I move amendment No. 21:
In page 12, line 9, to delete "that section" and substitute "section 40(1)(b)".
Vol. 971 No. 2
I move amendment No. 21:
In page 12, line 9, to delete "that section" and substitute "section 40(1)(b)".
Is the amendment being pressed?
Yes, but I will not call a vote on it.
I move amendment No. 22:
In page 12, line 10, to delete "on the roadside during the month of August" and substitute "for the purpose of ensuring the safe use of public roads during the period 1st March to 31st August".
I move amendment No. 23:
In page 12, between lines 13 and 14, to insert the following:
“(3) Notwithstanding section 40 of the Act of 1976, the Minister may make regulations to restrict the cutting of vegetation growing in any hedge or ditch during the months of February and September of such year as is specified in the regulations, subject to such conditions or restrictions specified in the regulations to ensure the protection of fauna or flora.”.
We move to our consideration of amendment No. 24, which arises out of committee proceedings. Amendments Nos. 24 to 27, inclusive, and 32 are related. Amendment No. 27 is a physical alternative to amendment No. 26. Amendments Nos. 24 to 27, inclusive, and 32 will be discussed together. Will Members leaving the Chamber please do so quietly?
I move amendment No. 24:
In page 12, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following:
“Amendment of Act of 1976
8. The Act of 1976 is amended in section 40—
(a) by the substitution for subsection (2) of the following:
“(2) The Minister may, where no other satisfactory solution exists, derogate from the restrictions of section 40(1) of the Act of 1976 to permit the management of vegetation referred to in section 1(a) and (b) being carried out—
(a) in the interests of public health and safety,
(b) in the interests of air safety,
(c) to prevent serious damage to crops, livestock, forests, fisheries and water,
(d) for the protection of flora and fauna,
subject to regulations which must specify—
(i) the species of wild flora and fauna which are subject to the derogations,
(ii) the conditions of risk and the circumstances of time and place under which such derogations may be granted,
(iii) the authority empowered to declare that the required conditions obtain and to decide what means, arrangements or methods may be used, within what limits and by whom, and
(iv) the controls which will be carried out.”,
(b) subsection (3) is deleted.”.”.
The House has debated this issue at length. We have made the point that there is radical destruction-----
I am sorry, but can the Members leaving please be quiet?
We have discussed this matter at length.
The issues that keep cropping up in this debate include road safety, first and foremost. We have cracked the nut with regard to the fact that road safety can and should be achieved through other mechanisms rather than a carte blanche opportunity to cut back so many hedges over a period. We have discussed the damage that can be caused to particular heathland around the country, and that we know the biodiversity of the planet and this country is collapsing despite the Government articulating a message that it is supporting the country's biodiversity. We discussed the fact that the biodiversity and our own existence are symbiotic. We rely on each other. It is important for our existence that we maintain biodiversity. These amendments simply seek to introduce into the Minister's wherewithal the protection of human life and the biodiversity of the country. If the Minister looks at the words of amendment No. 24 and votes against it, she will be voting against an amendment that simply states that the Minister may, where no other satisfactory solution exists, derogate from the restrictions of section 40(1) of the Act of 1976 to permit the management of vegetation referred to in section 1(a) and (b) being carried out in the interests of public health and safety; in the interests of air safety; to prevent serious damage to crops, livestock, forests, fisheries and water; and for the protection of flora and fauna, subject to the regulations that may exist. A vote against that proposal is a vote against the protections of the particular interests in society that would allow for the management of vegetation. It is hard to believe an amendment as positive and benign as this one would be viewed as a threat by the Government.
Amendment No. 25, the other amendment I have tabled on this section, is similar and provides that the Minister may make regulations to extend, in part or parts of the State, the period of protection referred to in paragraph (a) in order to protect species covered by Article 1 of the birds directive, and to protect individual hedgerows of archaeological, historical, ecological or landscape significance. This issue was raised in last night's debate. The name of the Bill is the Heritage Bill 2016. This amendment outlines our wonderful heritage and opportunities for us to protect it. I ask the Minister to have an open mind and not to take the view that the Government will drive on regardless, a decision has been made and the Government will nail it down by not allowing for proper debate or space for Opposition to put forward positive, supportive amendments. I ask her to accept the amendment.
I regret I was not able to speak last night. I had a public meeting to attend. I spoke strongly against this Bill on Second Stage because the original intent was an abominable tactic by the then Fine Gael Minister to give free rein to cut hedgerows during August. It was a disgraceful proposition. I thank Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív and others who are strongly pushing the agenda to protect birds and wildlife. Deputy Ó Cuív, through an amendment that was accepted in the Seanad and which Fianna Fáil supported, severely emasculated the measure the Government was proposing to allow any hedgerow to be cut in August. In my view, the measure is no longer operable.
I hope the Ceann Comhairle gives me a little latitude. I am speaking about section 7 and Deputy Tóibín's amendment. The truth is that the Minister must introduce regulations to give effect to the measure on cutting hedges on the roadside in August. The procedure is so complicated, and is cleared up by section 8 which Deputy Tóibín seeks to amend, that I believe section 7 will never come into effect or have any impact whatever. It is made clear in section 8 that hedges can be cut in accordance with the Roads Act, which allows hedge-cutting in the interests of public safety. Section 7 is now a dead duck. That is the truth of the matter. Deputy Ó Cuív put forward a compromise to try to represent all views in this area. There is no doubt that section 7 is a dead duck.
I had concerns when I studied section 8 and I have looked closely at the amendment. The section seems to codify existing law. I hope that much of the debate up to this point, apart from the early stages, will amount to much ado about nothing and the position that pertains now, before the Bill has passed, will continue to be the law and there will be no change. There is no way the Minister will introduce regulations for section 7 when hedges are already allowed to be cut on the roadside. It was crazy from the outset to propose in this section that hedges could be cut and the impact on wildlife would be studied thereafter.
I agree with Deputy Tóibín that it is a complete oxymoron to describe this legislation as a heritage Bill. I have no doubt the Minister, Deputy Madigan, would not have introduced the Bill if she had been the Minister at the time. She is simply doing this as a holdover from the previous Minister, who displayed no understanding whatever of the urgent necessity to protect species such as the yellowhammer which nests in August, while also respecting the important principle of road safety and ensuring the safety of human beings. The Minister would have to make regulations under section 7 and in my view, any such regulations would be pointless as they will not achieve anything. They will simple complicate matters. It is open to the Minister not to bother issuing any regulations because regulations would do nothing more than allow what is already allowed under section 8. This is messy, which is not good, but sometimes things are done that way to try to get everybody together and get legislation passed. I hope that is the case. I have expressed my strong views on this.
I have worked closely with my colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív. I pay tribute to him for listening to the wide range of views in the Fianna Fáil Party on this issue. We support the protection of our wildlife and national heritage. The preponderance of opinion in Fine Gael does not quite get that. Nobody in this House, certainly not in my party and most other parties, can be accused of trying to undermine road safety or do anything that would endanger the safety of drivers on our roads.
This Bill has changed to the point of emasculation. I hope I am right in that regard. If that is the case, as I believe it is, it is welcome. I thank Deputy Ó Cuív, the Green Party, Deputy Tóibín and others who have played a strong role in this debate. I also thank our colleagues in the Seanad who have worked hard on this legislation.
In this section, the Government is determined to attack our hedgerows and the wealth of wildlife to which they are home. Our hedgerows act as linear forestry. They provide feeding for birds, insects and mammals. They are integral to biodiversity, pollination, nesting and future breeding. Bumblebees and wild honey bees will also suffer by extending the permitted times to slash and cut down vegetation and flowering wild plants. Bees are clinging on but they face a barrage of man-made hazards, including the pesticides that the Minister referred to last night. Pesticides are the biggest perpetrators but that does not mean we should ignore the effects that hedge-cutting has on bees. It is predicted that one third of all bee species in Ireland will be extinct by 2030 and extending the hedge-cutting dates will amount to death by 1,000 cuts.
Amendment No. 26 proposes to delete section 8 in its entirety, removing the exemption from section 40 of the Wildlife Act for work carried out under section 70 of the Roads Act. This is a point which several Deputies have raised but the Minister has not properly acknowledged. This section does not fall under the same trial period restrictions as section 7(2) but provides a permanent, complete and unregulated exception. The unregulated nature of this exception is very worrying.
The Minister made the point that in the context of hedge cutting under section 7(1), as a result of any ministerial regulations put forward, there would only be the cutting of a single year's growth and that flails would be prohibited but there are no such regulations under section 8. The Minister cannot hide behind the regulations she claims she will make because this is a complete and unregulated exemption entered into primary legislation. Under section 8, anything goes. More than one season's growth goes. Flails are fair game. Amendment No. 27 restricts the disapplication of section 40 of the Wildlife Act and section 8 solely to work carried out by a local authority or pursuant to a notice from a local authority. This amendment would stop section 8 from opening this exemption up to work carried out under any subsection of section 70 of the Roads Act, but would allow people to engage with local authorities to either have obstructions or hazardous material removed or to remove it themselves on foot of notice from a local authority.
Does the Minister intend to introduce a ban on the use of the flail during the nesting season where cutting for road safety is necessary? Its basic design is such that it fires hedge debris back into the heart of the hedge at high speed. Anything in the hedge that could not fly away would not stand a chance. The dangers of this type of machinery are writ large in operators' safety manuals. It is incredible to think that it can be operated on a public road by operators who have not had to pass a competency test in its safe operation. There have been fatalities with this type of machinery. A reciprocating, finger-bar type cutter would be less disruptive but such cutters are not as widespread or readily available as flail machines in many parts of the country.
