Commencement Matters

Seaweed Harvesting Licences

I wish to share time with Senator Rose Conway-Walsh.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Gabhaim míle buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus leis an Aire Stáit. Is as Contae an Chláir an Aire Stáit agus beidh eolas maith aige ar an gceist atáim ag ardú maidir le cúrsaí feamainne agus an tábhacht atá le tionscnamh na feamainne in iarthar na tíre agus ó thaobh na bainteoirí aonair a bhíonn á baint. The Minister of State will understand this issue well because he comes from County Clare and will probably know many seaweed harvesters and how important the industry is. Even though it might be small in the national context, it is important to us in the west.

It is a huge tradition going back many generations where traditional harvesters would collect the seaweed, which is obviously very hard work, and then they would sell on to processors, etc.

The Minister of State would be aware, I am sure, that a number of years ago applications were made for blanket licences for large companies which wanted foreshore licences covering huge tracts. One, in particular, covered the area from County Clare to the top of Mayo. There was serious concern at that stage about the impact that would have on the industry, the traditional harvesters and the smaller processors and their access to seaweed. The question seems to have gone dormant in the last year or so. I have raised this issue on a number of occasions with the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. We know that his Department was asking for a list of all the folios on the seashore to be made so that it could look at all those foreshore folios and see how many had pertinent seaweed harvesting rights attached to them. We also know that people can also legally maintain their right to continue cutting seaweed if they have proof of having been involved in the industry through sales to companies, etc.

The traditional harvesters have raised this matter with me once again. A review was to be done of the licensing regime. Where does that stand at the moment? Has that audit been finished? If so, can we see a published report on that audit? How many people actually have pertinent rights on their folios that would allow them to continue harvesting? How many people do not? What is the plan to implement a seaweed management programme in those areas? What is the situation in regard applications for the harvesting of seaweed? I look forward to the Minister of State's response. This is an issue in Mayo as well, so I will hand over to Senator Conway-Walsh to say a few words.

The Senator has one minute and ten seconds.

I will do the best I can. I thank my colleague, Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, for raising this matter and I thank the Minister of State for being here. This is an issue that we have been working on in Mayo and along the coast for the last number of years. We are working on it from the point of view of first establishing the ownership of the foreshore, particularly where people have folios there. Like my colleague, I would appreciate clarity, which I think is absolutely necessary, on the current situation. People were very concerned around the sell-off of the State company and the conditions that might have been attached to that because there was not transparency around it. This is an opportunity for us to have transparency.

I will talk specifically on the benefits of seaweed. There are massive benefits for local, coastal communities. I ask the Minister of State today to instruct the local authorities along the coast, including Mayo County Council, to prioritise the production of seaweed and to conduct and support feasibility studies into what can be done with seaweed and the jobs that can be created in that area. Sinn Féin's vision for seaweed, along the western coast in particular, is that we would have many micro-industries, small cottage industries, that could be set up using our seaweed as a natural resource. We have experienced the giveaway of our other natural resources in terms of oil and gas. We are not prepared to let the natural resource of seaweed be relinquished to foreign companies which will exploit it to maximise their own profits as well.

I thank Senators Ó Clochartaigh and Conway-Walsh for raising this matter. We are three Member of the Oireachtas from the west of Ireland so we are well aware of the importance of the west coast and the Wild Atlantic Way. I know a company in Quilty in County Clare which has 30 people employed in seafood products and exporting to China so it is an important issue to raise.

The role of the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government in regard to harvesting of seaweed is to regulate the activity in accordance with the Foreshore Act 1933. In carrying out this task, that Department aims to ensure that the resource is managed appropriately, with the twin aims of protecting the marine environment and allowing for a sustainable level of harvesting by both individual harvesters, including those who have harvested seaweed over generations, and also by companies.

The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government recognises the valuable and important role that seaweed harvesting plays in the environment, culture and economy of coastal communities, particularly in counties along the western coast. Seaweed harvesting has provided a source of income to traditional harvesters for generations. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, very clearly understands the concerns raised by both the sale of Arramara Teoranta by Údarás na Gaeltachta in 2014, and the applications to harvest seaweed by companies which have been received by his Department.

