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.