything that moves and has a feather. It is important that this practice be eliminated. I have seen hunters provided with the necessary equipment and shooting indiscriminately at a time when cover is minimal and the birds are at their most vulnerable. If this legislation deals with this problem it will be very worthwhile.

There is a new national plan for the development of roads and sites of historical and archaeological importance. Consultants who are now inevitably designing roads and routes must come across such sites. A consultation process must be readily available so that as soon as a site is identified the local authority, in conjunction with the Minister's Department and all the relevant agencies, can move quickly so that delays are kept to a minimum. We know that sometimes a local authority, the National Roads Authority or some other agency are delighted when an obstacle halts a development because the finances are not in place. That situation has now changed and there is no shortage of money for the development of roads. It is important that procedures be put in place so that difficulties can be quickly eliminated.

When the callows in east Galway, Meelick and Eyre Court, were flooded two years ago a voluntary group came together with the local farmers and made an agreement that the nesting places of the corncrakes would be preserved. The farmers agreed to change their pattern of agriculture and that the meadows would not be cut for hay or silage until July or August. This agreement, made on a voluntary basis, indicates the farming community's concern with conservation and this must be acknowledged. In a recent season the summer floods in the callows came early and fodder was ruined overnight. When I, with a farming group, met the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Cuív, in Ballinasloe it was indicated to the farmers that they would be compensated because their commitment to conservation had caused a tremendous loss. Farmers had watched their bales of hay floating down the Shannon or had seen them destroyed with silt and mud caused by the flooding. These farmers are entitled to be cynical about any promise of compensation. Despite that, they have maintained their commitment to conservation and continue the agreed pattern of agriculture. In such instances it should be possible to compensate without fuss or hassle those who are genuinely committed to conservation. It was obvious to those who had visited the site that the individuals concerned had lost heavily and were entitled to compensation because of their positive commitment to the concept. Should there be a recurrence, all concerned should be dealt with reasonably. Would it be possible, if a legitimate case can be made by the Government, to have some of the EU directives in place either revoked or eased temporarily? The Minister expressed concern about this matter recently.

Will the Minister confirm that there is to be an extension of NHAs and SCAs? In doing so will we go overboard and restrict further the activities of those living in the areas concerned where one can no longer obtain planning permission from the county council? Despite all the talk about rural renewal are plants, birds and animals now more important than people? I cannot reconcile those two aspects. It confirms once again that there is a lack of consultation between Departments.

I welcome the Bill. In recent years concern has grown about the protection of wildlife. Those who hunt and those who are concerned with conservation have seen an increase in the threats and dangers to wildlife and the environment which supports it. While the tourism industry benefits by way of visitors from continental Europe who come here on shooting holidays, there is considerable concern that their approach to shooting and hunting is not in keeping with traditional practice here. Legislation which will reasonably and realistically control the activities of all is therefore welcome.

The simple assumption that those who hold firearm licences are familiar with best hunting practices cannot be supported. The introduction of a separate hunting licence to be issued after an applicant has successfully demonstrated a knowledge of and competence in the fundamentals of good hunting practice and conservation is the way forward. While this will pose problems when applied to foreigners, it is important to ensure the norms and standards which apply here are respected. Hunting, correctly conducted, is a way of life and adds much to the enjoyment of rural living but it must be conducted in a non-offensive manner and based on commonsense.

The powers relating to the creation and control of natural heritage areas are important as is the creation of rights of way to allow reasonable access. It is reasonable that activities allowed should be controlled and regulated. It follows therefore that when unapproved works are undertaken the Minister should be able to ensure restoration of the area concerned to its former state. It is equally important that true compensation is paid to landowners in respect of the restrictions placed on their land holdings and the inconvenience caused by the creation of rights of way. It is important that the views of landowners are taken into account in deciding on the least intrusive routes while serving the purpose of their creation.

