Deputy Sargent was in possession and has 13 minutes remaining. He has nine minutes until Question Time.
Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, 1999: Second Stage (Resumed).
I feel like some of the wildlife finding various sanctuaries in different parts of the country given the opportunities I am getting to speak on this Bill. I will resume where I left off, that is, dealing with a number of the species mentioned in the Bill. I was about to refer to the otter hunting ban before the debate was adjourned.
The Minister plans to repeal section 26(1) of the Wildlife Act, 1976, whereby the hunting of otters with hounds will be banned. This may sound like a wonderful step forward for those concerned about otters, and that includes many people outside Ireland given that it is one of the last places otters can be found. This is, however, an empty gesture as long as mink hunting with hounds is allowed. Other hunting packs, which no longer require a licence, can hunt otters with impunity under the guise of mink hunting. I have seen film footage of this happen and the amount of destruction and disturbance to otter habitats is, I am sure, illegal in a European context. I ask the Minister to consider that when dealing with amendments. Otters are designated category one status under EU law and they and their habitats should be strictly protected. Hunting mink with packs destroys otter habitats. There are other ways to control mink, which are a problem. Setting hounds after them is neither efficient nor helpful to other species.
I will refer now to carted deer hunting. After a year long review by the Heritage Council and advice from the Attorney General, the Minister has still not said whether the deer hunted by the Ward Union are domestic or wild and she continues to grant a licence for that hunt. Apart from the very repugnant nature of hunting carted deer where, effectively, a domesticated animal is released from the back of a horse box and pursued within an inch of its life, this activity belongs to a past age. It is a relic of a far more cruel and feudal hierarchical society when not only was cruelty inflicted on animals part of normal life but the local squire was in the habit following his hounds in and out of people's gardens, crops and livestock even when lambing was taking place. I do not believe the Minister wants to, or has the right to, endorse that type of behaviour in a country which is under pressure from an agricultural point of view. Many farmers are under considerable pressure without having the added burden of that type of activity taking place on their lands. I ask the Minister to consider carefully her responsibility for that activity.
The more general area of protecting habitats is the important focus of the Bill. The national heritage areas are an improvement on the areas of scientific interest which they replaced from the point of view of legal protection. However, with national heritage areas covering about 7% of land area – there are about 1,200 of them – it is not possible in law for the Minister to say to someone to restore a destroyed area. I do not believe that is a valid response to the crime of the destruction of an NHA. It seems to be accepted as possible, but I have my doubts. NHA protection relies on court injunctions and in the time between the damage being done and the court injunction, more damage is, unfortunately, done.
When it comes to designating NHAs, I recommend that the Minister and her Department look again at the need to have a wildlife equivalent of An Bord Pleanála – some type of appeals structure which would ensure there is a possibility for the issue to be addressed independently. I am afraid that does not happen at the moment. Too many other considerations are taken into account in regard to the conditional protection of wildlife. That is not what the Bill sets out to do or what the EU will tolerate. If compensation is paid to landowners, it should be conditional on agreeing a conservation management plan because that site is part of the nation's heritage as well as private property. The Minister has a responsibility in this regard.
In regard to the fines of £50,000 or two years imprisonment for damaging a NHA, I wonder, slightly tongue-in-cheek, if the Minister might find herself facing such a sanction, particularly following the long drawn out episode at the Glen of the Downs. That will have to wait for the courts and I do not want to impinge on those proceedings.
Hedgerows were mentioned by various Members who spoke loosely around the subject. The comments I heard showed a lack of a certain amount of information. There is an obvious need to protect hedgerows and we should continue to encourage more people to plant and lay hedges. In some cases, 1 April is far too late because people cut hedges right up to that date. In terms of heavy machinery, they should stop cutting hedges on 1 March in some cases. There is a need for regional and geographic differences. Hedge laying is a far more benign and less intrusive activity than a tractor with a flayer on the back cutting everything in its path. I hope a distinction can be made between the activity of hedge laying and using hand tools on hedges and that a certain amount of time will be allowed between April and September which the Bill proposes. We should not equate that benign and far less intrusive activity with general flaying using heavy machinery. There should be a distinction in the Bill because at the moment there is a blanket ban from 1 April to 1 September which is better than it was but it does not allow for the different factors.
Vegetation in hedges does not seem to be protected during those times. That is as important a part of a hedge from a wildlife point of view as the hedge itself. I argue that we should do away with that loophole in the protection of our hedges which are one of the last wildlife corridors in the country given the considerable lack of afforestation, particularly deciduous afforestation. Perhaps that is an issue for another Department but it impinges on the Minister and her responsibilities as well.
The issue of badgers, which is often referred to at Question Time with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, has come up in this Bill, and rightly so. The badger deserves the protection of the Minister, particularly when one considers that over 25,000 badgers have been slaughtered under the TB eradication programme and 86% were perfectly healthy. It seems the badger is being made a scapegoat of the worst order. The real offenders are successive Governments which decided to let the badger take the blame for TB without focusing on other issues, such as the movement of cattle and other factors.