Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016: Second Stage

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. He can proceed when he has drawn his breath. Group spokespersons have eight minutes. All other Senators have five minutes. The Minister of State can kick off when he is ready.

The Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016 was presented to the Dáil on 21 July 2016 and was passed by that House on 13 December 2018. I am pleased to have the opportunity to present the Bill to the Seanad today. The passage of this legislation through the Houses of the Oireachtas is delivering on a commitment in the Programme for a Partnership Government.

Ireland has designated 75 natural heritage areas, NHAs, under national law for the protection of raised bog habitats and 73 NHAs for the protection of blanket bog habitats. These sites complement the 53 areas of protected raised bog and 50 areas-----

Somebody has indicated they would like a copy of the Minister of State's speech. Is such a copy available?

I presume so.

Perhaps a few copies can be given to the Members who would like to speak. The Minister of State may proceed. I am sorry to have interrupted him.

These sites complement the 53 areas of protected raised bog and 50 areas of protected blanket bog in Ireland which have been selected for conservation as special areas of conservation, SACs, in accordance with the EU habitats directive.

In recognition of the fact that the same legal regime did not apply to NHAs as to SACs, in April 2011 the then Government decided to carry out a scientific review of the natural heritage area raised bogs. This decision was taken in tandem with the work which was ongoing to ensure that SAC raised bogs were being treated in accordance with the habitats directive. The main objective of the review was to look at how the NHA network could contribute to our conservation objectives while avoiding impacts on the traditional rights of landowners and turf cutters, thereby minimising the cost to the taxpayer arising from compensation. Independent experts working closely with departmental officials carried out the review of the raised bog resource in Ireland. They examined over 270 individual raised bogs including SACs, NHAs and undesignated sites. New scientific survey methods were employed and improved mathematical modelling methods used to identify the restoration potential of sites. A number of factors were taken into account when assessing the importance of individual bogs in terms of their economic, social and cultural contribution to individual communities. This included available ownership information, the number of active turf plots and restoration associated costs.

This has been the most comprehensive analysis to date of Ireland’s raised bog habitats. The selection process for the analysis of sites adopted a sustainable approach. The selection criteria, while including the primary environmental and technical factors essential for a raised bog’s existence now and into the future, also included economic and social criteria. At the same time, each site was examined by departmental staff from a nature conservation and management perspective to ensure that the final outcomes of the selection process were practical and achievable. The review concluded that a reconfiguration of the raised bog NHA network was required in order to meet nature conservation objectives more efficiently while having regarding to economic, social and cultural needs.

The review of the raised bog natural heritage area network was published in January 2014. It sets out a series of measures to ensure that Ireland meets its obligations under the EU habitats directive, as well as its obligations under the environmental impact assessment directive relating to the regulation of turf cutting on raised bog NHAs, while at the same time avoiding impacts on the traditional rights of landowners and users and minimising the cost to the State of compensation payments. The review concluded that Ireland could more effectively achieve conservation of threatened raised bog habitat through focused protection and restoration of a reconfigured network. The review concluded that this would entail: the cessation of turf cutting on 36 existing NHAs which will remain designated - this includes seven sites to be divided, with part to be conserved and part to be de-designated; and the complete de-designation of 46 NHAs, including the relevant areas of the seven sites to be divided, where it has been judged that their conservation potential is expected to be marginal or that restoration would be prohibitively expensive for the conservation benefits achieved. Domestic turf cutting may continue on these sites, while larger scale or commercial turf cutting will continue to be regulated through other consent systems. The review concluded it would also entail the designation as NHAs of 25 currently undesignated raised bogs, which are in public ownership or in which there is reduced turf cutting pressure. These sites are to be proposed for designation to make up for the loss of habitat within the NHA sites where turf cutting is to continue.

