Cavan): Let me just recapitulate on the main advances which this Bill represents in the cause of conservation of our natural heritage of wildlife:
It settles fairly and squarely on one Minister—the Minister for Lands— statutory responsibility for the conservation of wildlife—wild birds, wild animals and wild plants.
It gives statutory power to the Minister to initiate and engage in necessary research into wildlife matters, and to promote knowledge of such matters.
It provides for the establishment of a fully representative Wildlife Advisory Council to advise the Minister.
It provides for the first time protection for all wild birds and the hitherto unprotected species of wild animals and marine mammals, with the exception of a few pest species.
It provides the means to protect our rare wild plant life.
For the first time the habitats of protected fauna and flora can be protected. This will be done through the establishment of nature reserves on State-owned or privately-owned lands, the designation of refuges for fauna and by way of formal agreements with private owners on restriction of the management of certain lands having wildlife values. Here I should like to emphasise for the benefit of Senator Michael D. Higgins, who has shown a commendable interest in the Bill and who had, I think, some doubts in the matter, that the nature reserves can extend to marine or inland water nature reserves, as well as to those on land.
There will be a noticeable strengthening of hunting laws. These can be summarised as follows:
Only qualified persons with lawful access to sporting rights will be entitled to hunt game during statutory open seasons.
Open seasons can be suspended in the interests of conservation of species.
For the first time the concept of hunting licences—as distinct from firearm certificates—is being introduced for both resident sportsmen and visitors to the State.
Hunting on State foreshore—and that is the bulk of our foreshore— will be unlawful except with the express permission of the Minster.
The right to hunt on or over the territorial seas of the State will be vested in the State.
There will be severe restrictions on what might be termed the tools of the poacher or indiscriminate hunter, such as unsuitable firearms and other devices which cause widespread death or injury to wild birds and wild animals; certain traps, snares, nets, decoys and lures including modern electrical instruments and recordings of wildlife sounds; lamps and other dazzling devices.
Hunting at night will be banned except in so far as licensed researchers are concerned.
Hunting of protected wild birds and wild animals from mechanically-propelled vehicles, vessels or aircraft will be prohibited.
The ringing, tagging or marking of wild birds and wild animals will be provided for under licence.
There will be new restrictions on the burning of vegetation near woods, nature reserves and refuges for fauna. In particular, the person who deliberately and negligently lights a fire or does any other act which causes such vegetation to catch fire will face a claim for the resulting damage or loss in addition to facing a conviction and fine for committing the offence.
The practice of falconry can be regulated under licence by the Minister, if the occasion demands.
Trespass laws are being strengthened. It will be an offence to trespass on another's land to trap or shoot any wild birds or wild animals whether protected or not.
The possession, sale and purchase of protected fauna will be severely restricted.
The import and export of fauna— alive or dead—and flora will be permitted only under licence.
There will be new powers to acquire land in the interests of wildlife conservation and to establish State ownership of certain inland waters in those interests.
Other State and semi-State authorities will be obliged to consult the Minister with a view to safeguarding specific wildlife values in the course of their operations. I think that Senators will agree that anyone who objectively examines that list of new provisions will find that it represents a major step forward in the sphere of wildlife legislation in Ireland. Unfortunately, during the debate on the Bill a considerable amount of the time of the House was devoted to the controversial matter of hare-coursing. This is one of the areas—indeed the main one—where, as I have said, some contributions veered off course. This vexed subject was aired at great length on the rather tenuous premise afforded by a few items of the Bill which maintain, in relation to hare coursing, certain exceptions which already subsist in the Game Preservation Act, 1930. However, let me repeat that the Bill does not introduce coursing, it does not confer any additional benefits or rights on the coursing fraternity nor does it extend the status quo of that activity. All the Bill does is to maintain certain peripheral exceptions relating to that sport—a sport which is the subject, inter alia, of another statute not administered by the Minister for Lands. This Bill is not the appropriate place to voice opposition—no matter how genuinely felt—to hare coursing and I can only hope that the amount of time given to the subject will not prevent either the House or the public from appreciating the very real progress contained in the Bill in the general sphere of wildlife conservation.
Perhaps the most significant advance under the Bill is the attention which is being given to habitat conservation. This was a major weakness in existing legislation but the Bill will fully remedy the deficiency. As the House is aware, the Bill contains several provisions aimed at conserving habitat— for example, the establishment and recognition of nature reserves, the designation of refuges for fauna, provision for management agreements with land owners and so on. All these provisions represent a solid basis for positive progress from now on.
Speaking of habitat, I might mention that in our particular context wetlands, owing to their importance for waterfowl, inevitably represent a widespread and significant element of it. I should like to inform the House that the coming year, 1976, has been selected as Wetlands Year for the purpose of the Council of Europe's nature conservation publicity campaign. My Department are participating in this campaign in a number of ways, but it occurs to me that the enactment of the Wildlife Bill—hopefully in the early part of 1976—would be the best contribution of all to a publicity campaign of this kind. At all events the Bill, when enacted, will put us in a strong position to further the objectives of the wetlands campaign in the years ahead.
The Bill also contains several provisions aimed at unifying in a formal statutory way the services in my Department which deal with forestry and wildlife. It goes even further by providing a firm statutory backing to modern concepts of the uses to which State forest lands may be applied. I do not think it is necessary for me here to elaborate on the amenity developments which have taken place so successfully in State forests in recent years. The results speak for themselves and I am happy to say that as recently as a few weeks ago the Forest and Wildlife Service was the proud recipient of a major award for the contribution made by this amenity development in the sphere of tourism. The Bill will do much to facilitate an expansion and acceleration of this programme; but it will also go much further by enabling the ecological aspects of our State forests to be further developed and exploited. Irish forestry is now being approached with more and more emphasis on its inherent nature conservation possibilities—without of course detracting from the economic aspects of timber production which will necessarily continue as the primary objective.
I referred earlier to the Council of Europe and one of its programmes. The Council of Europe is but one of many international organisations dealing with game and wildlife with which the Forest and Wildlife Service of my Department has associations of one kind or another. The Wildlife Bill will enable the service to play a more meaningful part in the activities of these bodies and, in addition, will facilitate the ratification and implementation by Ireland of a number of important international conventions designed to protect and safeguard different aspects of the natural environment.
These then are some of the more important features of the Bill which the House has been discussing. There are of course numerous other provisions of less immediate, but nonetheless useful, significance. It will be clear from what I have said that we are now well on the way towards putting a very important and broadly-based piece of legislation on the Statute Book—legislation which will help in no small way to safeguard the wildlife heritage of the nation.
We of this generation merely hold this wildlife in trust; the Bill, I believe, represents a vital instrument in honouring that commitment and ensuring that this facet of our national heritage passes unimpaired to future generations.
I would like to thank the Seanad for the detailed and patient hearing it gave the Bill. It has been a pleasure to introduce the Bill here. I hope I get a similar reception elsewhere.