During the course of assessing these licence applications, it became clear that certain rights to harvest seaweed exist and the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government is in a process of assessing, with the assistance of the Attorney General, the legal interface and relationship between these traditional harvesting rights and the current applications. Accordingly, these applications by companies are effectively on hold until the Department receives definitive legal advice from the Attorney General on this matter.

This is a very complex legal issue. In trying to fully establish the implications of the interaction between these existing seaweed harvesting rights and the applications for licences by companies officials of the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government have met with the Attorney General on a number of occasions to discuss this matter.

The aim, of course, is to bring clarity to the regulatory regime applying to the harvesting of wild seaweed to all parties and especially to the question of the rights held by traditional harvesters. It is expected that this matter will be concluded by mid-2017, or earlier if possible. Officials from the Department have met with several applicants to explain the complexities of the situation to them.

I to take this opportunity to assure Senators Ó Clochartaigh and Conway-Walsh that no decisions have yet been reached on the applications currently on hold in the Department. The work is ongoing and once it is finalised my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, will give definitive clarification around the rights of traditional harvesters and make a decision on the position regarding the existing applications from companies to harvest wild seaweed.

An bhfuil an Seanadóir sásta?

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as an bhfreagra sin. I thank the Minister of State for clarifying the timeline and that he hopes to have some kind of conclusion before mid-2017. When we look internationally there are ongoing cases, for example, in Maine in the US around the exact same issue, that is, international companies coming in and seeking harvesting rights. We know that in Canada these types of rights have been given to companies. The concerns are still here.

I note that the applicants have been given information about the complexities and have been engaged with but the individual harvesters have not. I ask, as I have asked on a number of occasions going back more than a year, if the list of folios or a map of the shore could be made available to us. Surely that was a matter for land registry, which was being done. It was an audit by the Department of all the different folios along the shore that had pertinent rights attached to them. Surely at this stage we could have that made available to us, rather than everybody seeking individual folios. It is not going to affect the outcome. It is a matter of fact that is on the record. That work has been done by the Department. Could the Minister of State make that available to us as Oireachtas Members?

The west of Ireland is not the only place. At the moment there is a huge furore in Bantry Bay about a licence for harvesting seaweed. It is sub judice so I will not comment further. Does the Minister of State wish to respond?

Just briefly, a Chathaoirligh-----

The Minister of State is not the line Minister.

Yes, but I will pass on Senator Ó Clochartaigh's concerns to the Minister myself. Obviously, this is a very complex issue. The Department is in the process of assessing, with the assistance of the Attorney General, the legal interface between traditional harvesting rights and the current application. That is a very complex issue. It has to be dealt with. It takes time to make sure that it has the proper information. As I said, I would hope that there will be a decision on this by mid-2017 or earlier. It is hoped that will bring a conclusion to the situation. I do not want to comment on it at the moment because it is ongoing and the Attorney General's office is dealing with it but it is something of concern, particularly to small-time producers or collectors of seaweed on the west coast. They are often small-time farmers for whom this is an auxiliary income to supplement the small income they get from farming. I would be very conscious of that.

Telecommunications Services Provision

I thank the Minister for coming today. We are delighted to see he has made a good recovery. The Minister has seen the outline of my Commencement matter on the regulation of SIM cards and SIM-only, ready-to-go and pay-as-you-go phones. Many of the larger companies have this quite well regulated. They look for identification, proof of age and utility bills before they sell any of these. I was surprised to learn this is not the policy of all companies and is not in legislation. If it is, some of them are flouting it. There has been a huge increase in cyber bullying, trolling and sexting. They are things that are heavily prevalent among teenagers. It is causing fundamental problems in our society. Many gardaí will say that criminals are prospering by hiding behind anonymous identities. I am curious about that. The Minister knows the general point. I will not delay him because he has a busy portfolio and was here yesterday as well. I am curious what our stance is on this. What does the Minister see as the way forward in tightening up the regulations?