When a local authority cuts hedges for safety purposes during the nesting season, there is invariably a flag man or two operating to ensure traffic safety while the work is under way. Does the Minister intend to create an equivalent obligation on landowners for hedge cutting to be carried out by individuals? That would make it costly for landowners and no doubt there would be those who would seek to cut corners. Will we be increasing the risk of accidents by permitting landowners to carry out unsupervised hedge cutting on the roads during the busiest month of the year? Has that been considered?
I also wish to clarify statements made by the Minister yesterday. She referred to the work of Birdwatch Ireland, in the context of sections 7 and 8, as being both a flagrant distortion of the facts and unscientific. She repeatedly said yesterday that Birdwatch Ireland had said the decline in numbers of the curlew was due to burnings. Birdwatch Ireland never claimed that. It agreed with the Minister's experts that habitat loss and degradation are the primary reasons that there are only 120 breeding pairs of curlews left in the country. However, Birdwatch Ireland has advised that a relaxation of burning regulations could put the curlew over the edge as a result of habitat loss and degradation. The curlew is not necessarily in the position it is in because of the burning and Birdwatch Ireland never made that claim. However, the Minister's new regulations will sound its death knell. It is important that the Minister understands that she is misinformed and is misattributing to Birdwatch Ireland statements that it simply has not made. With respect, when one is making accusations of misinformation, it is important that one is properly informed.
The changes in this section and the previous one are the most significant roll back of the legal protections for wildlife in the history of the State. Now is the time when we should be increasing our protection for vulnerable wildlife rather than reducing it. There are no positive changes for wildlife as a result of the Bill. Tá an Comhaontas Glas go mór i gcoinne an Bhille seo mar is léir don dall go mbeidh tubaistí gan aon mhaith ag eiceolaíocht na hÉireann agus cothóidh an Bille seo slad mór millteanach ar oidhreacht nádúrtha na tíre.
I wish to speak about the protection of a very important species, namely, the human species. I am going to relay a true story about a lady. I will not give her name because she is now deceased but it is no harm to recount her story and how she was affected by this issue we are debating. Despite her advanced years, this lady travelled on a certain road every morning on her bicycle. She visited cattle she kept in a certain location outside of the village in which she lived in south Kerry. She was used to travelling the road, year in and year out. The road used to be maintained by Kerry County Council by means of councillors' allocations until such time as councillors not just in Kerry but throughout the country were stopped from using their councillors' allocation to cut hedges. From then on, it was the responsibility of the landowners. As the Minister is aware, in many cases the approach taken was haphazard. One landowner might cut his hedges but in another case the landowner might not even be living in this country. Certain sections of the road were being maintained and others were not.
On a particular morning, the lady to whom I refer was cycling on her bicycle on the road and, unfortunately, she was caught by a briar that was hanging out over the road. While we are talking about the protection of birds and bees, will anyone spare a thought for this woman and what happened to her? A very strong briar caught her face and the briar pulled the eye out of its socket and out of her head. That is what happened to her as a result of an overgrown hedge. I would like to hear people talk in this House about the protection of human life when it comes to cutting hedges on the roadside. I would also like people to think about stories like that in this context. It is not as if I do not have a fondness for wildlife and an urge to protect it as much and possibly more than some of the people who profess to be the God-given saviours of wildlife and fauna. I have always said the best people to protect the countryside and all the animals that are in it are the people who own certain sections of it because they were brought up with land and they adore every inch of it whether it is their own, their neighbour's or their friend's.
I want that woman to be remembered tonight while we are discussing hedges. In a time when some people might go running to a solicitor or head for the High Court, does the Minister think she ever mentioned it to Kerry County Council, the landowner or anybody else? She said not a thing in the world. There was never a solicitor's letter written to anybody and there was never a word about it. Her sight was gone from her eye as a result of the horrific injury she suffered that morning but there was never a word about it. She never did or said anything; she went quietly along for the rest of her remaining years with one eye. That was what happened to her as a result of overgrown briars on roadside hedges.
When we are talking about wildlife - birds and bees - I would like us to remember humans. Road safety is of paramount importance and it is discussed in the House a great deal but we must bring it into focus when we are talking about the cutting and maintenance of hedges. Whatever month it is, hedges should be cut for reasons of road safety but only roadside hedges, not those in fields or anywhere else. Hedges should be cut on minor and major roads in the interest of the motorists, cyclists and walkers who use them. That is our first duty in the interest of road safety for the users of the roads. County councils should be allowed to restore the practice that obtained in the past whereby hardworking councillors throughout the country could use their councillors' allocation. Local authorities did a great job of maintaining hedges at that time but, unfortunately, many of our roads are getting narrower, which means cars stay out too far from the hedges and go around bends in the middle of the road when another car is coming. There is nothing being said about that. Whatever one does, one should not kill or endanger a bird or bee, but do not mind people.
It seems that a particular traffic agenda is being put forward by some Members. Anything that can be done to protect road users and assist our councillors, local authorities and landowners to cut back roadside hedgerows when necessary, whether that be in January, June, February, April or at any other time, should be done in the interest of the safety of road users.
How many accidents the cause of which is unattributed occurred as a direct result of overgrown hedges? Neither the RSA, local authorities, the Garda Síochána nor any other organisation has an accurate figure for the number of deaths, serious injuries and other injuries caused by the lack of maintenance of hedges on our roads. The Members who continually talk about birds and bees should start thinking about humans as well because the human species is fairly important and keeping them alive is quite high on my agenda.
The story told by Deputy Michael Healy-Rae is horrific and was tragic for the lady involved. There is no doubt that hedgerows should be maintained such that they are not a danger to people such as that lady or any other road user. That is beyond question. The Members who are concerned about the Bill do not suggest that we should disregard road safety but, rather, the contrary, as we have repeatedly stated. Most of those on my side of this debate have vociferously advocated for road safety in many other debates in the House. Although the story told by the Deputy is a terrible one and there is no doubt that we must find measures to ensure that hedgerows and roadways are maintained such that they are not a danger to road users, whether walkers, cyclists or motorists, it does not follow that the measures in the Bill are the way to go about doing that.
It is equally important to maintain the biodiversity of the country and the planet because humans, birds, bees, plants and trees are interconnected and interdependent. We need each other. If we disregard one species in the misguided belief that we are prioritising another, we will be cutting off our nose to spite our face. That is what is happening on the macro global level: we have damaged our environment to the extent that it is questionable whether we will be able to sustain human life in the longer term and whether some parts of the world will remain habitable. Parts of the planet are turning into deserts because of a lack of biodiversity and the impact of climate change.
Great civilisations have collapsed because of degradation of the environment. As I have previously stated in the House, the great civilisations of ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt collapsed because they did not pay enough attention to the maintenance of the canal network which fertilised the river plains and maintained the biodiversity and fertility of those areas. That is where the biblical myths of plagues of locusts and so on come from. The civilisations collapsed because they failed to protect the things that sustained them. That is exactly what is now happening on a global level. When a third of bee species are threatened with extinction, it is not just about the bees, it is about us and the pollination of the crops we need to produce the food we eat to survive. That is what we are talking about. Nature is about interconnection. It is an ecosystem in which all species are interconnected and interdependent but we are destroying huge parts of that ecosystem.
I often raise the issue of forestry but hedgerows and scrub are of similar importance. Scrub is a baby forest. A hedgerow is a linear forest. The desperately low level of forest cover in this country is a serious problem. Farmers may point out that they have to make a living from the land and they are absolutely right. I agree with them. We must help, support and incentivise farmers to protect biodiversity and increase afforestation and the natural wild growth which will sustain biodiversity. It should not be an us-against-them debate. I have no doubt that the vast majority of farmers know far more about land and wildlife than do I. However, the economic pressure on farmers can sometimes lead them into conflict with the best guardianship of the land as a whole. That is not through a lack of care and it is not the fault of farmers but that pressure exists. It is evident in debates on the national herd and its expansion, which is tied in with global markets and profit. It is not the fault of small farmers and this debate is not about being against farmers. We want to support farmers, who should get handsomely paid for maintaining the diversity of the land, increasing afforestation and allowing the regeneration of natural scrub and forestry. We should not allow the current tension on this issue to lead to the further depletion of biodiversity on the land because that would damage us all.
On amendment No. 26, which seeks to delete section 8, I agree with Deputy Michael Healy-Rae that at the root of this problem is that local authorities no longer have enough employees to maintain the roads and cut back dangerous trees or hedgerows. We now leave it to individuals to do so and give them the legal power to make decisions about whether a hedgerow is a danger to road users. That is not the way we should do things. People should be employed by the local authorities to maintain the hedgerows rather than carte blanche being given to landowners to cut down hedgerows in a manner which is damaging to biodiversity and which, consequently, affects animal and human life.
All Members are concerned about road safety.
