Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016: Second Stage (Resumed)

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

I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to speak and note the Minister's presence. We welcome the de-designation of these bogs. In 2014 RPS determined scientifically that these bogs were not of good environmental value for preservation. For a few years there was nothing happening in terms of paperwork being done. People were very anxious in all parts of the country. This does not affect only one part of the country. While it especially affects the west, there are also bogs in the midlands and other parts of the country that were designated. To put it simply, this is a smarter type of a plan.

When designation was carried out initially, areas were included that basically were no good for conservation. It also put an awful burden on the turf cutting community across the country. Now we are looking at areas that are, and will be, fit to be made good conservation areas. If this is done properly, there will be enough bog for ordinary turf cutting families to cut in different parts of the country. I see that Brian Lucas is present again today. I have criticised civil servants many times but I acknowledge the work he has done in the past year to 18 months, when we have moved further forward than in the previous ten years. That should be put on the record.

The Minister and I debated the special areas of conservation, SACs, last year in the House on Question Time. I said they never existed until all of the paperwork had gone through. I believe letters are now being sent here and there. I welcome that RPS is looking at bogs in different areas. We must bring a common-sense attitude to conservation. Doing that will also facilitate domestic turf cutters throughout the country. I emphasise that they are domestic turf cutters. People who cut enough turf for their own households will be left alone. Regardless of whether a bog is located up or down the road, is a redesignated location beside their property or is in the place that was originally designated, people may have to go to a different section and in order that they can all work together. We have always put these proposals forward but, unfortunately, they were not listened to until the past 12 or 18 months. In fairness, things are working more constructively now. Over the years there was much tension and mistrust, so much rebuilding will be required. There is no point in saying it will not. We crawl before we walk and we walk before we run on this matter. We must do it in the correct manner.

Regulations are catching us, even now, in trying to solve all of the problems. One such regulation relates to the 15 km buffer zone. Every county council includes this when one goes to a meeting to discuss putting anything through planning. The council asks if there is a designated site nearby and points to the buffer zone. It is not law but the councils still comply with it. As a result, where we are trying to find solutions or to find a relocation bog, perhaps, it is being caught by the 15 km requirement. That means we would be obliged to do screening, environmental impact assessments, EIAs, and the usual palaver, which cost money, in order to solve a problem for the State. This planning issue was one of the big problems during the negotiations on forming a Government. If the planning situation is not addressed, there will be chaos. If the State is solving a problem for Europe and itself and if turf cutters are willing to work with it for their own betterment and that of the Government and Europe, we must include some type of planning regulation for major infrastructure projects that will basically overrule much of the palaver that must be dealt with. There is a certain element among the public, unfortunately, that would love to see the gates come crashing down and, unless we do as I suggest, the gates will come crashing down. That must be addressed and resolved as soon as possible.

At present, if a farmer in a natural heritage area, NHA, SAC or a special protection area, SPA, wishes to clear a drain that has been there for the last 200 years, they are supposed to get permission to do so. I do not agree with getting permission to do something on my own land that has been done for the last 100 years. Second, if a farmer wishes to put a fence up on his or her land, as happened in Sligo, he or she is obliged to go through the county council to do so because of regulations introduced in 2011. If I have land in Sligo, Roscommon or elsewhere in Ireland on which there is a designation and if a farmer beside me does not have that designation, it will cost me €4,000 just to put a stake into the ground. That is totally unacceptable. It is preventing people from making a living and imposing a burden on them. The same applies to parts of Clare, Kerry and Cork. It is unacceptable for farmers in such situations. It should be remembered that generally these farmers are from small farms. They do not have €4,000. The fence might cost €500 or €600, but we will now put that additional burden on them. That situation must be resolved. Common sense must prevail. One of the tuberculosis, TB, eradication rules from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is that one cannot have one's cattle mixing with other cattle, yet a farmer must still do this.

I have seen so-called environmentalists from An Taisce and their buddies, who are being funded by the Government, lodging objections in Connemara. People from Wicklow are objecting to things in Connemara, Kerry and other areas. That is intolerable, because it is the farmers and people of those areas who have worked on and farmed the land which has the scenery the way it is. In the Burren in County Clare every farmer was told to get off the mountain and to take the cows and sheep off it. They were told they were doing wrong. The problem in this country is that when a scientist or so-called expert makes a mistake, the State pays. However, it should be remembered that if the landowner or the person who farms the land makes a mistake, it comes from their pocket. They do not have the resources to make mistakes. That is the reason we have kept these areas in such good condition down through the years.