I thank Senator Davitt for raising a very valid question on an important issue. From a telecommunications perspective, Ireland favours easy access by our citizens to mobile communications on the basis that such access is of benefit to society. There is currently no Irish legal requirement to register the personal details of owners of SIM cards. Where mobile service providers are extending a line of credit in the form of telecommunications services to bill paying customers, assurances are sought that the bills issued will be received and paid and that any relevant debt will be recoverable. In that regard, personal data such as proof of identification and residence are collected and processed for legitimate business purposes and solely in connection with the delivery of the mobile service. For SIM cards and prepaid phones with no line of credit being extended, no requirement for collecting personal details arises. Although there is currently no mandatory registration system for SIM cards in Ireland, there is a voluntary registration system in place for prepaid phones which has a high take-up because of incentives offered by operators. Customers have tended to register their details on foot of being offered commercial incentives for doing so, such as top-up credit. My Department would only legislate in this area if there was comprehensive evidence emerging to indicate a widespread or serious problem which a policy change would rectify. The proposal to register all customers for mobile phone services was considered previously by my Department and identified complex legal, technical, data protection and practical issues. Such issues include the ease with which a foreign or stolen SIM card could be used, the difficulties that would be posed by verifying identity in the absence of a national identification card system and data protection issues arising from the development of a register. It was concluded that the proposal would be of limited benefit because it would not solve the illegal or inappropriate use of mobile phones by persons determined to abuse the technology. Furthermore it was found that data protection issues associated with the concept and the routine collection and retention of individuals' personal data information would be contrary to the Data Protection Acts 2008 and 2013. There are no proposals to compel mobile telephone service providers to register all customers.

As the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, I continue to support the mobile industry in its work on a safe and responsible use of mobile phones. I am aware that representative groups within the telecommunications sector are alert to the need to adopt high standards for mobile operators on parental controls for the access by minors to mobile services. In that regard, three operators - Three Ireland, Vodafone and Meteor - have, since 2014, developed a code of practice for application in the Irish market. The code establishes the standard which mobile operators will adhere to on issues of parental controls for minors' access to mobile services, malicious or offensive communications, spam, internet access, premium rate service and access controls for content services. While I have overall responsibility for electronic communications policy, the Senator will appreciate that policy responsibility in respect of combatting crimes that might take advantage of or abuse electronic communications rests with the Minister for Justice and Equality. Policy responsibility in respect of child protection rests with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The Seanad will also appreciate that prevention, detention and investigation of criminal conduct is a matter for An Garda Síochána.

There are also civil liberty issues at play here. ComReg, as the telecommunications regulator, seeks proof of identification from its bill paying customers purely for the purposes of billing. That is an entirely separate matter from any policy developments that might be considered in criminal justice or child protection spheres. If the State wanted the register to identify all owners or users of mobile phones, it would be a matter for the relevant Minister.

I thank the Minister. It is not a simple issue to solve. I would be the last person to trumpet any state or anything to that effect. The Minister hit on quite a valid point when he said the three main operators have a voluntary code of practice for this. I do not say this lightly. We have regulation for underage drinking and we are very regimental in carrying out stings on publicans to make sure they are held to account and run good shows. It is not right to give mobile phones or access to mobile phones to kids of any age. It is causing serious issues in households which will become bigger problems going forward. The Minister hit on it there. The code of practice used by the large companies is good. We should not hide behind regulation and privacy. It is possible to bring in a minimum age for use of a phone. If a parent wants to give a kid a phone and flout the regulation that is his or her own business. A minimum age for access to a mobile phone of perhaps 14, 15 or 16 is the way forward.

To bring in a law on mobile phones, we have to ask what a mobile phone is. It is a mobile device not a mobile phone. Most of the tablets we have now also have SIM cards or are linked up to mobile phones. My children have tablets in school. The school has purchased them. I was in Roscommon Community College during the week and rather than having e-books and using e-learning, the children now bring in their device, whether it is a mobile phone or a tablet, and they can link up with the services that are there.

They have to get on to the service and put in who they are and whatever else so they have to physically access-----

The Minister without interruption, please.

Of course they do. I do not agree with the Senator's proposal to have a ban on the use of mobile phones at particular ages. The only way we could do that is to have a ban on the use of the SIM card rather than the device as a result of the way technology is changing. With the wider use of the internet, we will see a situation where very small children will have a bracelet with a SIM card in it in case they get lost. That is the way technology is going and the way the internet is developing. That kind of regulation will not happen but there are a number of things we can do. We need to make parents far more aware of the issues.

