I take pleasure in introducing the Bill in the Seanad. The original Wildlife Act was enacted in 1976. For its time it was a comprehensive, and in some respects, a far-sighted legislative instrument for the conservation of wildlife. However, the Act is almost a quarter of a century old. It has been recognised for a number of years that certain provisions in the Act required updating. While updating of the Act was called for by numerous individuals, organisations and politicians who had an interest in wildlife and it was promised by a number of Administrations I take pride in the fact that I and the current Administration have delivered this long awaited Bill.
Whatever about different viewpoints on certain issues that have been expressed at each stage of its passage through the Dáil, there has been general support for the thrust of the Bill and I am confident that will also be the case in the Seanad. I also must acknowledge the interest and support of a number of conservation and other organisations for the legislation. From day one I was keen to ensure that any group or individual with an interest in the Bill should be able to make their views known. I have adopted an open door policy in this regard and I put an extensive consultation process in place prior to the finalisation of the draft Bill and this continued subsequently. That this consultative process was genuine is reflected in terms of the amendments I introduced on Committee Stage in the Dáil.
Naturally the Wildlife Act, 1976, approached wildlife conservation from the perspective and context applying at that time. This legislation caters for a number of key developments which constitute fundamental change in the approach adopted in Ireland to the conservation of the natural heritage.
The following are among the most important features of the Bill: the provision for the first time of a mechanism to give permanent statutory protection to natural heritage areas, including geological and geomorphological site; the broadening of the scope of the Act to include the majority of wild species; strengthening the controls over clearance of vegetation, particularly hedgerows; introduction of measures to facilitate the ratification of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES; providing statutory recognition of my responsibilities in the light of Ireland's commitment to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity; improvement of a number of measures to conserve wildlife species and their habitats; improvement in controls over hunting, including the regulation of commercial shoot operators; and the significant increase in penalties for convictions under the Acts, with the possibility for the first time of a custodial sentence.
I take this opportunity to explain these key features of the Bill in further detail. Perhaps most importantly the Bill will provide for the designation, conservation, and permanent protection of natural heritage areas, or NHAs. They are sites that support elements of our natural heritage that are unique or of outstanding importance at the national level. If destroyed, such areas can never be adequately replaced. Their conservation is required in the interest of the common good. A legal framework for their designation and conservation is long overdue and this Bill remedies that deficiency.
I indicated previously in the Dáil, and it is worth reiterating here, that I am revising fundamentally the protective regime that will apply to NHAs. Prior to my taking office the provisions then proposed in regard to NHAs could only guarantee what amounted to essentially temporary protection. I take considerable satisfaction from the fact that the provisions I am putting in place for NHAs will ensure their permanent protection.
The Bill provides for protection for NHAs in a fair and open manner and rules out any need for anxiety or fear among farmers or other landowners regarding the ownership of their land. Apart from the social, political, and practical undesirability and impossibility of guaranteeing protection for NHAs by compulsory purchase, it would be a wholly inappropriate approach to the conservation of biodiversity in the modern era. The notion that ecologically important sites should be protected through compulsory State purchase, thus essentially ring-fencing them and ruling out all other uses or activities in such areas, would be ill-advised. That would be a recipe to pit conservation and other interests in direct conflict and to bring about and perpetuate a divisive and damaging relationship.
Instead, I have brought in a system that guarantees the permanent protection of the ecological interests of NHAs. Works in NHAs will require the consent of the Minister and any activities which will cause significant damage can be prohibited permanently. I have also been able to dispense with the need compulsorily to purchase land to conserve wildlife by ensuring that the ecological interest of NHAs can be safeguarded through this mechanism. I considered that it was fair and proper to provide that compensation could be paid to landowners in cases where they suffered tangible losses resulting from NHA designation to balance the imposition of permanent restrictions on damaging operations.
Apart from constitutional considerations, it is right to compensate farmers or landowners or to provide them with financial incentives for maintaining or delivering biodiversity services. While some agricultural practices can damage wildlife, it must be underlined that many of the areas viewed as being of particular ecological importance were created by traditional agriculture. Appropriate agricultural practices must continue in order to maintain the biodiversity importance of these areas. Consequently it is not only fair, but also essential, to provide supports for sustainable agriculture in such areas, as we are doing already via REPS in NHAs.
I have always recognised that sustainable agriculture delivers wildlife benefits. I am glad that the EU now concurs with my thinking, as reflected in its embracing the concept of the "multifunctionality" of agriculture. This is the terminology coined to recognise and support the delivery by agriculture of biodiversity and environmental benefits.