The review clearly set out that the proposed newly-configured network will have considerable advantages over the current natural heritage area network. There will be a greater area of both active and degraded raised bog still capable of regeneration compared with the current network. In the short to medium term, losses of active bog will be reduced due to the lower intensity of turf cutting in the new network. Costs to the taxpayer will be greatly reduced due to the smaller number of turf cutters who will be required to stop turf cutting who will require compensation. It is envisaged that there will be around 2,500 fewer actively cut turf plots in the new network. There will also be an increased potential for more rapid restoration of raised bog due to the inclusion of State-owned lands in the new network. In short, the new network will have more environmental benefits, it will have less negative impact on turf cutters, and it will cost less to the taxpayer.

In accordance with the 2014 review, the total area of active and degraded raised bog under the proposed new network is 765 ha in comparison with an area of 694 ha in the current network. The area of the new network will also contribute to the national conservation objective target area for raised bog within the SAC and NHA networks. Additional raised bog habitat within the natural heritage area network makes a contribution to the overall objectives of the habitats directive to maintain or restore the habitat to favourable conservation status. Since 2011, over €34 million in taxpayers’ money has been spent on protecting and conserving the raised bog SAC and NHA networks. The SAC network remains the bedrock of Ireland's response to the conservation of raised bog under the habitats directive. The approach of the Government has been based on working with the turf cutters affected in a practical and pragmatic fashion, while also working to ensure we are protecting this rare natural environment and fulfilling our EU obligations.

As I mentioned earlier, the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016 was presented to the Dáil on 21 July 2016. The purpose of the Bill, as presented, was to provide for the implementation of a reconfiguration of the raised bog natural heritage area network arising from the 2014 review. During Committee Stage of the Bill in the Dáil, Deputy Ó Cúiv proposed to amend the Bill to provide for the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to carry out further reviews of other natural heritage areas. The then Minister undertook to consider the matter further with a view to addressing same at Report Stage. Proposed amendments for that purpose from the Minister were moved in the Dáil at Report Stage and agreed. Consequently the Bill, as initiated, has been amended in Dáil Éireann and now provides for the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, at his or her discretion, to conduct a review or reviews of other existing natural heritage areas as well as to continue and complete the 2014 review of raised bog natural heritage area network. The scope of a future review or reviews would be limited to those natural heritage areas in respect of which natural heritage area orders are in force on the date of the commencement of the relevant section of the Bill.

There are 75 raised bog NHAs encompassed by the 2014 review and 73 blanket bog NHA sites. The Bill gives the Minister the power to conduct a review or reviews of these blanket bog natural heritage areas at some point in the future without obliging the Minister to do so. There are principles and criteria in the Bill to guide a Minister in conducting a review and in making decisions on designation or de-designation of natural heritage areas. These include: the carrying out of a strategic environmental assessment; public consultation; and linking the achievement of nature conservation objectives for bog habitats to the favourable conservation status of these habitats, having regard to environmental criteria, restoration potential and national, regional and local economic, social and cultural needs. The heart of any future review would be nature conservation in terms of maintaining bog habitats at or restoring bog habitats to a favourable conservation status.

In summary, the Bill now provides for the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to do the following: conduct and complete the 2014 review of raised bog natural heritage area network; carry out a review or reviews of other existing natural heritage areas, at his or her discretion; and arising from the 2014 review or any future review or reviews, to amend or revoke natural heritage area orders and to make new natural heritage area orders.

The Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016 now provides for review of bog habitats, making amendment and revocation of natural heritage area orders and for these purposes to amend the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000.

The Bill contains five sections. Section 1 is a standard provision for a definition of the 2000 Act, that is, the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000. The legislative provisions regarding natural heritage areas are contained within Chapter II of Part III of the 2000 Act. Section 16(1) of that Act provides for the Minister to publish a notice of the intention to make a natural heritage area order, having regard to the special scientific interest of the site in question. Section 2 of the Bill amends this subsection to provide for the Minister to also publish a notice of the intention to make a natural heritage area order arising from the completion of the 2014 raised bog natural heritage area review and the completion of a review or reviews of other natural heritage areas.

Section 18(4) of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 provides that where the Minister proposes to amend or revoke a natural heritage area order, the Minister will publish a notice of the intention to do so. Section 3 of the Bill provides that the provisions of section 18(4) of the 2000 Act only apply to that section of the Act as section 4 of the Bill contains publication and notification provisions where the Minister makes an order to amend or revoke a natural heritage area order in accordance with the Bill.