RPS has done a great deal of work and I welcome that. However, from now on there must be a fully joint effort on the NHAs and on a review of the other NHAs. Let us be honest. At the time the designation was carried out in the early 1990s the people doing the so-called designations on these bogs were told that it had to be done quickly or Europe would fine us. The only place where a case was taken was when BirdWatch Ireland reported the Irish Government with regard to Dublin Bay. That is where the pressure was applied. We all believe that there are bogs that can be preserved. We are in favour of that. However, we must ensure a heritage, tradition and way of life. Consider the areas where those bogs are located. They are areas where people do not have massive incomes. People cut their few hundred euro worth of turf to have a fire for the winter. This is not about money or compensation. I wish to be very clear about that. This is about a tradition, a way of life and the way a community has functioned and will function. In Connemara one can see buses full of people who are amazed at what the people do in that area. That is what generates tourism and makes a country better - different ways of life in different communities.

With regard to the 15 km buffer zone, be it for building houses, for any development or for solving this problem, we must look at the stuff that is and is not there. The Department will tell one that it is not law, but when one goes to the council it will say that it must go by these guidelines. Europe has its hands too much in the pie. I object, and I will say this anywhere, to Europe telling me how I run my farm if I own it. Either I own it or Europe does, not both of us. Over the next six months to a year, and I spoke to Brian Lucas about this earlier, everybody, including the turf cutting community, must work as hard as we can to resolve all of these problems. I believe we can resolve them step by step. It will not be done overnight.

Some people will complain and some people will be happy. However, we must give everybody a viable alternative. This is the way forward. The ordinary people out there sat down in 2011 and we put proposals together. These were ordinary people with local knowledge telling us about their local areas. This is how to do things and solve problems. I am glad we have made progress in the Minister's area, Cavan, and in parts of Roscommon and many other parts. We will continue to do it.

I welcome the legislation and I thank the Minister for bringing it before the Dáil. The other NHAs for the review need to be sorted. Deputy Moran of the Independent Alliance is beside the Minister and I ask him to keep nudging her and reminding her about the planning permission aspect of the matter. If we do not solve that, we will have do-gooders jumping up and down again and blocking everything. This is about moving forward. We have made more progress during the past five or six years than we did in the previous 16. When we are near the final furlong, we must ensure we do what is necessary to bring it over the line. It will be better for the turf cutting community to ensure they have a clear path and future. It will be better for the Government, and the EU will be a winner. Sometimes, the EU does not see further than its nose and thinks it will only need to threaten people. I am not afraid of its threats.

I will work with the good people out there and the Minister to try to resolve it once and for all. It will take a while and will not be done overnight. There will be the odd blip here and there. If we make as much progress as we have during recent years to get it over the line, it can be done. A heritage, tradition and way of life will be preserved, as well as a way of heating a house for many people who cannot afford any more than €400 or €500. We will also ensure there are higher quality areas of conservation. That is a sensible way of doing something rather than the bull-headed way that applied for many years when people were told to get off their own property, and if they did not comply, there were gardaí and helicopters. That solves nothing. The history of Ireland shows us that conflict leads to more conflict. There is a way forward of working together and it is the only way we can resolve the situation. I support the legislation and will vote for it. I thank the Minister.

For many years, we saw our bogs as a resource to be exploited. We did not understand their value as natural and archaeological heritage, flood regulators and carbon sinks protecting our climate. We were not unique. Most European countries have damaged most of their peatlands. Some, such as the Netherlands, have gone from having enormous expanses of peatland to having almost no bogs left. Most other European countries long ago recognised the value of their bogs. The Dutch regret the loss of their bogs to such an extent that they established an organisation in the 1980s to help conserve Irish bogs and have provided funding to buy and protect bogs in Ireland. Across Europe and the planet, countries are committing to the protection of their peatlands and the rewetting and restoration of large areas of peat. Unfortunately, the Government is not listening to the scientific and economic advice that is leading other countries to reverse the process of peatland and wetland loss.