A woman I knew was knocked down and killed on a road and it was never ascertained whether the driver who struck her, who did not come from a pub but who left the scene, had been drinking. He did not come forward. That incident inspired me to fixate on every aspect of the issue of road safety. Amendment No. 27 would contribute to road safety. Rather than giving carte blanche to landowners as the Minister and Fianna Fáil suggest, the amendment proposes being very forensic and specific by making reference to section 70(2)(b) and (9) of the Roads Act 1993 such that a person authorised or instructed by the council to cut back a hedge in a situation where there is a safety hazard would be compelled to so, which may take place at any time of year and that the local authority, should it consider that the person may not do so, retains its traditional ability to cut back the hedge to ensure road safety.
No one should question in any way the interest of Members on this side of the House in road safety and their willingness to address that.
Another protection we want to ensure is protection of nature, which we believe is important for the reasons Deputy Boyd Barrett outlined. We are part of an ecological system and when we narrow that system, it brings risks, consequences and knock-on effects that sometimes take a long time to see and are not easy to correlate but are very real. The protection of many bird and bee species is not an insignificant issue.
The Minister's attack in the debate last night on Birdwatch Ireland was incredible and inexcusable. Birdwatch Ireland is a very large reputable organisation that is part of an international organisation. Fifteen thousand people in this country dedicate a lot of their time on a voluntary basis to this cause and to disparage and discredit them in the way the Minister did it last night was wrong. I do not know whether the words she used came from the Department. If they did, there is a real question for the public service to answer in its attitude and approach to the passing of this legislation. If they were the Minister's words, I ask her to withdraw the comments and apologise to perfectly decent and good people who are asking that science would apply in the application of this legislation. On Committee Stage, the Minister changed the percentage in terms of the effect of what was happening in every second sentence. If we are talking about scientific accuracy, fairness and rigour we should start here in the Dáil.
We should scrap this entire Bill and do the scientific analysis that is called upon to understand exactly what is happening in our natural world. Part of the problem is that we do not know what is going on because we do not do enough monitoring. We do not know enough about what is happening with our breeding birds and when they are breeding. The best scientific analysis we have indicates that this provision threatens the yellowhammer, one of the birds on the red list which is threatened with extinction.
There are many different avenues we could take in promoting our amendments. The Minister was satisfied yesterday that we had gone through a consultation process yet the vast majority of the responses in that process had raised serious concern about the threat to wildlife in the provisions for change being advanced. In terms of that consultation process, I have a letter from the head of environmental assessment in the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to the National Parks and Wildlife Service. When asked to consider the approach that should be taken, it stated: "[...] any changes are to be considered that they be based on scientific evidence as to their relative merits as biodiversity protection and enhancement measures and as general environmental protection measures." The EPA further states: "If insufficient evidence is available at this point in time and if there is a need for further research and study of the existing controls then it would be more prudent to leave the controls as they are until such research is completed."
I listened intently on Committee Stage to the reason we were doing this and the only accurate answer I could measure was that it would be handy for contractors. That is not scientific evidence that justifies what will be open season on hedgerow cutting in August. I see no other reason. In discussions with Fianna Fáil on this it seems the only reason it will not vote against the Government is because it believes the local authorities would not respond quickly enough. If that is the concern, that behoves us to resource the local authorities and the National Parks and Wildlife Service and to take road safety and environmental protection seriously and not throw our hands up in the air and say that in respect of environmental laws, no one believes in them, no one applies them in Ireland and we can never get local authorities to answer a telephone call. If that is the reason this Bill is going through the House, that is not good enough.
I beseech Fianna Fáil Members, for their own health of mind, to consider amendment No. 27, which is all about road protection and doing the right thing in terms of road safety but doing that through our local authorities. If they are not to be trusted we should up their game and give them the resources they need to get this right.
Every Member knows that once the word goes out from here that the hedgerows can now be cut in August, that will be done wholesale. No one will be prosecuted and what is advanced in terms of science and environmental protection will go out the window because people will say that is the new rule. That would be a tragic loss.
As someone who comes from a farming background and is still farming, I wish to make a few points about issues that were mentioned earlier. I have a hedgecutter with flails and anyone who has driven one would know that it does not throw the cuttings into the hedge. It puts the cuttings behind the vehicle and a person has to clean up the cuttings. That clarification needs to be made.
Regarding the question as to whether these contractors and farmers are going out to do this work willy-nilly and the safety procedures they will follow, the law of the land applies to a contractor or a farmer. The safety procedures they have to follow are the same for a council worker, a contractor or a farmer. They have to put up the signs, set up properly and must have insurance cover. The reason they have that is because we saw what the national parks were put through a year ago. I read about it in the newspapers and saw it on television. They put amenities in place for people in certain counties and then had to spend hundreds of thousands of euro defending themselves in the courts because they were sued. The same applies to a farmer or a contractor. The insurance premium for a contractor is high, but that is the reality we face.
I said last night and I repeat now, and I ask the Minister to listen, that under GLAS farmers have to adhere to stringent measures, one of which applies to placing sand down for bees. I explained about this last night. I do not have 40 letters after my name but I listen to what farmers are saying. One would learn more from them in an hour than many a person with 40 letters after their name. Farmers tell me day in, day out that the sand has worked, everything is lovely but, unfortunately, some wildlife are eating other species of wildlife. That is something we may have to address. I do not know how we will solve that but the principle of what is being done by farmers to improve the environment, through the GLAS scheme, is working. That must be recognised.
The issue of scrub vegetation needs to be addressed. I am sure Deputies Boyd Barrett and Eamon Ryan would agree with me on that. Heather grows in Deputy Ó Cuív's area and in mountain areas but it does not grow to be a tree, and neither do briars. However, under the single farm payment scheme a farmer must show that his land is being grazed. The hills were overstocked at one time. The experts then came in and said the stock had to be cut down to X amount. Sheep will not decide to eat a bit of grass to make sure the agricultural inspector thinks everything is lovely. They will go to the sweetest pick, as we call it down the country, and a piece of the land may not be grazed. Unfortunately, those farmers' grants will be cut. Under the new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, a budget should be given to the national parks to assist farmers who have designated land because they are fearful when someone calls to their property with respect to the grazing section of their land. This issue has not been solved. Something needs to be done about it, and I would be fully in favour of that.
It was said earlier that from August onwards, farmers will be driving up and down the roads doing this work.
That is not their aim; there is plenty to do other than doing that. There are roads in rural parts of Ireland that are about 2 m or 2.5 m wide. This minute people would probably only get a bicycle down them. There are cars being scratched on either side. These are the problems that have to be addressed. Some of it is ordinary grass, and there are branches or the hedge growing out. It is not that they are going to demolish every hedge; that is not their business. The one thing they need to be able to do is go up and down the road as best as possible. I will finish at that because I am not going to hog the time.
A lot of politicians are all talk about the protection of the environment when in fact they collude in its destruction. We only have to look at the situation in Bantry Bay where this Government and previous Governments granted a mechanical harvesting licence against the people's wishes. The licence will cause havoc to the sea waters of Bantry Bay and will have a huge effect on the livelihoods of fishermen. Not alone this Government but previous Governments going back many years played a part in that.
Tonight we are debating whether the burning of our uplands in March and the cutting of our roadside hedgerows in August should be allowed. I am a farmer and like all farmers I have full respect for all living creatures, from livestock to birds to bees. I do not have a wish to create any harm to any living creature but I have to be realistic. A bit of common sense has to apply about the livelihoods of people who are dependent on the land. It is becoming massively difficult for farmers. I see this in my own constituency in areas of west Cork, farmers on the Mizen Head, Bantry, Skibbereen, Ballyroe, Timoleague, Ballinascarthy, Sheep's Head, Beara and Dunmanway. The list goes on. They are all finding it difficult to make a living and they are pushed to the pin of their collar.
I have pleaded with the Minister not to punish farmers whose land has been burned through no fault of their own. In the current heatwave the risk of farmland getting accidentally burned is extremely high. I have seen farmers being accused of burning their own lands in the prohibited period, but in all honesty no farmer in his right mind would do this and suffer the severe penalties afterwards.
I heard one Deputy saying that farmers should get paid for the protection of nature on their lands. They do not realise many of these farmers got fined tens of thousands of euro four or five years ago for having gorse on their land. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine issued them with massive fines. I know there is a legal case pending in that regard but it has been ongoing for quite some time. There is no help here. There is no funding available for farmers to protect their lands because every time they do so, there is a massive fine applied to them. A lot of farmers' land was burned through no fault of their own out of season last year and a lot of them have not received payments. If a fire was started on the roadside by somebody passing, that farmer and many of his neighbours ended up being refused payments on the basis that their lands were burned through no fault of their own. The Department has to have more understanding of this issue. If it cannot legally prove who burned the lands, it should step back and make the payments.
People are talking about our hedgerows and I ask them to look again and take note of the continued problem of litter being dumped into them. We are all here tonight talking about this Bill and what is the best for nature. We need to accept that billions of tonnes of plastic in landfill or in the sea are destroying our natural habitats. We need to address this urgently.
Someone who is in the countryside at the moment need only look over the hedgerows to see the sad sight of cattle standing in dry, dusty pastures with severe water shortages. These cattle are being fed from the first cut silage and next winter's fodder without any sign of growth. Farmers have suffered greatly in the last year with the fodder crisis and now the shortage of water. This affects them into next year, not just now. I am calling on the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to put provisions in place. Let us not repeat the mistakes of the fodder crisis we had earlier this year by reacting when it is too late. We need action now.