Part 4 of the Bill deals with the protection of flora and fauna, including plants and seeds. As commerce becomes more competitive and world networking increases, so too does the danger to our flora, fauna, wildlife and animals. We must ensure at all times that our legislation gives the Minister of the day the capacity to address fully the challenges that may be presented to our countryside retreats. The habitat of the wild must be preserved and protection afforded to enforce control. While I appreciate the need to provide for the unintentional killing or destruction of breeding and resting places of a protected wild animal, it is very important that the Minister ensures there is within the Department sufficient resources and personnel to ensure an accidental event is a rare occurrence. Such events should be reported in the annual report, thereby highlighting their significance.

There is a need to exercise control over those who shoot and to ensure those who hunt commercially exercise proper restraint. This is a very important aspect in the long-term good management of the nation's stock. The manner in which the issue of the conservation of hedgerows is addressed is also important. In this context the inclusion of the date of 1 April is to be welcomed. Nesting birds must be fully protected from danger from whatever source.

There are excellent wildlife habitats on the doorstep of this city. I refer in particular to Bull Island, Howth Peninsula and Baldoyle Estuary. Bull Island has been much in the news of late because of the silting of the Blue Lagoon and the damage this is causing to the wildlife habitat of brent geese and other birds which winter here. The experts say that the causeway should be breached near the interpretative centre to allow a flow of water through to prevent silting and preserve the habitat. The area is visited by many foreign visitors.

Excellent work has commenced on the Howth Peninsula to divert the north Dublin drainage scheme from Sutton to Ringsend, thereby eliminating the outfall at the nose of Howth. While this is a welcome development, pollution is still being caused by sewage which is being washed up on strands in the vicinity of Sutton. The county manager informed me recently that rubbish is escaping from landfill sites and gathering on beaches. Nesting birds have been killed as a result.

The Howth Peninsula is unique in the sense that a special amenity area order is being prepared under which building will no longer be allowed on East Mountain which provides an excellent habitat for wildlife. All the necessary works have been completed by Fingal County Council and the special amenity area order is on the desk of the Minister for the Environment and Local Government. The inspectors should have reported on the public inquiry by now. I ask the Minister to take the matter up with the Minister for the Environment and Local Government and have the special amenity area order made as soon as possible.

The Baldoyle Estuary is the over-wintering area for brentgeese. This area was twinned some years ago with Polar Bear Pass. It is a pleasure to see the wildlife in this estuary when travelling from Baldoyle to Portmarnock. However, there are no facilities for people who want to walk along that area to see the wildlife. A pathway should be constructed from Baldoyle to Portmarnock so that people can walk along the area and view the breathtaking scenes of wildlife feeding there. Hides and seats should also be provided so people can view the wildlife in comfort. I ask the Minister to work with the Minister for the Envir onment and Local Government to confirm the special amenity area order for Howth and to extend it to the Baldoyle Estuary because of its unique quality.

I am one of the few people with reservations about this Bill because of the restrictions it places on farmers. I listened this morning to Members talking about yellow hammers and lapwings becoming extinct. However, farmers and their wives and families are becoming extinct. The Land League was started in Mayo by Michael Davitt. I warn the Minister and the Government that people resent SACs, NHAs and the restrictions being placed on them by central government and Europe. I hope this Bill will not further upset and pressurise farmers in an effort to get more people out of rural Ireland.

We were told SACs or NHAs would not interfere with young couples or farmers' sons and daughters living in areas close to their homes. However, if people go to the local authority to talk about planning permission, they will be shown maps of SACs or NHAs which cannot be interfered with because they contain natural habitats. What can be done to help young couples in Ballycroy, Achill and Belmullet? People are angry and frustrated at what is happening.

When we introduce legislation, the Minister expresses one view on how it should be implemented but local authority officials have another view. The Minister of State, Deputy Ó Cuív, was in Westport recently and he told the farmers one thing but the planning office in Mayo County Council told them something else. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Walsh, made a statement at the meeting that he was concerned about planning. Why does he not introduce rules and regulations to simplify it?