In Ireland, the scientific foundation for a new approach to our bogs was set out in a major project funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA - and based at UCD - Bogland: Sustainable Management of Peatlands in Ireland, which reported in 2011. The academics who produced the study pointed out that policies for the management of peatland in Ireland are led, not by the public good or the national interest but by single interest groups often against their own long-term interests. Despite recommendations in the report, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, continues to be chronically underfunded. This is demonstrated by the fact that the review of the raised bog natural heritage area network, to which the Bill refers, had to be outsourced to private sector consultants. There is still no meaningful outreach programme to build public awareness and understanding. NGOs such the Irish Peatland Conservation Council and An Taisce do what they can, but it can never be a substitute for a properly funded public awareness campaign.

Communities located near protected bogs, such as Clara bog and other raised bogs which have become tourism resources, have had the chance to see the economic value of protected boglands as well as the amenity value. Abbeyleix bog, which was saved from Bord na Móna by a concerted local campaign, is another example of a community gaining a wider value from its local bog. I welcome the recent announcement by the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, that Bord na Móna lands near Athlone will be allowed to flood as part of the recently announced flood alleviation scheme for the town. However, the fact remains that peat extraction, on a large or small scale, is no longer economical.

On a large scale, electricity customers pay a subsidy to ensure three peat fired power plants continue to operate, despite the fact that they produce more expensive electricity and bodies such as the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, continually advise that the subsidy should be discontinued. On a small scale, the use of turf for domestic heating is inefficient combustion in thermally inefficient houses. It is at considerable expense, leaving many families worse off or even in fuel poverty. During the past five years, NGOs have repeatedly requested that compensation for the end of turf cutting in special areas of conservation and national heritage areas should be integrated with funding from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, to bring houses up to a higher standard of efficiency, comfort and health. However, it seems the different Departments do not want to work in tandem.

Both Bord na Móna and the private contractors which cut turf want to keep doing what they are doing. It is not about what is best for the economy, climate, lands downstream or our threatened wildlife. The Ministers and Departments, which should take the big picture view, cannot see past this narrow sectional interest. Therefore, we have the ridiculous circumstance of sending our officials back and forth to Brussels to ensure we are allowed to keep burning our heritage and deal with the fact that we are not complying with EU laws. These are laws which we helped to write, to which we signed up and which we then failed to implement. This brings us to the small further step in the destruction of our natural heritage contained in the Bill. In 1999, when Ireland was seen to fail to comply with EU law on the environment impact assessment of peat extraction, the European Commission brought us before the European Court of Justice. In that case, C-392/96, the court found Ireland in breach of EU law on environmental impact assessment and stated that its actions on peat extraction resulted in the "unremitting loss of areas of bog of nature conservation importance". Incredibly, since the 1999 ruling, great expanses of peat continue to be extracted in the absence of environmental impact assessment. Much large-scale peat extraction occurs with no planning permission, as demonstrated by analysis of satellite imagery by UCC that was commissioned by Friends of the Irish Environment with funding from the Department. Despite the fact that this unauthorised activity can be seen from space, no planning enforcement action has been undertaken.

To return the European Court of Justice ruling against Ireland in 1999, in order to comply with the ruling, Ireland had to agree changes with the European Commission. This included changing the thresholds for environmental impact assessment of peat extraction and the undertaking of an intensive programme to designate raised and blanket bogs as natural heritage areas. This led to the designation of 75 bogs as natural heritage areas. Nevertheless, in 2016 we have a special Bill put before us by this Government specifically to enable the Minister to de-designate 46 of these 75 bogs. That beggars belief. Why does the Minister refuse to protect our peatlands? In addition to their obvious biodiversity value, peatlands are also very important carbon sinks. Globally, peatlands store an equivalent of 75% of the total amount of atmospheric carbon. Our bogs also act like sponges, helping to protect us from flooding. After many recent catastrophic floods in this country, does this Government get how vital it is to take preventative action and not the exact opposite? Draining and harvesting our bogs prevents them from effectively carrying out this vital natural function. Cutting up our bogs has resulted in silting river beds and lakes, as we have seen with Lough Derg on the Shannon system. Worse still, when drained and harvested, these bogs go from being carbon sinks to being very large sources of carbon, as the cutting process dries out the bog, allowing the remaining peat to oxidise and release CO2. This is why we need to protect our peatlands.