We need to strengthen the legislation in this area and I am actively considering this. The Law Reform Commission has examined this and I have already said I am exploring issues in this area. In fact, there is a paper on the subject on my desk as I speak.

It is important to remember that we are part of the European Union. In recent weeks, after a long period of negotiation, we successfully signed up to the EU "roam like at home" initiative, which will allow mobile telephone users in Ireland to roam right across the European Union and pay the exact same charges they would pay here in Ireland from 15 June. That is a reciprocal arrangement. It means any SIM card from abroad that comes here and that could be unregistered can also be used here. We all know that people who want to avoid detection will easily find ways of doing so. Putting in place an administrative system that registers 99.999% of SIM cards will still not deal with the criminal issue. Powers exist to intercept telecommunications messages. I am quite willing to examine these on a national or European basis to determine whether we need to review them to deal with criminal activity.

What we need to do is make people more aware of the risks and work with the various companies. Gmail, for example, has an age limit for registration and it opens up quite a number of services. There are a number of responsible companies at present. Many more of them would like to put more formalised procedural structures in place, just as 3, Vodafone and Meteor have done in regard to their codes of practice. In general, the device companies, operators and social media companies moving into this space are very anxious to put in place the types of child protection measures that should be in place. That is better because, if we can achieve this, not only will it apply to Ireland, but Ireland will effectively regulate what happens in Europe. This can apply right across the European Union and protect children no matter where they live in the Union.

I thank the Minister. I appreciate the work he is doing. He mentioned to me outside that legislation is proposed. I appreciate all the hard work he is doing in regard to this and I hope this can feed into it. The last thing I want is a ban on people using phones. What we are doing is the way forward but a certain amount of regulation is required. At present, a five-year-old child could rock up to a shop, get a SIM card and gain access to anything he or she wants. This is not good enough.

Air Quality

I thank the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, for attending today. His Department, under his guidance, announced last week additional funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, for the provision of a number of additional air quality monitoring stations nationwide. Through the Minister's Department, I have made a formal request to the EPA so that, as part of this programme, it will seek to install immediately a permanent air quality monitoring station at the Irish Cement plant in Mungret, Limerick. People living in the greater Mungret-Raheen-Dooradoyle-Limerick area would like to see this station. The Minister is probably aware that there is currently an application before Limerick City and County Council from Irish Cement seeking to put in place an alternative fuels plant on the site. The licence for the overall site is before the EPA at present.

I welcome the fact that the Minister is providing an additional fund to the EPA for the erection of a permanent air monitoring station. Good practice ordains that one of the sites for monitoring air quality should be at the Irish Cement site in Mungret, Limerick. There is major concern among people living in the area. Many have young families. They are very reasonable people and they have concerns about the emissions from the plant. Bearing in mind the robustness of the licensing regime of the EPA in respect of measuring air quality, I understand there is no permanent air monitoring site at the Irish Cement plant in Limerick at present. Cement manufacturing is heavy industry so air monitoring is required immediately. The people of the area are entitled to it.

The Minister is putting funding in place to allow the EPA to erect the permanent air monitoring stations. Clearly, the Irish Cement plant in Mungret should be at the front of the queue. There have been numerous public meetings with residents in the area and the wider public in Limerick. This has been brought to a head with the current application before Limerick City and County Council for the alternative fuel plant on the site. As the Minister is probably aware, however, the licensing of the alternative fuel plant will have to be done by the EPA itself. Apart from that, the licence of the overall site is currently under review in the EPA.

I welcome the fact that the Minister has appeared before the Seanad to deal with this issue. I ask for a commitment that he will take the matter up with the EPA and that the EPA will erect a permanent air monitoring site at the Irish Cement plant in Mungret, Limerick.