One Deputy mentioned road deaths. We have had a lot of discussion about that issue in the last number of months. It has led to at least some understanding of rural Ireland and is some start in the right direction but it has taken us quite a long time to get the Minister to make moves. People make a lot of assumptions. During Storm Ophelia, roadside trees were the cause of three deaths in one day alone. People make assumptions if somebody dies or if somebody leaves a scene that the person was drinking. That is a crazy assumption and until they have proof people should not be making such assumptions and they should not be voting on a certain issue until they understand what is going on.
Verge cutting in August is a mistake - it should be all the year around - but it is a move in the right direction. When I was a child, Cork County Council workers used to be out every day during the summer. They did a fabulous job keeping the roadside lovely and clean and kept the people safe and sound in their community. Now when they are driving into a crossroads, people are pushing half the car out across the main road to make sure the road is clear to pass on the left and right and they are getting blown off the road. It is an absolute terror. I commend the thousands of people who are out with their strimmers every night cutting back the roadsides along their roads because of the dangers. It is obvious that a lot of city Deputies do not understand. It is beautiful weather and I invite everyone from the urban side of politics to book a holiday in rural Ireland and get to see the real facts of what is happening there, how people are trying to get about their daily business. They could do it in the 1960s, 70s and 80s and by God all those birds and bees were well protected by them but they cannot do it at all now. We cannot cut a verge.
I commend Cork County Council on making a fund available when the season is open. In my own community in Goleen every verge was cut in October or November last year by way of a grant that was applied for. It cost maybe €10,000 but it was well used and greatly appreciated by everybody. I heard nobody objecting to it. I have people coming into my constituency office pleading with me to get the verges cut and saying their road is in an appalling state. We are not talking about inside a ditch at all. I am in organic farming myself so I really have a fairly good understanding of nature. We are talking about roadside verges that have to be maintained. People are going back to the car rental companies and they are not getting their deposits back. It is shocking bad for tourism. Their cars are being damaged and torn asunder with briars. I will support the Bill as best I can.
I want to say this as sensitively and as diplomatically as I can. There is an argument and a construct being put before us that somehow the rural Deputies are being set in conflict with the city Deputies. I utterly reject that on the basis of what has already been said. Despite the danger of repetition, I think it needs to be said again that there has been the deregulation of local authorities' role in the maintenance of our local environment. Despite the introduction of the property tax, which was fiercely resisted, the facilities, staffing and autonomy of the local authorities to carry out the role they are supposed to perform has been seriously undermined. Therefore, whether people are near Goleen or in Kilgarvan or in Ballyfermot or Crumlin, they will witness overgrowth, neglect and problems with the way our environment is ignored by local authorities that are underfunded and understaffed.
This Bill does exactly what we do not need. It introduces risks to our environment and to our already endangered species; it introduces a divide between rural and urban Ireland on a very false and obscene basis, to be honest, and it does so without consulting the people who have to live and work in these areas or indeed the scientists and naturalists who understand what is happening with the environment.
I am appealing to the Minister to scrap sections 7 and 8 and to open up a public consultation on these issues - one that unites the country and all people with an interest in a society that funds the maintenance of the public space in a proper way.
I must admire rural Deputies who are very eloquent in the way they tell stories. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae would have us listening to his lovely Kerry sing-song accent all night talking about the woman who nearly lost her eye-----
She did lose her eye.
-----and that is a dreadful story. By the way, people in cities almost lose their eyes sometimes when they pass by hedgerows and trees that are not cut properly by local authorities. I have every sympathy for that woman and I believe every word the Deputy said but it is not just a problem in rural Ireland. It also happens in cities where there is neglect of our environment. We regularly trip over uneven paths and break bones and regularly fall over tree stumps that are breaking up through the concrete on our roads. Another eloquent story I heard yesterday was told by Deputy Ó Cuív when he described how they used to cut back the hedges and bend back the trees to allow them to grow in a certain way so they were training them back and at the same time, preserving the wildlife. He referred to the method involved by using a beautiful Irish word. I would love to know more about that. Why do we not revert to that sort of maintenance of our environment instead of saying "Here you go. Off you pop and slash and burn"? It is not good enough and it does not represent what is needed in this tiny island which is already suffering the effects of climate change, which some people do not believe in, and other aspects of the degradation of the environment. It should not be the farmers or the city slickers that bear the cost. Instead, the Minister should scrap these sections and open up a proper scientific debate and public consultation about what needs to be done.
One of the conclusions will be that we need to fund the local authorities and control this properly. Most of the Deputies here - including myself and Deputies Boyd Barrett and Gino Kenny - previously served as councillors. We know the difficulty local authorities face in putting their budgets together. We know how many people come screaming at us complaining that the councils are not cutting down the trees, that trees are growing over roadways and that children are running into them. There are ways around all of that. One way is to draft an alternative Bill which directs the Government to restore the local authority fund in full. The Government slashed that fund to bits over the past decade. It needs to restore both the fund and the staffing complement, end any embargo on recruitment and begin to look at these issues in a sensible, controlled and regulated way where matters are not left to individuals. Deputy Michael Collins's neighbours should not have to be out cutting hedges every night of the week. Regardless of whether people enjoy doing that, they should not be obliged do it. Hedge cutting should be done by the local authorities.
I want to challenge the idea that minor roads are dangerous. My car gets scraped every night on the roads I come through in Ballyfermot. I am sure rented cars get scraped when they are going through Kilgarvan or Connemara but that is not the issue. Places are made dangerous because they are badly maintained. It is not that we set out deliberately to say "Eff you in the country. All we care about are the birds and bees." Of course, we care about the people who inhabit the area. We were one of the chief organisations to mount that protest over the harvesting of kelp in Bantry Bay. Our branch of People Before Profit in west Cork got stuck in there and helped to organise that because we care about the environment and the relationship people in this country have with it. The Minister and her Department clearly do not. What was in their heads while they were drafting this Bill to placate some element of Irish society instead of treating the environment as a precious gift that belongs to all of us and that we must research, look at scientifically and moderately and discuss together instead of dividing us between them over there and us over here as if we have a problem? We should be working together on the one theme and that is heritage. The Minister has responsibility for heritage. She has an opportunity tonight to behave in a ministerial manner and support these amendments.
If we could bottle all the conversation here, we could sell it at a profit - perhaps to tourists. I appreciate the difficulties facing people who are farming either on a small or large scale. It is a business but it is very much a heritage issue where people are in many ways custodians of the land that they hope in turn to pass on to their families or somebody else in their community. Many young people - and I am quite sure individuals over here are very knowledgeable about it - are turning against consuming meat of any kind because they find the kind of farming that is now practised lacking in humaneness and are no longer convinced of the quality of many agricultural standards, regardless of whether these relate to animals or to what companies such as Monsanto have done in terms of using chemicals and science in the area of agricultural development.
We all - farmers and people who live in urban areas - have a mutual interest in ensuring that we respect and care for the environment and that we hand it on to our children and grandchildren. Traditionally, that has been a really strong value in rural Ireland and it has given rise to the sense of kinship, community and meitheal that is so strong. What is disappointing and sad about this debate is the fact that it is a confrontation between two sides that do not want to compromise. Unfortunately, Fine Gael is brokering this negativity in a way which really does not help people in cities and which, in the long term, has the potential to be very destructive for farming, farm-based agribusiness development and tourism in rural areas. Deputy Michael Collins spoke about west Cork. We all understand that unlike west Dublin, west Cork is very unlikely to get an IT company popping in to set up operations and create 1,000 jobs. In real terms, farm incomes and sustainable businesses, including agribusinesses and tourism interests, are vital to keeping people in and visitors coming to these areas. I am not nervous about the people who are talking about farming understanding what they are talking about but I am nervous about the approach that is driving this Bill, which is essentially all about how to do it in the most convenient way but which could turn out to be the most destructive way. Many Deputies, Senators and parties have made a reasonable request to the Minister to consult and to share the relevant information on the scientific evidence regarding what is best. It is true that many people in towns and cities worry when they see hillsides burning. Again, if the latter is done at appropriate times of the year and in a controlled way that does not put species in danger - be it in terms of pollinators, insects, birds and other wildlife - that is critically important. I am disappointed that the Minister is unwilling to address these issues.
Deputy Ó Cuív and I have had a lot of involvement with the rural social scheme.
Deputy Ó Cuív initiated what is a very good initiative that is very popular in rural Ireland. I think the small extension which the Government has made consequent upon more prosperity is ridiculously small. Right around rural Ireland there is a problem with employment. There is some employment but there is not enough for all of the people who want to be active and who can contribute. Part of the solution to some of the problems which have been aired tonight is around essentially looking after the habitat in a way which is good for humans and lets the people living there, whether it is the middle of winter or the middle of summer, live in a reasonable way, just as we want to do in the city.
Will the Minister cite the science on which her approach has been based? In the context of tourism, I cannot understand the reasons for extending the burning seasons or the unwillingness to accept the arguments in regard to hedge cutting. Deputy Ó Cuív made a remark last night that if one looks out from his part of Cornamona, one will see the hedges are getting bigger, not smaller. I know the area pretty well, as the Deputy knows. All over Ireland, but particularly in the east, the big difference is that more and more fields are being amalgamated, with the hedges being grubbed out. Therefore, although there may be some bigger hedges, there is a massive reduction in the number of hedgerows on the island of Ireland. We have no data in terms of an actual count, which again is scientific data we should have for a proper discussion. I support the amendments. The Minister needs to think twice.