The Bill also provides a legislative basis for the conservation of important sites of geological and geomorphological interest, such as the recently discovered Valentia Island footprints. These fossilised footprints are recognised as being of both national and international importance. Until now such sites were devoid of any legal mechanisms to provide for their conservation whether under wildlife or any other legislation. It is essential to provide mechanisms to legally designate and protect the most important elements of our national geological and geomorphological heritage. The legislation realises this goal.
In short the Bill provides permanent protection for a network of nationally important sites – natural heritage areas – in a fair and equitable manner, constituting a change of fundamental importance in the approach adopted in Ireland to the conservation of our natural heritage.
The second fundamental change which this legislation will bring about in our approach to wildlife conservation is the broadening of the scope of the Act to include the majority of wild species. The original Act excluded from its general scope all fish and aquatic invertebrate species. While this may have been understandable in 1976, it would be completely at variance with an appropriate set-up for today, when an ecosystem or holistic approach to biodiversity conservation is being pursued. The approach up to now in practical terms has meant that tens of thousands of species from both marine and freshwater ecosystems were strictly off limits from any conservation consideration.
The legislation brings all wild plant and animal species within the scope of the Act apart from certain species relevant to fisheries, whether commercial or recreational, which will be excluded by regulations. This broadening of the basis of wildlife legislation is of fundamental significance as it establishes a new and holistic framework within which wildlife conservation can be addressed and advanced.
I have brought forward a number of changes in section 46 which will strengthen the provisions of the principal Act in regard to the protection to hedgerows. Section 40 of the 1976 Act restricted the destruction of vegetation on uncultivated land during the main breeding and nesting season for birds.
Enhanced protection is being provided in section 46 for hedgerows during the nesting season in the following ways: by stating unambiguously that the section prohibiting the cutting of vegetation, etc., during the specified period applies to hedges; by extending significantly the period during which hedgerows and other vegetation may not be cut, that is from 1 March to 31 August; by limiting public bodies, including local authorities, to cutting hedgerows during this period to situations where reasons of public health and safety apply – this will ensure that routine maintenance cutting of hedgerows cannot take place during the nesting period; and by empowering the Minister, where indiscriminate or excessive hedge cutting appears to have taken place during the breeding season, to request details of such works from a local authority or other public body. The body concerned will have to supply such information to the Minister, together with an explanation of the public health and safety factors involved.
These amendments strengthen considerably the role of the Wildlife Acts in conserving hedgerows and I anticipate they will have a broader effect by encouraging a more positive approach to hedgerows and the need to conserve them. I intend to build on this momentum through my initiatives in regard to the national heritage plan and the national biodiversity plan.
I will now indicate some international issues that are reflected in the Bill. It will enable Ireland to ratify CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora. While Ireland signed the CITES convention as long ago as 1974, we have never brought in the full legislative provisions which would enable us to formally ratify the convention. Apart from the practical importance of our being able to implement CITES in every respect, it is politically important to ratify it. By joining with other member states of the European Union as a party to the convention, we will be underpinning the Union's political commitment to CITES. Ratification of the convention by Ireland will signal further political support for it at international level by underpinning and endorsing the continuing and ongoing significance of its importance as a key element of international environmental law.
The Bill will also enable Ireland to ratify the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds Agreement, an agreement under the Bonn Convention. The migratory waterbirds agreement is of special significance in the Irish context given that this country is of major importance for many groups of wintering waterbirds as well as for breeding populations of some relevant species.
While considering aspects of the Bill which reflect global developments, I draw Senators' attention to the provision in section 9 which provides that promoting the conservation of biological diversity shall now be part of the Minister's overall functions. The Convention on Biological Diversity is the defining framework within which the conservation of biological diversity must be pursued whether at international or national level. It is, therefore, appropriate and a reflection of this country's commitment to this landmark convention that specific reference to biological diversity is included as a responsibility of my Department in the country's primary legislative instrument for wildlife protection.
The Bill improves a number of measures or introduces new ones to enhance the conservation of wildlife species and their habitats. I will refer briefly to a selection of these. For example, with respect to plant species, the Bill provides that trade or possession without a licence of protected flora is an offence. Powers are also included to allow the Minister to make regulations to control the trade and collection of species of wild flora which are not protected.