Section 4 of the Bill amends the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 by the insertion of a new section 18A after section 18 as follows. Section 18A(1) provides for the Minister to continue to conduct and complete the 2014 review of raised bog natural heritage areas and that the Minister may conduct one or more than one review of other natural heritage areas. Section 18A(2) provides that a review or reviews are limited to the natural heritage areas in respect of which natural heritage area orders are in force on the date of the commencement of section 18A. Section 18A(3) refers to the purposes of a review, including, in subsection (a), contributing to the achievement of nature conservation objectives of maintaining or restoring bog habitats to a favourable conservation status and, in subsection (b), selecting the most suitable bog habitats to be designated as natural heritage areas or to cease to be designated as natural heritage areas. Special scientific interest, environmental criteria, restoration potential and national, regional and local economic, social and cultural needs would be taken into account in the selection process. Section 18A(4) provides that the Minister shall, in relation to the effects on the environment of the proposals arising from a review, in subsection (a) carry out a strategic environmental assessment, including public consultation and, in subsection (b), if required, carry out any other screening for an assessment or, as the case may be, assessment, including public consultation. Section 18A(5) sets out that on the completion of a review, having considered the proposals arising from it, and having had regard to the strategic environmental assessment, any other screening for assessment or assessment undertaken, and observations or submissions received during the public consultation, the Minister shall, in subsection (a), where he or she is satisfied that a natural heritage area order should be made, publish under section 16 of the 2000 Act a notice of his or her intention to make the natural heritage area order and, in subsection (b), where he or she is satisfied that land should cease to be designated as a natural heritage area, make an order to amend or revoke the natural heritage area order which so designated the land. Section 18A(6) states that where the Minister makes an order to amend or revoke a natural heritage area order which designated land as a natural heritage area, he or she will place an advertisement in at least one local newspaper to inform the public of the making of the order and cause a copy of the order to be sent to defined owners or occupiers of land, defined holders of valid prospecting or exploration licences, various Ministers of the Government and various public authorities. Section 19(2) of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 provides that no person shall carry out or cause to be carried out works which are liable to destroy or significantly alter, damage or interfere with the features of a site proposed for designation as an natural heritage area, NHA, without giving the Minister at least three months' notice. This obligation applies to land in respect of which the Minister has served notice of the intention to make a natural heritage area order. Section 18A(7) of the Bill clarifies that where land or part of land ceases to be designated in accordance with the provisions of the Bill, the obligation, arising from section 19(2) of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000, is fully removed in respect of that land or part of land. Section 18A(8) sets out definitions of "bog habitat", "environmental criteria", "favourable conservation status" and "restoration potential" in respect of raised and blanket bog.

Section 5 of the Bill sets out the Short Title and commencement.

I view this Bill as an important piece of the jigsaw as we continue to deal with the need to protect the environment, live up to our EU obligations and work with landowners and turf cutters, on whose lives these obligations can have a very real impact. This legislation will allow for our raised bog network to be managed more efficiently and in a more environmentally-friendly manner. It is important to remember that the Bill initially arose from the Review of Raised Bog Natural Heritage Area Network, published in 2014. The reconfiguration of the raised bog network which this legislation will facilitate is based on sound scientific evidence and will have a positive impact on the raised bog network. As set out in the Bill, the heart of any future review of blanket bog natural heritage areas would be nature conservation in terms of maintaining bog habitats and-or restoring bog habitats to a favourable conservation status. Decisions on designation or de-designation of natural heritage areas would not be made in a vacuum. There are principles and criteria in the Bill to guide a Minister in this process. The focus is on nature conservation and having a positive impact on the relevant network. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to outline the provisions of the Bill, and I look forward to hearing Senators' contributions on the contents of the Bill. I would also like to take this opportunity to mention that, arising from the recent national biodiversity conference, I may propose amendments to the Bill on Committee or Report Stage. I commend the Bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.