I thank Senator Kieran O'Donnell for raising this issue with me. A number of important EU directives seek to protect our environment from the harmful effects of air pollution and maintain the quality of the air we breathe. The current air quality standards are contained in the clean air for Europe directive of 2008 and the fourth daughter directive of the European Union. The directives include rules governing how member states should monitor, assess and manage ambient air quality. The EPA is tasked with co-ordinating and managing the monitoring programme in Ireland. Under the directives, the EU member states must designate zones for managing air quality. For Ireland, four zones have been defined in the air quality standards regulations of 2011. The zones in place in Ireland in 2017 are zone A, comprising the Dublin conurbation, zone B, comprising the Cork conurbation, zone C, comprising 23 large towns with a population of more than 15,000, and zone D, the remaining area of Ireland. Ireland currently has a network of 31 monitoring stations which measure levels of air pollutants in the four zones. This information is delivered to the public nearly in real time at The numbers and locations of the monitoring equipment for each pollutant are determined by the requirements of the directives for ambient air monitoring in each zone. I am sure the Senator is already aware that there is one such monitoring station in County Limerick, located in the Shannon Estuary at Askeaton.

Following a comprehensive review of the current status of ambient air quality monitoring in Ireland, the EPA is developing a new national ambient air quality monitoring programme under section 65 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act. This process has included a review of the adequacy of the current network for determining compliance with the European and national standards for air quality and for the provision of information to the public about local air quality. I am not satisfied with the network of 31 monitoring stations in meeting that need. As I mentioned, we already have a monitoring station in Askeaton in Limerick. There is a proposed revised EPA monitoring programme. It proposes an additional monitoring site in Limerick city and an indicative monitoring site in Abbeyfeale. I welcome the proposed expansion of the network. It is important to remember that this is about providing the public, in particular, with information regarding local air quality.

This is of particular significance given the growing evidence that air pollution is more damaging to human health than previously understood, both in terms of thresholds above which health impacts can occur and in the range of those impacts. As I have said on numerous occasions, poor air quality in Ireland directly results in the deaths of four people every day and many more people end up presenting in hospitals, ending up on trolleys in accident and emergency departments and having long stays in hospital, so by improving air quality we can have a direct impact on the health of our nation and on the congestion we see in the regional hospital in Limerick and hospitals right across this country. What this network is about is looking at air quality, not just from one particular plant, but right across the city of Limerick. I refer to diesel engines, which are a huge problem in Dublin, and at other sources of pollution. We can monitor those over time.

In regard to individual premises, there is a specific licensing regime in place which is operated and managed by the EPA and there would be specific quite rigid requirements in regard to that. The EPA recently issued information regarding the air quality from some plants in the region of Limerick which highlighted problems with their emissions. It may not necessarily be the one that is closest to home either. The EPA is quite transparent in regard to this and it is quite critical of operations where they do not meet the standards required. It puts all that into the public domain. I have confidence in the monitoring regime the EPA has in place in regard to all the large emitters across the country but this network is not about what goes into the air but the air we breathe on a day-to-day basis. We are quite lucky in that we meet and comply with EU standards on air quality. However, if we look at the international World Health Organization standards, we are not meeting those. The best way to improve our standard of air quality is to be able to monitor and measure that and see the progress over time.

I do not think we can do that with 31 stations which is why I have directed the EPA to increase the number. It will also have a knock-on benefit of being able to give an accurate reflection in regard to pollen count. People with allergies will be able to know, based on actual predictions, about the pollen count and the read in Ireland. Up to now, we were basing it on projections based on data collected in the UK.

I welcome the fact the EPA will erect two new monitoring stations, one in Limerick city and one in Abbeyfeale. What is the timeframe for and the location of the Limerick city station? It is important it deals with issues about which people have major concerns and on which they need reassurance, including the emissions from plants such as the Irish Cement plant in Mungret. The Minister should be aware of the concern among the public. A march is being organised by people in Limerick city this Saturday. These people have genuine concerns. They are reasonable people with young families living in Dooradoyle, Raheen, the Mungret area where the Irish Cement plant is located and other areas. What is the timeframe for the permanent air quality monitoring station in Limerick city? It should be located in an area where it would be able to detect the air quality around the Irish Cement plant and other areas as well. I welcome the commitment that there will be a permanent EPA monitoring station in Limerick city, which currently has no station.