I am glad to get the opportunity to talk again on the Bill because, as I see it, it is one of the most important Bills to come into this Chamber since I have come here. What this is about is the right of people in rural areas to have a safe road to their door, and that is all they are asking. The Members around me in the House have no briars prohibiting them from getting to their doors. I have no personal gripe with them but I have listened to enough rubbish now and I am taking no more of it. This Bill is about allowing people to go safely on narrow roads to their door and allowing their children and old people to walk and cycle without their eyes being taken out. All we are doing here is extending hedge cutting to allow people to cut in the month of August. If I had my way, the roadside hedges would be cut all the year round, full stop. We are entitled to that.
Those supporting these amendments have the Luas, trains, buses, taxis and everything else and they do not give one damn. They are taken to their door and they do not have to operate a car, pay tax or insurance or pay for anything else, but they want to stop the people in rural Ireland from having a safe passage to their door. I regret it but that is what they are trying to do.
Countrywide, I have nothing at all against birds or bees or any other thing-----
Deputy, will you please address the Bill, not the Deputies?
They were addressing me when they were looking this way. I can look around too, Acting Chairman, and I am entitled to do that. I will tell you one thing, Acting Chairman. I have no gripe with birds, bees or any other thing like that, and I would love to hear the curlew singing. However, they have the countryside besides the roadside - they have all the rest of the country. We are not saying when the hedges should be cut in the rest of the country.
In addition, we are asking that farmers be allowed to burn their scrubland because they are being fined by Europe if they do not have their ground clean. In that type of ground, if anyone in the House does not know it, people cannot operate a lawn-mower, a mowing machine or a forage harvester. The only way they can clean these places is by what I would call controlled burning. Farmers are being blamed for burning and gorse fires. I want to mention two sad stories from places where people did not get their payments for their Christmas dinner, in Tuosist to the west of Kenmare and in Awnaskirtaun near Rathmore. The people involved did not set the fires or put the fires there. They reported them to the fire brigade and gave every help they could to stop the fires but they are still without most of their payments, which is not right. All they are asking for is to be allowed to burn their ground for the month of March. It is allowed in the North of Ireland, which is the same country, until 15 April. What is so different about us here? It is ridiculous.
I heard Deputy Burton say there is something wrong with the way farmers are producing meat and that people are moving away from meat. Farmers were never more regulated and they produce their products to the highest standard. They have done everything they can to help the environment by building slatted tanks and slatted sheds, they are holding effluent and doing everything that is required and requested of them. They are doing their level best and it is very wrong to blame the farmer.
What I will fight for is the people of rural Ireland, who are entitled to a safe road to their door. There are deaths on our roads and I would like to eliminate as many of them as possible. We had the death of poor Denise Crowley before Christmas last year. We asked for a simple thing, to change the speed limit signs in Glenflesk village. Down the road at Rusheenbeg, where five people had been killed one after the other, we asked for a safety barrier but we did not get it and we have not got it yet, although several other elected representatives have asked for it besides me. What we are asking for now, and it has been asked for in our local authority for the last ten years or more, is that the roadside hedges are cut so people can come and go safely.
If people were interested in ground nesting birds, there are other things we could do. We could talk about vermin, mink, foxes, magpies, grey crows, badgers and rats. They are hurting the nests way more than what it is suggested this Bill will do in regard to cutting roadside hedges. That is a fact. They should go after them but they will not do that at all. They will only go after the poor people in rural Ireland and ensure their roads are made narrower, with trees falling down on them. We cannot touch a tree, a bush or a briar. They say: "Let them suffer on, let them manage any way they can, and do not allow the roadside hedges to be cut."
I am very critical of the Government for certain things it is not doing and will remain so. However, I support it 100% in what it is doing in the Bill. If I had my way, and I had an amendment down on this, I would ask that the hedges be cut all year round, but we will take this much for now because the people really need it to make the roads safe. Our roads are narrow whereas there is no problem up here. Here, they have motorways, with three lanes going down one side and three or maybe four coming up the other side, and the sides of those roads are being cut all year round - they are cut the whole time. Why make fish of one and something else of the other? It is just not fair.
I have no personal gripe about this but it will hurt rural Ireland if it is not addressed. I appeal to those putting forward the amendments to give over because it will create a divide eventually if they try to stop these roadside hedges being cut and stop burning for the month of March. These are minimal requirements and we would not fight so hard for them except people out there are waiting for this.
I ask the Minister to progress the legislation as quickly as possible given the huge number of people who are asking for it. Their roads are in a shocking state.
Deputy Eamon Ryan is correct in one regard but it does not relate to the amendments under discussion. He is right in that the Bill in its original form allowed contractors to cut in August. I have no doubt of that. However, a Fianna Fáil amendment was accepted in the Seanad to do away with that justification. No contractor is pulling out a machine to do just one of the eight faces of a hedge in a field. We are talking about an issue that Fianna Fáil has dealt with. I have to take issue also with Deputy Burton on the market for meat drying up. Cattle have been of huge importance in Ireland going all the way back to mythology and Queen Medb but that has not been so true of the growing of grains. When one looks at the topography of a large part of the country, one realises that a lot of fields, including most of the fields where I live, are not fit for ploughing. Cattle and sheep have been the way to farm those lands for centuries upon centuries.
We have had a great Second Stage debate, but we should look at section 8 and the proposed amendment to it. Section 8 provides that the Road Traffic Act 1993 is excluded from any prohibition in the Bill. We should look at what the Road Traffic Act provides as that is what is at issue here as opposed to the talk that has been going on here for the past hour. It states explicitly that the owner or occupier of land shall take all reasonable steps to ensure that a tree, shrub, hedge or other vegetation on land is not a hazard or potential hazard to persons using public roads and that it does not obstruct or interfere with the safe use of a public road or the maintenance of a public road. The Wildlife Act as enacted contradicted the Road Traffic Act. If one tried to bring a prosecution under the former of a person who had cut a hedge in the closed period on a road for safety reasons, his or her solicitor would have quoted the Road Traffic Act to the judge and said there were two Acts in conflict. The legal understanding I have is that what we are doing here is to have these rhyming for once. The Road Traffic Act will not be made illegal by another Act even though in itself it is still legal.
I remember being on a local authority. Time and again, it said the legal responsibility to cut roadside hedges rested with the owner of the land and not with the local authority. Certainly, my local authority cuts hedges in winter, for which we are grateful. It does the main roads and not every bóithrín. One gets lots of people ringing to beg one to get the hedge cutter in given the major challenge presented by the type of farming and society we have, particularly with older people who have no way of cutting hedges in occupation of properties. We are allowing an owner-occupier to cut a tree, shrub, hedge or other vegetation on land to ensure it is not a hazard or potential hazard to persons using a public road. It is no more or less than that. Any other cutting of hedges in the closed period will be illegal. It is as simple as that.
One must also consider the practicality of this. Does anyone think a person will hire a contractor just for the fun of cutting outside hedges? I note the cost of hiring a contractor and getting that contractor, the required safety equipment and the necessary warning signs in place to cut a few hundred yards of hedge. It is not just a question of coming down the road and cutting the hedge. Why would anyone do that in the middle of summer if there were not an urgent safety issue? A great deal of hedge cutting in the area where I live is more likely to be done with hand-held strimmers than by the larger tractor-mounted equipment. Little is going to change. The idea that there is a whole lot of people out there waiting to cut hedges fails to recognise the sensible dynamic here, which is that one can cut a hedge for one reason only, namely safety. That is the only thing that is legal. There is no incentive in any event to go beyond that as it would not be economical for the farmer. The problem is often one of getting owners to cut hedges which are lethally dangerous.
There has been a wide debate. I agree that nature is under threat not only in the countryside, but in the cities as well. I grew up within a mile of this building and I note that a lot of the lungs that were in the city have disappeared in my lifetime. Many of the large gardens and even the urban farms that used to exist are gone. There was a great deal of life in the city when there were long gardens at the backs of the houses not far from here, which are now covered in Tarmac or which have been built on to provide mews housing. There has been an intensification of building in the city, which I regret. I remember being woken up by the dawn chorus here. While I regret that, it is a question of having to house our people. One cannot have it every way. There are massive challenges for wildlife and I do not make light of them. What we are doing here, however, is minor. We are simply making it legal to do no more or less than is required of a landowner. It is not something optional but is rather an obligation on a landowner under section 70 of the Roads Act 1993. We should stick to the subject.
I thank the Acting Chairman for letting me in. I am sorry I was not here earlier, albeit I was here for the votes and I am aware that this is a difficult and challenging matter. The Bill has had a long gestation and it has been widely debated. We have met people from all sides on it. I should declare an interest first in that I am an agricultural and plant contractor who is often involved in clearing vegetation and work like that.
We have to get the balance right between the environment, our flora and fauna and the need to have productive crops. I recall that ten years ago, set-aside was at its height. There is still set-aside. One was paid by Europe to spray the finest land in the Golden Vale in Tipperary and everywhere else in the country. It was part of the EU's deal-making. To this day, I consider it to have been abhorrent. It was a scorched earth policy. Everything was sprayed in the fields and one was paid to do it. It was regressive and contrary to nature. A field mouse could not live there. There were just ploughed fields. It was like the scorched earth one sees in wartime. As such, policies we have had here and at EU level over a long number of years have been detrimental to wildlife.
