This is an important issue. The 36 hours of debate in the Seanad and the 99 amendments tabled are an indication of the concerns people have about many aspects of this Bill. It has many poor aspects which are causing great disquiet and outrage in different sections of our community, including wildlife groups, environmental activists and small farmers.
There are a number of areas that the Government must reconsider. The Government's late amendment on hedgerows is of particular concern because it removes the oversight of local government and the Road Safety Authority, RSA, to allow landowners to remove hedges based on their own unprofessional assessment.
When the Bill was originally up for debate some months ago, we were able to attend a number of presentations from wildlife groups including BirdWatch Ireland, the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations, the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland and the Irish Wildlife Trust, all of which expressed very real concerns about the potential knock-on effects of parts of this Bill. The measures it contains in respect of the extension of hedgerow cutting and gorse burning dates to run from August through to March are of particular concern.
At present, it is only lawful to burn vegetation or cut hedges between 1 of September and last day of February in each year. The Bill seeks to extend burning season by one month into March, and cutting season by one month into August. We have been warned by wildlife experts that the move will negatively affect the bird-breeding season and the legislation will weaken the laws that are there to protect breeding birds and other biodiversity.
Given that climate change is already impacting on nesting patterns in Ireland, this measure is at odds with a national and international conversation that is taking place in various forums, including the Citizens' Assembly at the weekend. There is more immediate danger in these measures for particular species that are already at risk, such as yellowhammer which nests in hedgerows and still has chicks in nests at specific times. Others birds such as barn owls and curlews, of which there are only 125 pairs left in Ireland - a quite shocking statistic - are also of concern.
A primary concern that was addressed on Committee Stage in the Seanad was the sheer volume of hedge destruction which would be allowed under the Bill. Amendments have gone some way to limiting the hedge-cutting trial to be relevant only on hedges by roadsides.
That is still 20% of our hedgerows. It is a lot and will have a negative effect on species of birds that nest in August.
We wish to highlight that the importance of our already deteriorating hedgerows cannot be overstated. They provide both a habitat and a source of food. They are full of berries and other foods that birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife depend on. August is an incredibly important month for these species, many of which are pollinators and are already in decline internationally. To remove such an important food source at that time of year from species essential to the growth of plant life and future food cultivation in general would be incredibly short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating. To ignore the science on this matter would be incredibly irresponsible, and that is why there has been such an outcry.
Pollinators, including bees, butterflies and other small insects, perform a very important function, a service which human intervention could never provide. This is the delivery of an effective pollination that is vital to crop yields, particularly those of oilseed rape, apples, peas, beans, strawberries, raspberries and clover crops, which are very important in the local and national economy. These are also sustainable food sources that are less damaging than cattle, for example, in terms of carbon emissions, and they may play an important role in the changes needed at a global level. At the Citizens' Assembly last Saturday, a professor of European agricultural policy at Trinity College Dublin, Alan Matthews, made the point that "at a global level, meeting the climate mitigation challenge will require action on food demand patterns, including reduced levels of food waste and shifts towards less meat-intensive diets in developed countries". In that context, the function that pollinators perform cannot be overstated in ensuring food security and in turn enhancing consumer choice, healthy diets, as well as boosting the economy. It is a win-win scenario. Without their service our lands would be barren of other kinds of habitats that are essential to other types of wildlife, including humans. If the bees are under threat then so is our food supply and so are we. That is what is at stake.
These species currently face huge challenges in access to food and places to live, sickness and disease, poisoning with agro-chemicals and other pollutants, as well as climate change. There are also dangers in trade agreements, such as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, which are very relevant because they threaten our right as a state within the EU to vet and regulate against dangerous practices and the use of potentially dangerous and damaging chemicals in agribusiness.
Currently, a third of Irish bee species are threatened with extinction. Historically, bees have played an important role in Irish life and heritage; the copied architecture of monks and their beehive-shaped dwellings are still visible on our landscape. Beekeeping was one of the earliest cultivation industries in the country. Ireland has 20 species of bumblebee and 80 species of solitary bees. Half these species are in serious decline. In 2011 the Irish pollinator initiative attempted to pool expertise to tackle this decline and develop positive action. In 2012 the Office of Public Works, in conjunction with the Botanic Gardens, reintroduced bees into the gardens in Dublin in order to help to restore the bee population. Great effort was put in on that occasion, with exhibitions and literature produced in an attempt to educate people on the importance of protecting our bee population. To now introduce, only five years later, legislation that would threaten the food source of bees is entirely regressive and a bit bizarre.