The location in Limerick city will be one that will best reflect the air quality in the city as a whole. Currently, the EPA has 31 stations to try to give a read across the country, which is virtually impossible to do. By doubling the number of stations, it will be able to give a far more accurate national read and it will be able look at locations in our cities that can best and accurately reflect what is going on in those cities. The EPA will use a scientific formula in that regard. It will be possible to monitor the output from all the plants in the mid-west catchment and, in the near future, to tabulate those against the reading in the two new stations and the three monitoring stations. All of that information will be live.

On the timeframe, I recently met board members of the EPA who outlined their proposals for upgrading the monitoring network. I fully support these proposals and confirmed to them at that time that my Department will provide whatever funding is required. The director general of the EPA, Ms Laura Burke, has since written to me with an estimate of the additional resources required by the agency - capital and current funding of €5 million over five years, with five additional staff with specialist expertise in air quality monitoring and forecasting. The extra resources will enable the EPA to provide extra support to local authorities in developing new capabilities in air quality monitoring and I very much welcome the proposal to expand the network and look forward to the EPA developing its capacity to meet the future air quality needs of Irish citizens. The physical roll-out of the network is the easy part, and the EPA has been actively involved in that since my discussion with it, but the actual analysis, predictions and using that data will be the bigger challenge, which is why I have approved the additional staffing.

On the timeline for the specific locations, very specialist equipment has to be ordered in. The EPA is finalising its list of locations. I have given it the go-ahead on the capital side and, from a financial point of view, there is no reason many of those stations cannot be rolled out this year but I do not know, from a logistical point of view, the timelines involved in providing power and providing network connections back. The important thing is that once they are installed, they are live so that the public in Limerick and every other part of the country can see exactly what is happening at their particular station or a network of stations around that catchment. I hope this can be done as quickly as possible and I will ask the EPA to come back to Senator O'Donnell with timelines on the roll out of the network, specifically the two proposed stations in County Limerick.

I thank the Minister. We are well over time.

I thank the Minister. I would ask that Limerick city be prioritised for the erection of these permanent monitoring stations and that when the EPA is renewing its licence regimes for companies, such as Irish Cement, that it would await the outcome of this air monitoring as part of its review mechanism.

Unfortunately, we are out of time. I thank the Senator and the Minister.

Wildlife Control

We have a final Commencement matter. I understand that the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, is flying in for this one. I welcome the Minister of State. We are down to the wire in terms of time, so I ask Members to be as brief as possible.

I will keep it as brief as possible. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. He will see from the wording of my Commencement matter that I am asking him to examine options to deal with the large number of seagulls in the town of Balbriggan in north County Dublin and, indeed, in other large coastal urban areas in north County Dublin. I am raising this issue as many residents in Balbriggan have raised this with me in the last number of months. It is a very big problem in the town at present. I have seen at first hand these aggressive birds attacking people. Children and elderly people are particularly vulnerable to attack from seagulls. Balbriggan has a population of approximately 26,000 people and many older people and children, in particular, have been attacked in recent months and years by the increase in seagulls in the town.

Traditionally, seagulls lived at sea and nested on cliffs. Their food source was fish but as fish stocks have diminished over the years, they have moved inland to seek more non-traditional food sources. For example, research established that in 1980 there were approximately 40 pairs of breeding seagulls in Dublin city but it is now estimated there are more than 20,000 breeding pairs in the city. A similar study has not been conducted for north County Dublin but one can only assume that this abnormal increase has been replicated there.

There was a dump near Balbriggan called Balleally landfill, which closed in May 2012. Seagulls had moved there from the sea seeking food and when the dump closed, they had to seek another non-traditional food source, which is why Balbriggan and other coastal towns in north County Dublin became the next hunting ground for them. They used to scavenge at the dump but they have moved into the housing estates and businesses around Balbriggan and this is causing major problems. This needs to be tackled urgently. I would like the Minister of State to outline whether he has plans in this regard. If not, will he set up some plans to deal with this because it is a big issue?

Scientists in the UK are studying the best way to deal with this and to discourage seagulls from nesting in urban areas. They are developing lasers to deter them from nesting. The lasers do not harm the seagulls; they frighten them and deter them from nesting. They are forced to return to the coast and their traditional breeding and hunting grounds on the cliffs and so on. Are there plans to use laser technology here? Hessian sacks are given to householders and businesses in towns in Devon and Cornwall to put their rubbish in because seagulls cannot pick through the sacks. The non-traditional food sources are diminishing in these towns and the patterns of breeding and feeding are changing for the seagulls. Perhaps this measure could also be adopted.