I remember cutting hay with a finger bar mower. One cut from the headlands in and tried to mind the corncrake and pheasants. There was generally a buachaill or cailín on the tractor too and one often got off the tractor to encourage the pheasants and other wildlife to move away from the machinery and back to the sward. That does not happen with the massive equipment being used now. A large mower is brought to a field to cut an 18 ft or 20 ft swathe with everything going into the middle. God help anything that is before it. That is mechanisation and modernisation, however, and the way agricultural contractors and farmers must operate to keep up with the times.
The cost of these machines is unbelievable.
The reason I support parts of the Bill is that when it comes down to either the health and safety of a human being or the safety and protection of wildlife species, I come down straight on the side of the health and safety of a human being. We are debating the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport's Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2017 for the past God knows how long and some of us are being accused of being anti-----
It is the Heritage Bill 2016 now.
I know that. I am making the comparison. It is part of it, a chathaoirligh. Road safety, the cutting back of roadside hedges and the felling of trees on the roadside are paramount. It must be done. As a young boy of only about seven, I was in a car one Saturday afternoon when a tree was felled. I was cut out of the car with my late mother and my late brother - they were not killed in the accident, thankfully, but they died since. We were cut out by a fire brigade so I know what it is like to have a roadside tree fall on a vehicle. That time, the man cutting it did not block the road. At that stage, one did not get a licence. It fell the wrong way on top of us. I have been in many a storm ever since and I am frightened of my life of trees. A young man lost his life in my area in storm Ophelia, with a tree and another one 20 miles away in Aglish in County Waterford did too.
It is important that we are in a position to act. There is nothing worse than residents, homeowners and road users contacting us on a daily basis to say that they cannot walk, cycle or do anything on the road because of the bushes hanging out. We are told a lovely excuse from the local authority that from March to September we cannot cut the hedges. They love to give that answer which is ridiculous. Health and safety and the protection of life and limb and well-being must be a priority above all else. That is why I am here. I am trying to achieve the balance.
Gun clubs and other clubs such as fishing clubs do Trojan work maintaining hedgerows. They want an organised burn of the hill for the gorse where I live, in Tipperary, on the Knockmealdown Mountains. They have done considerable work. In Monaghan, I have a brother-in-law involved in an organised burn in the Slieve Felim Mountains and they outed themselves to protect it and not go to NPWS. I would not encourage anyone to even light a match in this powder-keg weather, but that is done at different times of the year to nurture the gorse and wildlife. There are a lot of misunderstandings about what they do. The Ardfinnan, Ballybacon, Grange and Newcastle, ABGN, Gun Club does Trojan work and has been doing it for 30 years. It has a wildlife sanctuary. It has a pond and a whole lot of wildlife in it. It had a wonderful Santa village there for everybody to see at Christmas time. It does Trojan work and I salute them from the bottom of my heart.
It is not merely ideology that one should not cut anything, let the growth hang out into the middle of the roads. If one comes out of a field with a tractor with an implement in front of it, one is as far as where the Cathaoirleach is sitting away and out in the road before one can see where one is going whereas if the hedge is cut back, one is a quarter of that distance and the roads are safer, and cyclists and pedestrians can pass. The verges need not be cut but the overhanging ditches have to be cut.
I wondered where some of the Members were going but we must have road safety and adhere to health and safety. We are told about it in every other aspect of life yet we want the sides of the roads in the country closing in and meeting each other. What good is that for tourists? They cannot see a signpost, a yield right of way sign or a directional sign, all of which are covered in the bushes. I see it in my area at the moment, with dangerous junctions not even cut. It is an excuse for many local authorities not to do the work that they should be doing. They did it when they had no machine when they had ordinary men with the slash and billhook. There is much hot air being spoken here.
It amazes me at times as well, following up on the recent referendum, we will mind the birds and the eggs but we have no problem with abortion and killing babies.
Will the Deputy stop?
It defies logic.
Stick to the Bill.
It is coming from the same place.
For God's sake.
It is not for God's sake. It is reality.
Deputy Mattie McGrath lost that argument.
Protect the birds and the eggs and kill the babies. The kill the baby brigade have no problem with that.
The Deputy should dry his eyes. He will genuflect.
It is a fact. They have no problem with that.
The Deputy's time is up. We are talking about the Heritage Bill 2016. The Minister to respond.
Deputy Mattie McGrath is a disgrace.
Deputy Mattie McGrath should dry his eyes.
I will address the comments one by one rather than read my speaking note, which I may come back to if there is a two-minute slot.
For the information of Deputy Tóibín, it is not carte blanche. We are supporting biodiversity. I have a €250,000 fund this year for the county action plans and I also have a national biodiversity action plan. I also have €285 million in the national development plan to support that plan and promote investment in our built and natural heritage. This is not a drive-on regardless scenario; it is a timed pilot initiative.
Deputy Thomas Byrne is not here. However, the existing situation is not acceptable. Because of the conflict between the Roads Act and the Wildlife Act, a landowner who is obliged to deal with a hazard under the Roads Act should not find himself or herself in breach of the Wildlife Act. All this provision is designed to do is to resolve this conflict. I might just leave the Deputy's comments.
There were a considerable number of questions. With the leave of the House, if more than seven minutes is required, we should allow the Minister.
I thank the Acting Chairman. Deputy Byrne is not here and I may come back to his comments.
In response to Deputy Catherine Martin, flails are not fair game. The landowner is allowed only to deal with a hazard or a safety issue. We do not need to ban flails under the section 8 provision as they are not permitted in any case. This will allow dealing with a hazard only, not the entire hedge. With regard to section 7, they will be prohibited in regulations.
Large numbers of groups and interested parties campaign publicly and make submissions and representations to my Department. BirdWatch Ireland is only one of these stakeholders.
The debate on this Bill has been long and extensive. It is difficult for people to distinguish the truth when misleading and exaggerated opinion is presented as fact. Let me give the Deputy some of those facts about what is in the Bill. It is a fact that only roadside hedges, a fraction of the entirety of the hedgerow resource that we are lucky to have in this country, are subject to the provisions of this Bill. It is also truth that any cutting provision under this Bill can only be carried out in one month, which is August. A further important fact is that this will be carried out in accordance with strict statutory regulations, which I will make, designed specifically to protect wildlife and conserve our natural heritage. It is another fact that the regulations will limit cutting to the current year's growth only. There will be no wide-scale deep cutting, and no cutting with heavy machinery or flails. It is also a fact that under the Wildlife Acts it is an offence to wilfully destroy, injure or mutilate the eggs or nest of any bird species. The other fact is that it is being done on a pilot basis.
There are further facts relating to managed burning. Fourteen per cent of this country is designated under the habitats and birds directives and burning in any designated area is an activity requiring ministerial consent. Burning under this Bill can only be carried out in March and, depending on the circumstances in each case, for a defined period in that month.
Another important fact is there are statutory regulations on burning. It is limited to the current year. It will also be done on a pilot basis.
Deputy Catherine Martin mentioned words such as "slash". It might be more appropriate to highlight the Deputy's own party's political muscle in slashing the NPWS's budget by 75% at the first sign of financial trouble and how quickly it abandoned principle. In government, the Green Party like to talk and walk and we, in government, in so far as our heritage is concerned, walk the talk.
Flails will not be allowed in August. The regulations will seek to address the issue in a practical way. BirdWatch Ireland is one of several voices in this debate.
I just happened to mention it.
It is not in this House and I am not in a debate with it.
So the Minister should not accuse it of something.
I am not misinformed and stand by my comments. My experts are the leading experts in the country. Even in Irish, the Deputy is using the language of the red top. We need an even-handed level-headed fact-led debate.
Deputy Michael Healy-Rae also is not here.
I am sorry to hear about the lady who lost her eye. As legislators in a democracy our job is to legislate in a balanced way for the entire citizenry. Our country dwellers are the architects and layers of our hedges and we need to respect this and their respect for the landscape they have created and nurtured. I am glad Deputy Boyd Barrett agrees that safety issues are important and that hazards must be dealt with. Section 8 ensures that a person dealing with a hazard is not in breach of the Wildlife Act 1976 by doing so and to oppose the section is to say that the conflict between the Roads Act and the Wildlife Act 1976 should continue and a person complying with one is in breach of the other. To me that is not acceptable. Deputy Boyd Barrett is not here so I will leave the remainder of my response to him.
Deputy Eamon Ryan's amendment No. 27 would mean that a landowner dealing with an immediate hazard would have to await a local authority order or action and could not comply with their obligations under the Roads Act. The Deputy is fantastic at reusing and recycling arguments already made and addressed but the protection of nature and the birds under section 22 of the Wildlife Act 1976 stands. There is a convention in this House of not attacking officials who accompany a Minister and it is unfair of the Deputy to attack officials who have no right of reply in this House. I did not refer to contractors on Committee Stage. The Deputy is misremembering, perhaps due to the amount of repetition.
I thank Deputies Fitzmaurice and Michael Collins for their contributions. Farmers are the primary custodians of our landscape and biodiversity and I spent a lot of time talking to my colleague Deputy Creed about how our two Departments can work more closely together to mutually reinforce our policies and shared interests.
I refer to Deputies Bríd Smith and Burton's contributions. This Bill also applies to urban hedgerows. The funding of local authorities is a matter for the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and this Bill will introduce a regulated regime for cutting hedges in August. The Deputies are introducing the rural-urban divide, I never brought that up. There was a consultation, this is a pilot scheme and Deputy Burton approved the Bill as Tánaiste.
