There are two key issues in section 7. The first is to allow burning in March. I live in one of the wettest places in Ireland and the idea of burning anything in February is ludicrous. The reality is that the burning of open hill has been going on for a long time. As I said in the committee, there is a reference in the poem, "Anach Cuan" to "Loscadh sléibhte agus scalladh cléibhe ... ar an mhéid a báthadh". The poet was talking about loscadh sléibhte, which is basically the burning of the hills. It was a type of curse he brought down on them. It was a common phenomenon in his time and we know wildlife thrived at that time. What we are talking about is very limited controlled burning. I ask the Minister to indicate how limited it will be because I understand permission is needed for controlled burning. She might explain to the House just how little controlled burning takes place.
The second issue is that the vegetation on a hill can grow and become very woody. This means the heather is not like fresh heather and contains a great deal of wood. The danger is that if somebody lights a match to it in this kind of weather, outside the burning system, the entire hill, as Deputy Ryan eloquently put it, will go up in flames. The bog will then start to burn and we will have a big problem.
In most cases we do not know who starts these fires. It was very interesting that when some farmers in Connemara were penalised by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine because their hill went on fire, we managed to get the penalty rowed back. It was confirmed by the authorities that none of the farmers penalised was under any suspicion of having lit the fire. We do not know.
Nobody is proposing that we ban visitors to the countryside in hot or dry weather just because somebody might light a match. It could just as easily be somebody from outside the area as inside the area. As to who might do it, careless behaviour knows no limits. There are thousands of people - thankfully - who visit the countryside at this time of the year. All it takes is for somebody to light up during a careless picnic and up goes the mountain. Blaming it on, or presuming the fault lies with, some local farmer is very unfair. I do not attach blame to anybody and I do not believe we should keep anybody out of the countryside. It is a risk we just have to take and live with. Saying that controlled burning in March - it cannot be done in February on most hills - is going to cause destruction to the hills is not understanding what controlled burning is about.
The other proposal in the Bill provides that under regulations not yet specified, hedge cutting would be allowed in August. Perhaps the Minister will confirm in her reply if these regulations would have to be brought in by way of statutory instrument. It would allow for one hedge, that is, roadside hedges. In reality there are eight sides to a hedge. If one takes the top of the hedge as being a side there are another four so there are 12 sides to a hedge, but we will take it as being eight sides. The proposal is for a person to be allowed to cut one side of the hedge, the roadside, in a field that has a roadside. Anyone who thinks that farmers are going to willy-nilly get out very expensive equipment and do the roadside hedges all around the country for no reason and then come back some time later in September or October and do the other sides of the hedge, knows very little about the efficiency of cutting hedges. It would just allow for cutting a side of a hedge in August where it is deemed to be necessary to do so, basically for health and safety reasons. If doing so, a person can do the whole face of the hedge.
It is absolutely true that there is a lot more hedgerow in the State now than 40 or 50 years ago. Land was much more intensively farmed and farmers did an awful lot of hedge cutting in times gone by, and 100 years ago every piece of useable land was used. All of the hedges were cut back in the winter because there was very little other work to do. They really cut them down in wintertime, without a doubt. There is a challenge to biodiversity but is the cutting of roadside hedges the problem or is it pesticides, herbicides and other attacks on habitats? Is it invasive species, including mammals that have come to Ireland, such as mink? Are they the real destroyers or is it roadside hedges being cut in August? We must ask ourselves this question.
I live in a rural area where a lot of people never go down the boreens except the locals. People go along the regional roads and the county class 1 roads, but they have not been down the tertiary roads, up the little valleys or down the little roads. If the Minister was to talk to any parent of any schoolchild about the cutting of hedges before the children go back to school, the parents will tell us that their little sons or daughters should not be put at risk. I am sorry but this is what the parents will tell the Minister; their sons or daughters should not be put at risk for the want of cutting just one face of a hedge in August. This is what is proposed.
The original Bill went further and was going to allow wholesale cutting of hedges in August. We tabled an amendment in the Seanad. The Minister has obviously accepted this amendment, which limits what was intended. I believe it is minimal and puts human life where it should be, ahead of every other consideration.