I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister last week about a ring fort outside Castlebar which is falling down. The farmer on whose land it is wants to knock it because he is afraid that children will be injured or killed by falling stones and he will be sued. The reply I got from a civil servant, who does not come from the west because he has no understanding of rural life, stated that the farmer should fence around it. We cannot have regulations and rules which state the farmer cannot knock the fort because it is protected by Dúchas but then the Department will not do anything about it. That is not fair or morally right. I was disappointed with the Department's response.

I know Deputy Sargent and the Green Party do not agree with me but he does not live in rural Ireland.

I do. The Deputy should go to north County Dublin sometime.

I do not know much about north County Dublin but I know a lot about the west. The Deputy and his comrades tell us how we should preserve rural Ireland but they do not tell us how we can make a living in it. We must stand up to people like the Deputy and to the Minister and the Government and I will lead the campaign if necessary. We are not looking for anything unreasonable, only a way of life.

Rural Ireland is a lovely place to live, so I invite people from Dublin, Cork or other European cities to visit it to see the green fields. There are no rezoning problems in rural Ireland and councillors will not have to be paid to rezone land. We will assist people in whatever way we can but they must deal with the SACs and NHAs.

One regulation is that county councils cannot cut hedges on main country roads during the mating season. People in rural Ireland are being attacked by the Government and by Europe. I love birds and animals. I do not like cruelty to animals and I do not agree with blood sports. Farmers are the only protectors of rural life and of animals. Who suffered most during the BSE crisis? This problem was created in another country but farmers in rural Ireland suffered. There is more concern about the birds and animals than there is about people. Something must be done about the SACs and NHAs because people resent them.

Ten acres of the land beside people's homes should be zoned so they can use it to build a house for their son or daughter. This area of land should not be designated a special area of conservation or a natural heritage area. If they own the land they should have a right to build a house for their son or daughter on it. The Minister must clarify the planning laws for the local authorities. Ten or five acres of land, depending on whether a farmer has more or less than 20 acres, should be zoned so they can build a house for their son or daughter without having to wait for officials from the Office of Public Works or the Department to make such a decision. People died for the land while taking stones from it to make a living and now European rules and regulations are preventing them from making that living.

I know the Minister has done some work on creating a national park in Ballycroy. However, there is only one decision to be made. Funding was provided in the Operational Programme 1994-1999 but the Minister had to divert it because it would not be finished by 1999. When the former Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Michael Higgins, was leaving the Department, only one decision had to be made. The Minister has a choice of six sites. I ask her to choose a site so we can move forward. This is a beautiful area with many natural resources, but it is deprived. More people leave the area than enter it and this measure would encourage the community and attract visitors who would see the natural habitat at its best. I am not being political when I say I am concerned about this area which has been disadvantaged for many years. The decision should be made and the Minister must deal with whoever is responsible. A number of sites have been offered to the Minister. However, whatever benefits arise from this initiative and wherever the building is located, Ballycroy and its community must benefit. That is from where most of the land is being taken and the area which most needs this development. The Minister should deal with this issue as quickly as possible.

I also hope the Minister and the Government will deal with the public resentment over the rules and regulations. I do not know who the next Government will be but this issue will not go away. I have attended public meetings at which people were annoyed and aggravated. I am concerned that this House introduces laws, rules and regulations, only half of which are enforced. If something benefits the general community it is not implemented, if it is on an official site, officials take a view and implement the decision their way. We must deal with the resentment which exists.

A number of farmers expressed concerns to me about the rights of people who enter their lands. Landowners must have rights and people must obtain permission to cross land. If people want to use land they must pay the landowner. A deal should be done between the landowner and the person who wishes to enter the land. If anything happens on these lands, the Minister, the Government or the courts will not protect farmers. If people lodge large compensation claims, farmers and their families will have to do the worrying as in the past.

I welcome the Bill for which wildlife has waited a long time. I cannot understand how anyone could claim wildlife is getting the upper hand over the interests of humans. The long wait for this Bill shows how low a priority this issue has been for various Governments. The Minister has managed to bring the Bill to the floor of the House although in a staggered fashion, given it was published last July.