I thank Deputies Danny Healy-Rae and Ó Cuív for the clarity they brought to some of the issues this Bill is seeking to address.
Other than his final comments, Deputy Mattie McGrath's contribution reflects the complexity and interlinking of issues dealing with biodiversity in that the single issue of cutting the road facing side of hedges is not the Armageddon that some Deputies have described.
When this debate starts it often gets down to who lives on the narrowest road in the country-----
When we talk about the Irish language it is about who is the most fluent in the Irish language. I live on a road that is less than 3 m in width, a road where I was in a serious accident a number of years ago. It does not matter what size road one lives on, this island belongs to all of us. It is one island, we are all its citizens and we are all responsible for it.
There were comments on the ecosystem and some wildlife eating other wildlife. That is nature, that is what should happen. The whole idea of an ecosystem is that there are foodstuffs for other animals to live on so they can exist as well.
The amendments I have produced are amendments that support life-----
That is why there is no ground support.
The amendment says that it is in the interests of public safety and air safety, to prevent serious damage to crops, livestock, forests, fisheries and water. All of the voices I have heard articulated so far are represented in my amendment. My amendment represents what the Deputies want to achieve, it just does so in a manner which protects the environment.
The Minister spoke about the fact that we are only dealing with a fraction of the environment but it is a fraction of a collapsing environment. We are dealing with a narrowing and reducing environment and ecosystem and the Minister's Bill reduces that even further. The Government's record on the environment is abysmal. We are laggards in Europe on this. Britain, for example, last year created more solar power than nuclear and coal power. This country does not even have a solar power system, we do not have feed-in tariffs or renewable heat incentives. This Government talks the talk on the environment but is worse than the Tories in Britain on it.
I suggest to the Minister that instead of seeing two sides pitched against each other, she should bring together the interested parties in farming, heritage and road safety at some point in the future and get them to sit down together to work out a way of resolving this in sympathy and in partnership with each other. It can and should be done. These amendments do exactly that.
I have to respond. I start by defending our record for environmental legislation and spending on the environment which is a priority we hold. I do not want to get involved in party political issues, but to get a lecture from Fine Gael, which is a party that is now recognised internationally as leading a Government that is failing on climate and biodiversity - and this piece of legislation typifies it - cannot go unanswered. The Minister referred to walking the walk and talking the talk but it was Fine Gael back in 2000 who demanded the extension of the seasons which are now contracting. The Minister's own party was at the origin of some of the changes.
I take back the criticism of any civil servants because there is the tradition of not directly criticising civil servants but I have to wonder where the sense of invective I hear is coming from because that is also something that is not typical in a debate. Invective towards parties who are not here is not typical either and I accept the Minister's analysis that it comes from her own instinct alone, rather than from the officials. I apologise and I recognise that might well be the case. The core of this issue is what we are trying to address, namely road safety. We are not trying to address those who do want to preserve the hedgerows and create road safety, but the critical issue is to tackle those who should - if the Minister is listening. Can the Acting Chairman stop the clock so that I can get the Minister's attention?
The Deputy has the Minister's attention.
This issue is about those who should be cutting their hedgerows but are not. There is a contradiction within the existing legislation but our amendment No. 27 resolves that in a way that does not open the floodgates. The Minister mentioned facts, but the fact that will go out in the public discourse and understanding if this Bill goes through as it currently stands is that the hedgerows can be cut in August and the mountain tops can be burned in March. That is the one fact that will go out there. All of the technicalities of the regulations or the promises that it is only a pilot project will not work across the country. The word has already gone out that Fine Gael has given approval to cut the hedgerows in August and burn the hills in March. That is the fact that we are opposing.
I want to make a brief comment. This morning we had Fine Gael busy losing the run of itself as the Taoiseach confessed to licking up to Donald Trump when he was in New York at a private meeting. He was displaying his inner strong man. Did I just hear the Minister speak like Queen Victoria? She talked about "my experts". They are the taxpayers' and people of Ireland's experts because we pay their wages. The Minister just holds office for a period of time-----
The Deputy cut their wages.
------so let us not run ahead of ourselves. If they are experts, why not put them out there and allow people to meet them, allow there to be a discussion in which, if they are that expert, I am sure they can explain some of the contradictions between the two sides of the debate and where the truth lies?
She is floating off in her best Rathdownish about "my experts" but she needs to give us a break. Bring them here or to a venue such as the AV room and let us hear what they have to say. The Minister should not belittle BirdWatch Ireland because it is pretty expert on these matters. She may not agree with all of its views but it has done a lot for bird habitats in Ireland for 30 or 40 years, as have farmers. This debate is an attempt to ensure those habitats survive and agriculture also survives, but in a way that protects the environment.
I agree with the Deputy that nobody here should belittle anybody else.
When the Minister suggested I was causing an urban-rural divide because I mentioned it, her argument was extraordinarily weak. I stated the obvious about what has been going on in this House. People who live on farms, or who are farming contractors like Deputy Mattie McGrath, contractors on land and roads like Deputies Michael and Danny Healy-Rae, or other contractors like Deputy Michael Collins, argue with us on the basis that we do not understand what we are talking about. They keep saying we have no idea what it is like and Deputy Fitzmaurice thinks we have never gone down the country. This has come from the way the Bill has been constructed and that is what I am saying about the Minister. She is not so much using urban-versus-rural language as constructing a Bill that causes people to argue on a completely false basis. If she really wanted to deal with overgrowing hedgerows and the dangers on tertiary roads where the small clever birds live, as opposed to the major roads where the stupid birds live, as was discussed yesterday, and if she wants to deal with the problems that arise from overgrowth, both in cities and in the countryside, she would fund the local authorities to do those things in a regulated way. Local authority funding has been slashed and burned for the past ten years and local authorities do not have the resources or the staff to carry out this sort of work. The Minister says it is nothing to do with her Department but that is not a good enough answer. My thesis is that if one funds one Department properly, the other would not have to put through this slash-and-burn Bill. The Minister is in a Cabinet; surely we deserve joined-up thinking from the Cabinet that runs the country.
I have listened with considerable interest to the debate and I had not intended taking part in the Chamber, although I have contributed at parliamentary party level. None of us is an expert, although we can indicate that we are until the cows come home. I have had considerable experience of various environmental schemes, from REPS to GLAS, over the past 20 years. I have experience of their practicality and of the guidance given by environmental officers.
I reiterate what Deputy Ó Cuív said about the Road Traffic Act 1993. With any issue of road safety, there was always provision for the local authority to ensure a farmer could take measures to ensure a road was safer, while protecting wildlife. When a reputable planner signs off on the need for maintenance along a public road, it has never been challenged by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine if it is written in the plan. It has not been an issue for 20 years and I know people who availed of REPS and GLAS and were allowed to cut hedgerows in their plans, within reason and according to the diktat of the planner, who receives reasonably good advice from the Department. I do not know why we cannot also conserve water through such plans and this should be incentivised.
We spoke about the farmer and the cowboy having to be friends but there have to be practical solutions in the interest of protecting the people who walk or cycle the roads of this country and I would not be satisfied unless I could cut briers and other things for the people who utilise the countryside, as well as for those in cars and lorries. We debate things ad infinitum in this House but I cannot understand how we cannot find practical solutions that are acceptable both to environmentalists and farmers.
The Minister likes to talk about facts but BirdWatch Ireland is just one of the science-based conservation organisations which she has refused to meet or to consult on this Heritage Bill. The facts are, regrettably, that last night in this Chamber, when members of that organisation were not here to defend themselves, the Minister accused their work of being a flagrant distortion of the facts and unscientific. She accused them of saying the decline in the number of curlew was due to burning but they never said that.
Several Ministers and Deputies have said in the course of this debate that the burning season in Northern Ireland extends into April but that has done nothing to stop illegal and uncontrolled burning. The same Deputies have not made the point that the hedgecutting dates in Northern Ireland are in line with those in the Republic. The dates in the North, which exclude August, are the way they are because of a review which held that the dates were valid to provide protection to birds during the breeding season. The Members involved have been quite selective in their comparisons. Cutting a hedge in the period between March and August impinges negatively on the overall wildlife of the hedgerow and any suggestion that a hedge can be cut without impacting on the wildlife in the hedge is simply not credible. The question is to what degree there is an impact.
For Deputies to ask us to depend on the birds to be wise enough not to nest in roadside hedges is beyond ludicrous. Other Deputies talked about protection of the human species and road safety, having done nothing but delay the passage of new road safety legislation through the Dáil with no thought for those whose loved ones have been lost on the roads. That is very hard to take.
I will finish with another fact. All the organisations up and down this country which preserve our environment and wildlife have said that sections 7 and 8, as they stand, are a disaster for Irish wildlife and our natural heritage. Nach bhfuil sé oiriúnach go bhfágfaidh an tAire Cultúir, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta scrios ar chomhshaol agus ar oidhreacht nádúrtha na tíre?
This debate has taken an unfortunate acrimonious twist, unnecessarily personalised in some cases. I agree with Deputy Breathnach that we should be able to come up with practical solutions that guarantee the environmental integrity and biodiversity we need while ensuring road safety. Everybody wants to maintain biodiversity, protect and enhance the environment and wildlife and ensure road safety so one would think we could come up with a solution. The problem is that the Minister has driven this through without a proper engagement with stakeholders, scientists, farmers, the rural communities, naturalists and wildlife people.