If we are going to have any real chance of preventing climate change, we must keep every ounce of carbon in the ground. As a country we should be world leaders in the conservation of our bogs but there is no leadership in this Bill. It chooses to destroy rather than protect. The Minister may dress the Bill up in whatever way she wishes. To the Green Party and many others, however, it is nothing more than a shameful destruction of our heritage. It will lead to the destruction of part of our past while simultaneously placing little or no value on our future.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I recall the visit of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, to my constituency of Clare a couple of weeks ago. It was a most informative day for many reasons. In preparing for this debate and reading the digest associated with the Bill, I could not help but be reminded of his visit. His initial job was the opening of a new farmers' one-stop shop by Liffey Mills at Ballymaley in Ennis. The turnout of farmers on the day was impressive. This year has been most difficult for the people who hold the sector on their shoulders. Following the event to which I refer, the Minister visited the Burren and got a valuable insight into the Burren farming for conservation programme in Carron, with very good presentations made by Mr. Michael Davoren of Burren IFA, Dr. Brendan Dunford and a host of participating Burren farmers. His day out and about in Clare concluded with a journey across the north and east of the county to Whitegate to speak with a beef farmer knowledge transfer group. This final leg involved travelling through one of the largest hen harrier designated special protection areas in the country, spanning the Sliabh Aughty mountains of north-east Clare and south-east Galway.

The Burren programme is about to enter its second five-year phase. It is a pioneering agricultural scheme that ensures the sustainable agricultural management of high nature value farmland in the area. The unique feature of the scheme is that it has been devised in proper partnership with the local farmers and people of the Burren. This is the most important reason that it has been successful. The farmers of the Burren have travelled a long road since 1995, when they first got together, and there is no doubt that they have engineered, over time, a template that could be replicated right around the country and other jurisdictions if authorities so wish.

This is one of the fundamental issues that this Bill is trying to address. I hope it is not merely window dressing in regard to stakeholder involvement. The sterilisation of east Clare and south Galway farm land over the past number of years, particularly when it comes to the establishment of new forestry, tramples the rights that have been constitutionally invoked in other property sectors. In replies to parliamentary questions I have submitted on the issue, I have been sandbagged with talk about interdepartmental steering groups, stakeholder consultative committees, threat response plans, strategic environmental assessments, appropriate assessments and, to cap it all after many years, a draft plan for public consultation.

The birds directive provides for the protection of all wild birds and requires member states to take special conservation measures for the most threatened species and for migratory birds through the establishment of special protection areas, SPAs, where birds and their habitats have to be maintained in a good conservation status. The State established the SPAs but left it at that; good conservation does not mean people cannot go near the area. This has been proven in the Burren. In the interim and since the six national hen harrier SPAs were designated, the results for the 2015 national hen harrier population survey indicate a decline for Ireland's "sky dancer". It seems that the population could have declined by up to 33% over a 15-year period since the SPAs were introduced. I am obviously not an expert but a calamitous decline such as this surely necessitates the putting in place of something more than a draft plan for public consultation before the end of the year.

In short, the designation of the hen harrier SPAs is not working for anybody as matters stand. It is not working for the farmer or the bird. I use this argument to illustrate the core point I wish to make in respect of the Bill. Section 16(6) of the Wildlife Act 2000 provides that in publishing a notice under section 16, the Minister must have regard to whether, on the basis of the scientific advice available to him or her at that time, the particular area is worthy of conservation. Scientific advice that heretofore has been presented in isolation is not enough. The concept of conservation, as has been proven in the Burren farm conservation programme, must involve actual stakeholders from the very start. In any other walk of life, there would be outrage that a blanket designation in place for almost 20 years has done nothing, while that which it was supposed to protect declined in population by up to 33%.

I welcome the legislation and look forward to its passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas. I hope the Minister will take on board the views I expressed today.

I thank all Deputies who contributed to the debate and I acknowledge that their contributions have been practical and helpful. I emphasise that the main objective of the 2014 natural heritage areas, NHA, review was to consider how the network could contribute to our conservation objectives for raised bog habitats while avoiding unintended impacts on the traditional rights of landowners and turf cutters and minimising the cost arising from compensation payments. The reconfiguration of the raised bog NHA network, which this Bill will facilitate, is based on sound scientific evidence and will have a positive impact on the network.

I will now turn to some of the issues raised in the debate. Deputies Ó Cuív and Tóibín referred to the Special Areas of Conservation, SACs, and 53 raised bog sites have been nominated for designation as SACs as part of Ireland’s obligations under the EU habitats directive. These sites are unaffected by the NHA review's recommendations or the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016, providing for the de-designation of NHA sites.