This legislation is driven by the EU. For many years we have argued that membership of the EU was good for Ireland and that we benefited in all sorts of ways. This legislation is part of that deal but it is not painful. The only pain being caused at present is the enormous pain caused to wildlife given the many well meaning laws passed which have ensured that wildlife remains the silent victim in many decisions concerning planning, agriculture and other areas which, in themselves, are very worthwhile.

However, I reject the specist mindset which refuses to acknowledge that God created all life, and not just humans, and that all life has rights and is entitled to respect. Wildlife is entitled to the protection of the State even though it cannot vote. Some people seem to think that only those who vote have rights. Children or the very ill cannot vote, yet they have rights. We need to be more broad ranging in our ethics than simply regarding humans who can vote as the ultimate decision makers in respect of what is right and who deserves protection.

Wildlife habitat is rarely considered by humans deciding its fate. Even fellow humans receive scant consideration in decisions to rezone natural habitat areas, as evidenced by the many bizarre and disastrous rezoning decisions where even footpaths for humans were absent after building took place and remain absent many years later. Likewise, wildlife corridors have been omitted in many plans so that wildlife is the silent victim.

This legislation must be greatly strengthened and many of its loopholes closed. We must also wildlife-proof legislation governing related issues such as planning, agriculture, education, when it comes to awareness, and foreign affairs, which can deal with migratory species for which Ireland has international responsibility. This Bill should be a touchstone for other Departments in terms of what needs to be changed in their remit.

Special areas of conservation in particular will be used as a test of the effectiveness of this Bill in terms of our European obligations. The experience so far has not been good. For example, damage has been caused to an area in Brittas Bay which a landowner was informed would be designated as being of scientific importance. This seemed to be an alarm bell after which the area was partially destroyed. It is ironic that because a designated area is destroyed it cannot be redesignated because it lacks the scientific basis on which the original designation was based. We need to address this obvious loophole. There has been no legal action or no sign of such action in this case from Dúchas and the Minister should address this before the Bill becomes law as this area is supposed to be protected.

On 7 March, the European Commission decided that special areas of conservation cannot be altered on cultural or economic grounds. This decision needs to be reflected on in Ireland because many decisions and recommendations, even those emanating from Dúchas, are conditional on cultural and economic criteria. This test case concerned Bristol Port and I urge the Minister not to fall into the same trap as those involved in that case who thought this decision could be watered down.

Unfortunately, Dúchas has not done as good a job as people would expect, particularly those with an interest in wildlife. A black mark over the agency is its willingness to even consider opening State lands to hunting. This is an appalling sell out to the antics of blood sports enthusiasts. Such people have been given the cold shoulder in Britain which was the originator of many blood sports such as coursing and fox hunting. However, it seems that attempts are being made in Ireland to indulge the most barbaric examples of human behaviour which are to be seen in some of these activities. The Minister should not give way on the basic sanctuary which State lands provide for wildlife.

I also hope she will reconsider the issue of night hunting. It seems that this has been argued for on the basis that the fox can be best controlled at night. However, the evidence is that the fox is not a major predator of lambs. Is the Minister considering a curfew so that people do not engage in night hunting which is a dangerous activity for her to endorse?

Many landowers will resist provisions to allow people to bring ferrets, packs of hounds and so on onto land for the purposes of hunting. The Minister should consider the interests of landowners who, for years, have been subjected to intimidation by people and packs of hounds rambling across their land, either on foot or on horseback.

We also have an international obligation to protect the interests of otters. However, even though otters cannot be hunted, mink hunting disturbs their habitat and otters are also hunted under the pretence of mink hunting. When the debate resumes, I will deal with deer hunting, hedgerows, badger snaring, bats and the protection of national heritage areas and special areas of conservation.

The Deputy will have 13 minutes left when the debate resumes.

I hope there will not be an election in the meantime.

One can never tell.

Debate adjourned.