As is very often the case with important and controversial issues in this country, there is a perfunctory public consultation and not a proper one. In many cases, public consultation is a box-ticking exercise where the proposed measure was a fait accompli from the beginning, that is, the Government decided what it wanted to do and it was going to do it. That is not the way to do business and it is unnecessarily divisive.
I would say to our colleagues from the rural constituencies that I agree with them that farmers are under pressure. Various regulations can put farmers under serious pressure and we should listen to their concerns. However, our colleagues should not respond by attacking people from the city as if they know nothing and have no right to speak on these matters. We all share this country and planet and we all depend on the wildlife and the biodiversity being maintained.
The Deputy must conclude.
The Government has made a mistake by driving this Bill through without a proper consultation process.
There has been a reasonable level of debate on this Bill in committee and in the Dáil. Some Members consider there has not been enough debate on it but I do not know how long more they want to talk about it. There will be an extended burning season. Hopefully, Muintir na Tire will work on plans with the Garda and the farmers and there will be properly controlled burning in the future. I hope that will be the successful outcome of the extended burning season.
A previous speaker said that we had held up the passage of the road traffic Bill. I spoke for 29 minutes in nine months on that issue, which works out at three minutes a month. That did not hold up the passage of the Bill. We started with nothing when we began to debate that Bill and now we have secured €400,000 for rural transport and another 40 or 50 new driver instructors. We have gained. Hopefully, if we can spend another few months on it, we might get more for rural Ireland.
I have been calling for many years for each local authority to carry out a survey of roadside trees, which have caused a number of deaths but, unfortunately, that is not happening. We need to address that issue. When there is a storm trees pose a hazard and can cause a major accident.
Quite a number of urban Deputies visit my constituency during the summer months because of the beauty of the landscape. We do not want our community turned into Jurassic Park. We are trying to continue to live there in a normal manner. There has been a lack of understanding about this issue. If one was in my area for a while, one would see people out with streamers cutting back verges leading out onto roadways every night of the week. That is crazy. It is very important for people to have the possibility to extend the period for the cutting of roadside verges. I guarantee Members that if a referendum was held on that, it would have a landslide victory in rural Ireland. It is a common sense issue.
I listened with interest to the contributions and I do not want an urban-rural divide in any shape or form. We need to mend those fences rather than have such division. As was said, we live on a small island and we have to live, work and manage together. I declare my interest as a small business person. It do not believe it is a crime. Deputy Healy-Rae, Deputy Michael Collins and myself employ people, generate income, pay our insurance premiums, taxes and everything else. I believe we are an asset to the economy. I have been in business since 1982. No one has a monopoly on this issue. As I said, the gun, shooting and fishing clubs do tremendous work to nurture our wildlife, as well as the vast majority of farmers. I condemn anyone who sets a hill alight in March, April or whenever, especially when the weather is very dry, and this year has been exceptionally dry, because of the threat of the fire spreading and the danger that poses to the fire services. I pay tribute to the fire personnel and the mountain rescue people for the work they are doing. The environment must be protected but the safety of lives must be paramount with respect to wildlife. It is important to achieve a balance in that regard but we must be able to cut back the hedges for safety and allow tourists to visit the areas in their hired car. If they hire a car in Dublin they are required to pay a deposit and if there is a scratch on the car when they return it, they will lose their deposit. That is why the roads are closed. Tá siad dúnta. We must be mindful of that in making our areas welcoming and achieving a balance in protecting the flora, fauna and wildlife. We must look at the bigger picture. Set aside was prevalent for decades and it did untold damage.
I stand by the comments I made in the debate. The Minister decided not to reply to them. She did not have to but I believe I am right that the people who are concerned about the birds and the bees care little for human beings.
A reference was made to my plant hire company. It is a small company and I am proud of it. We employ people, pay our taxes and pay our suppliers as best we can and the taxes we pay help to pay every Member in this House. We make no apologies for employing people and trying to do our best, which is what we believe we are doing.
Deputy Burton referenced the fact that there was no science and no database. All that is needed here is common sense. The roadside hedges have to be cut to allow people come and go safely on narrow roads.
Then what is the hullabaloo about?
Everybody agrees on that.
We cannot have that debate now.
We are saying there is no problem inside the ditches. The birds and the bees can have the rest of the countryside and all of us will do our best to help them.
I appeal to the Minister to ensure this Bill is passed speedily because many narrow roads cannot be travelled. Three people were killed in a storm that hit the country, and mothers were taking their children to school. That happened in Kerry and it is happening everywhere. Branches and briars should not overhang roads. We need this Bill to be passed in the Houses as effectively and speedily as possible.
I appeal to the Deputies in that regard because it is very important. We do not begrudge the Deputies what they have which is unobstructed access to their houses. We have no problem whatsoever with that.
The Deputy's time is up.
We want the same for the people we represent in the rural counties like Kerry.
Last night and today, I thought we had disposed of all the amendments to section 7, therefore, I will address the amendments before the House now, all of which address section 8. We should be clear about the purpose of section 8. It is bringing the Wildlife Act in line with what is already in the Roads Act 1993, no more and no less. Deputy Eamon Ryan specifically mentioned his amendment No. 27. If we were to insert amendment No. 27 in the Bill as opposed to what the Minister has done, we would only be transposing part of the Roads Act 1993. The problem then would be that other parts of the 1993 Act would be in conflict with the Wildlife Act. If a farmer or an occupier took a reasonable step to ensure that a tree, shrub, hedge or other vegetation on the land is not a hazard or a potential hazard to persons by cutting it in the closed months, no more and no less - we have to talk about the facts of what the law states and not alter the things that have nothing to do with the cold words in front of us - they would be on the right side of the law under the Roads Act 1993 but on the wrong side of the law with the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
We cannot have that conflict. Fianna Fáil will not support the amendment because it is creating a crazy, legal contradiction, no more and no less. I ask the Deputies to reflect on this. This is what these amendments are about. They are not about anything else even though we have spent an hour and a half debating points which were mainly germane to section 7 of the Bill.
I acknowledge Deputy Ó Cuív's work on section 8 of the Bill.
Rather than re-ventilating everything at this stage I believe it would be wise to put the question, under Standing Order 68(1). It is at the discretion of the Ceann Comhairle but this issue was long debated last night and this evening. In my view there is nothing to be gained by reiterating every point that was made again today.
I move amendment No. 25:
In page 12, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following:
“Amendment of Act of 1976
8. Section 40 of the Act of 1976, as amended by the Act of 2000, is amended —
(a) in subsection (1), by the insertion of the following new paragraphs after paragraph (b):
“(c) The Minister may make regulations to extend, in part or parts of the State, the period of protection referred to in paragraph (a) in order to protect species covered by Article 1 of the Birds Directive.
(d) The Minister may make regulations to protect individual hedgerows of archaeological, historical, ecological or landscape significance.”,
(b) in subsection (2)(c), by the insertion of the words “, or under notice from,” between “safety by” and “a Minister”.”.
I move amendment No. 26:
In page 12, to delete lines 23 to 29.
I move amendment No. 27:
In page 12, line 28, after “pursuant to” to insert “paragraph (2)(b) or subsection (9) of”.
Amendments Nos. 28 to 31, inclusive, are out of order.
I move amendment No. 32:
In page 12, between lines 29 and 30, to insert the following:
“9. (1) Section 40(2) of the Act of 1976 is amended by inserting the following:
“(g) the removal or destruction of vegetation required by a notice served by a local authority under section 70 of the Roads Act 1993 (as amended).”.
(2) Section 40 of the Act of 1976 is amended by adding after subsection (2) the following:
“(2A) Any activity undertaken under section 40(2), by a public authority or any activity authorised by them in the interests of public health and safety is required to be notified to the Minister by the public authority responsible for the execution or authorising of such works, and shall outline:
(a) the public health and/or safety concern or other rationale as to why the works need to be undertaken during the prohibited period together with supporting evidence in this regard; and
(b) how such works were strictly limited to those necessary, and were undertaken in a manner so as to limit the negative impacts on biodiversity where possible, or any issues in respect of such considerations.”.
(3) Section 70(1)(b) of the Roads Act 1993 is amended by inserting the following:
“(c)(i) where there is a risk to public health and safety from a structure on the land to the safe use of a public road or the maintenance of the public road, any party including a land owner or occupier of land, may apply to a local authority to serve a notice in writing in accordance with this section on the owner or occupier of any land on which the structure is situated to remove, modify or carry out specified works in relation to the structure within the period stated in the notice. The local authority shall consider the necessity of such works and determine whether to issue a notice accordingly. Such works shall be considered exempted for the purposes of section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976 (as amended);
(ii) the local authority shall comply with all legislative obligations, screenings, assessments and notifications necessary to the making of any such a notice;
(iii) the notice shall contain details of—
(I) the precise location of the issue to be addressed,
(II) the precise nature of the issue to be addressed, and
(III) precisely what remedial work needs to be carried out;
(iv) where notification is during the closed period for hedge-cutting specified in section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976 (as amended) detailed guidance on biodiversity considerations shall be included; and
(v) the local authority shall notify the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, with responsibility for natural heritage of the making of any such notice, at the same time it notifies the land owner or occupier of the land.”.”.
The Bill, which is considered to be a Dáil Bill under Article 20.2.2° of the Constitution, will be sent to the Seanad.