The extension of the cutting and burning seasons is, according to the Bill, a trial study. Two years are built into the legislation, which may be extended by a further three years by joint resolutions of both Houses. The terms of that trial are not clear and this is enough time to do significant damage, so there is no protective measure in place. What is the desired outcome? If it is about road safety, which is of course a very important matter, why are we suggesting legislation that would effectively hand control of that safety to individual landowners? It does not make sense. It is a blanket measure that, left open to self-regulation and self-interpretation, has the potential to be very damaging.
Contradictions were pointed out in the lack of joined-up thinking by Senator Alice-Mary Higgins in the Seanad. She pointed it out, for example, in respect to the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, in which Ireland has clearly indicated that hedgerows constitute a large portion of our habitat maintenance and greening in order to qualify for the greening section of the CAP payment. It is almost a third of the payment. The two Departments seem to be on different pages. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, under the current Green, Low-carbon, Agri-Environment Scheme, GLAS, lists extensively very specific measures that will be applied in respect of hedgerows, such as the margin around each hedgerow, whether there is a bee box and which particular species is being supported and how. This legislation is completely at odds with that, as the Senator pointed out very effectively in the Seanad debate. It would exempt hedge cutting from the list of offences under the Wildlife Act if a landowner believes the hedge is a threat to road safety, which he or she is not qualified to do. This shifts power from the road authority to individual landowners and allowing them to self-define their exemptions from the cutting season makes a mockery of the purpose of having cutting seasons in the first place. The road authority should remain the only authority to cut outside of the cutting season.
There is also the matter of waterways. We know many small farmers are opposed to this Bill as they see it as a clearing of the land and furthering an agenda of pushing them out to make way for big agriculture. It is a form of privatisation of the land in much the same way as the section on canals is an attempt to fully privatise our waterways and, in doing so, push the historic barge dwellers effectively off the water and out of their homes. For many that choice of living was not simply a lifestyle choice but was the only affordable option for them to own their own home. This Bill intends to give new powers to Waterways Ireland to make changes and enforce by-laws in the areas of its jurisdiction. It is proposed to extend the types of by-laws that Waterways Ireland can enforce and, tellingly, the obligation to maintain the natural and physical heritage of the waterways is not one of those by-laws.
This has been drafted without a satisfactory consultation with the current canal users and, naturally, they feel very strongly that they have been left out of a process with a serious impact on them. There are currently more than 200 permanent canal residents who have homes on our waterways and the new powers granted to Waterways Ireland's officers in this legislation are extreme. The Minister agreed to increase the level of consultation with users groups and local authorities on new or updated by-laws, extending the consultation period to 90 days, but this should be an ongoing consultation. Given the delay in having this debate, this might be something the Minister could clarify. I have raised this on numerous occasions with previous Ministers to ensure that the rights of those barge dwellers are protected. We should promote and facilitate houseboats as an alternative lifestyle choice, a potential amenity and a tourist asset. We can see that in areas like the Netherlands. Those people resident on our waterways have rights and should not be subjected to an authority that changes by-laws whenever it suits that will adversely affect day-to-day living arrangements. It is far too draconian as a power.
This Bill will give powers of stopping and inspection, including the boarding of boats and barges, exercising of search warrants and issuing of on-the-spot fines. We are talking about people's homes and their private domain so that is excessive. These powers are akin to powers currently only exercised by members of An Garda Síochána.
That would be unprecedented. Section 7A allows for authorised officers to impose fines at their own discretion if they believe an offence has been committed, which must be paid within 21 days and with no option to appeal except in front of a judge. This is incredibly harsh and is an unwarranted amount of power. Many people living on houseboats do so because it is all they can afford. They do not have the money for fines or legal proceedings. I do not understand why this agency would be given such punitive powers when other agencies do not have them. That deserves an explanation. I believe a wider plan to privatise our waterways is behind the introduction of these new powers, and I believe it will serve to ensure that certain groups of people, namely, those who cannot afford it, will effectively be priced out and off the water, which would be regrettable. I urge the Minister to accommodate amendments as much as possible and not to push through poor legislation that will cause significant problems which will have to be addressed at a later stage.