As regards wild birds, the Bill further strengthens the protection afforded to bird species and their eggs or nests by removing exemptions for carrying out certain activities and making them subject to a licence from the Minister. Protection is provided for the resting places of protected animals, thereby ensuring, in particular, that bat roosts are not unlawfully disturbed. Through the deletion of the provision to enable the granting of otter hunting licences, the Bill copperfastens the strict protection afforded to otters.
The principal Act allows the capture or killing of wild birds or animals where they cause damage to property, crops etc. The Bill provides that such action is taken only in cases of serious damage. It also introduces the concept of scaring wild birds and wild animals, as against capture and killing, as a means of protecting property.
Provisions are included to allow the Minister to prohibit the introduction of any species of wild bird, animal or flora, which may be detrimental to native species. It will be an offence to introduce exotic species of flora and fauna into the wild other than under licence from the Minister. The Bill will also enable the Minister to prohibit the export of any wild species rather than limit it to protected species, as was the case heretofore.
While the most significant provisions relevant to conserving species habitats are those concerning NHAs, other measures are also included. The Bill contains a provision for the creation of refuges for flora to conserve sites of special importance for plant species.
The Bill will greatly enhance the existing controls under the principal Act in relation to hunting which are designed to serve the interests of conservation. In that regard, section 36 is of importance in that it will introduce provisions which will allow for the regulation of the business of commercial shoot operators. Such operators either own or have access to shooting rights on lands and use these rights of access to provide hunting on those lands to others, particularly non-resident hunters, on a commercial basis.
The core of this new section is that commercial shoot operators will only be allowed to carry out their activities if they are in possession of a permit issued by the Minister. In issuing a permit the Minister will be able to request a wide range of relevant information. In completing this section, I consulted fully all relevant parties and the system proposed will balance the relevant conservation requirements, the concern of resident hunters and the commercial needs of operators.
The Bill also introduces a number of other hunting-related measures designed to enhance the conservation of wildlife species. Senators may be aware that, by way of the Firearms (Firearm Certificates for Non-Residents) Bill, 2000, I, with my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, sponsored a number of amendments to section 29 of the Wildlife Act to improve the hunting licensing regime. Among the amendments the Bill makes are new provisions to allow me to require applicants for a hunting licence to show evidence of competence to hold such a licence, and the introduction of greater controls and restrictions on the use of such devices as traps, snares and nets and other night hunting devices such as image intensifying or heat seeking devices.
Section 68 will amend and substantially extend the penalties applicable in the case of a conviction under either the principal Act or the amending Act. Obviously, the financial penalties originally set in 1976 needed to be increased significantly. For example, a person convicted of what might be termed an ordinary offence under the 1976 Act would have been liable to a fine of up to £50. The amending legislation increases this potential fine for a first time offence to £500 and also provides for a term of imprisonment. There are also increases in respect of second or third offences under the graduated system of penalties. The maximum financial penalty in respect of a conviction of an ordinary offence under the Wildlife Acts will now be £1,500, whereas previously, under the principal Act, it was only £200.
For what might be termed more serious offences, the penalties proposed are obviously stiffer. The penalty for a summary conviction in respect of a more serious offence is now a fine of £1,500, and-or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months. The potential penalty for a conviction on indictment is a fine of up to £50,000 and-or a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years. The maximum penalty for such a conviction for a similar offence under the 1976 Act was only £500 with no provision for a custodial sentence. For the first time, the Bill provides for a term of imprisonment on conviction of an offence. This, combined with the heavy financial deterrents being put in place, will serve to enhance greatly the protection and conservation of our important habitats and our wildlife generally.
Wildlife conservation and the environment have probably never had a higher profile or greater level of popular interest than they have today. At the same time, there has never been so much development throughout the country. The threats posed need to be managed in an imaginative way. This legislation achieves a balance that will help to ensure that our wildlife conservation objectives will not be regarded as an obstacle to improving our economic and infrastructural well-being. Rather, I hope that wildlife will be seen as an important part of our heritage worthy of conservation and protection at this time of great economic and infrastructural progress.
"Quality of life" is a phrase we hear used on a constant basis almost to the point of being regarded as a cliché. However, I do not consider it to be such. Our natural heritage has a key role to play in maintaining and improving our quality of life in these times when many people feel pressurised and stressed. It also has an economic benefit for us all in that it attracts huge numbers of visitors to our island every year as well as being a factor in enticing some industries to our shores.
We must seek to ensure our economic and natural heritage interests can move forward together in a mutually supportive way. The Bill aims to ensure the required framework for the protection of our natural heritage for current and future generations is in place. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Members.