The position on Coolrain bog SAC, special area of conservation, referred to by Deputy Brian Stanley, is being considered in the context of the finalisation of the national SAC plan. Independent experts are undertaking scientific investigations on this and several other SAC bogs.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked if the Bill allows for the designation of new NHAs, natural heritage areas. The designation of new NHAs is provided for in section 4. It provides that, having considered the proposals arising from the NHA review, having had regard to any screening for assessment or environmental assessment undertaken, and observations or submissions received during public consultation, the Minister shall publish a notice of his or her intention to make a natural heritage area order.

The NHA review proposes the designation as NHAs of 25 currently undesignated raised bogs, which are in public ownership or where there is reduced turf cutting pressure. These sites are being proposed for designation to make up for the loss of habitat in the NHA sites where it is proposed that turf cutting can be allowed to continue.

Deputy Éamon Cuív referred to the N59 road project. I am cognisant this project is important for the region. I fully recognise the importance of ensuring the long-term certainty of this infrastructure project. By complying with national and European laws, it should avoid falling foul of legal challenge. My Department officials and senior scientific personnel continue to work closely with Galway County Council with a view to this project being realised.

Deputies Jackie Cahill and Joe Carey spoke about the protection of the hen harrier. The main issues of land use and the recovery of the hen harrier population have been investigated and discussed by an inter-departmental steering group, along with the stakeholder consultative committee. The report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine into this matter has also been taken into account. Departmental officials will meet bilaterally and as a group with the key Departments to finalise a draft of the hen harrier threat response plan, prior to a public consultation and screening for strategic environmental assessment and appropriate assessment.

Deputy Jackie Cahill spoke about the burning of vegetation. Following a review of section 40 of the Wildlife Acts 1976-2012, I announced proposals to introduce legislation to allow for managed hedge cutting and burning at certain times within the existing closed period on a pilot two-year basis. The legislation required to allow for these pilot measures was included in the Heritage Bill 2016 which is now scheduled for Committee Stage in Seanad Éireann on 9 November.

Deputies Bríd Smith and Catherine Martin referred to the proposed de-designation of NHAs. The NHA review was the most comprehensive analysis undertaken of the raised bog habitat resource. Along with an examination of sites from a nature conservation and management perspective, environmental, technical and socio-economic criteria were used for the NHA review which examined over 270 individual raised bogs. The individual raised bogs examined comprised the 53 raised bog SAC, the existing 75 NHA raised bogs and over 100 non-designated sites.

The review concluded Ireland could more effectively achieve conservation of threatened raised bog habitat through focused protection and restoration of a reconfigured network. The area in the new network will also contribute to the national conservation objective target area for raised bog within the SAC and NHA networks. The proposed de-designation of NHAs will be more than balanced by the proposed designation of new NHAs. These proposed new NHAs are in public ownership or there is reduced turf cutting pressure there.

Deputy Catherine Martin raised education awareness of bogs. In November 2015, the European Commission approved funding for a €5.4 million project under the EU LIFE 2014-2020 programme for the restoration of active raised bog in 12 SAC sites in Ireland. This project, which will operate for five years, commenced in January 2016 and is being implemented by a project team which will work closely with the local communities and stakeholders in advance of the restoration works commencing. There will be a community awareness and education element to this project.

Deputy Martin Kenny mentioned letters issued to landowners on the Connemara bog complex SPA. These letters relate to appeals against the inclusion of land in this proposed SPA. The site has been proposed for classification as an SPA for the protection of a range of bird species and their habitats. These appeals do not relate to the Connemara bog complex SAC which has been nominated for designation to protect a range of habitats and species, including blanket bog. The appeals will be heard by the independent designated areas appeals advisory board.

Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice referred to planning permission and relocation sites. Generally, if a development requires an appropriate assessment because of its potential effect on the integrity of a European site, it is not considered an exempted development. Accordingly, planning permission may be required. However, there are many other considerations such as drainage, the size of the development and whether the environmental impact assessment directive would apply which must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. A Programme for a Partnership Government commits to reviewing the position in the planning code as it relates to turf cutters for domestic use. I will continue to progress this matter. I agree with Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice that we need to continue to work together. My officials and I will work in a collaborative way with all stakeholders on this.

I thank Deputies again for their contributions.

Question put and agreed to.