Other measures have been taken such as seagull spikes and oiling of eggs. I do not agree with them but if there are such plans, I would like the Minister of State to address them. If something could be done about the invasion of seagulls in Balbriggan, I would appreciate it, as would the people of the town.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I have sympathy for the people affected. We have a different problem in rural Ireland, particularly in the summer months, with hedge cutting on main roads. We get a great deal of criticism for raising the issue. However, this is also an important and serious issue, which is affecting families and children and it is a concern for people.

I am aware from representations made to my Department of reports that problems have been encountered with seagulls on various housing estates in the Balbriggan area. It is claimed that the seagulls, because of their numbers and habits, are giving rise to public health and safety issues in the area. Many seagulls nest on domestic roofs and it has been reported that some parents do not let their children outdoors, especially during the summer, due to the nuisance caused by the number of seagulls and because of reported instances of gulls attacking people. My Department has also received letters from individuals, local schools, a residents' association and owners of business premises in the area detailing various problems with seagulls.

Seagulls are protected under both Irish and EU law. The population of seagulls in Ireland is not stable. The breeding population of herring gulls, for example, has declined significantly over recent decades probably due to improvements in managing landfill sites as well as other factors. Nonetheless, I accept that there are substantial numbers in some coastal towns and cities, including north County Dublin. I understand that the residents in Balbriggan are looking for a solution that would require non-lethal methods such as removing nests and eggs and the installation of netting and other measures. The granting of individual licences to residents to remove nest and eggs may not prove a feasible solution from a practical and efficiency perspective and it would be cumbersome for my Department to administer.

We have powers under European Communities legislation to make a declaration, commonly known as the wild bird declaration, which allows the capturing and killing of some listed bird species such as magpies and crows in certain circumstances, for example, to prevent serious damage to livestock and crops and for public health reasons. In the main, the declaration is used by landowners to protect livestock and crops and to protect ground nesting birds. In recent years, the Department has reviewed the declaration annually before renewal on 1 May each year. A major review is scheduled for 2018 and this will take account of all relevant factors, including perceived threats, distribution and population data available on the bird species.

As part of this year’s annual review of the declaration and taking account of issues identified in Balbriggan, I am willing to consider the addition of the seagull to the declaration. As they stand, the regulations do not allow the removal of nests or eggs, as is hoped for by the residents, and any such activity would require an amendment to these regulations. I am, however, prepared to examine making such an amendment and this is being actively looked at currently in my Department in the context of the 2017 declaration review. While the annual declaration is generally renewed on 1 May every year, my intention is that the 2017 declaration will be completed earlier than this.

The Minister met a number of public representatives from the area in recent weeks and conveyed to them the position which I have outlined here. The House will understand that the role of my Department is one of conservation and protection of our flora and fauna and of habitats for wildlife. Other than considering legislative change in the context of national and European nature laws, my Department, even if it had the resources to do so, would have no powers to actively become involved in any programme to reduce bird numbers on particular housing estates. It is my understanding that programmes aimed at addressing seagull issues in UK coastal towns were led by the local councils, and the residents of Balbriggan have requested the assistance of Fingal County Council in addressing the seagull problem.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Seagull droppings contain ten times more bacteria than pollution caused by human waste and, therefore, this is an urgent health and safety issue. One gentleman told me about his five year old grandson who was eating in his garden one summer afternoon and was attacked by a seagull and badly injured. I appreciate the Minister of State's comments regarding the declaration and if can be speeded up, all the better. I urge him to include Balbriggan and other coastal towns in north County Dublin.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue, which is particularly serious during summer months for families with children. They are concerned that these big birds can injure children. The Department will review the declaration but I hope the community will work with the local authority, which has a role to play. The Department must adhere to the legislation but, at the same time, there are other rules and regulations, and licences can be issued. I hope the local authority working with the community can resolve this problem.

Sitting suspended at 11.30 a.m. and resumed at 11.35 a.m.