Thursday, 4 March 2004

Questions (5)

Bernard Allen

Question:

4 Mr. Allen asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the reason there is a blanket ban on hunting on State owned lands; and the international agreements which prohibit him from allowing hunting on State owned lands. [7295/04]

View answer

Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

The policy of my Department, continuing that of successive Departments which have held responsibility for nature conservation, is to prohibit, on properties acquired for conservation purposes, any activities that would adversely affect the purposes for which the lands were acquired or interfere with the enjoyment and safety of members of the public availing of the resource. In this context, hunting on properties managed by the national parks and wildlife service of my Department has remained prohibited. This is a matter of national policy, rather than being mandated by international agreements.

I have recently examined this policy closely following requests by the National Association of Regional Game Councils that their members should be given access to some national parks and wildlife properties for the purpose of shooting game. For the following reasons, I have concluded that the prohibition of shooting on these properties should continue. First, the sites were acquired, in general using public funds, for the purpose of nature conservation and to serve as refuges and breeding places for species of wildlife. Hunting could also disturb "non-quarry" species and their habitat, thereby reducing the value of these sites as refuges for wildlife generally. Second, facilities for hunting are extensively available on Coillte lands, as well as those of private owners, and on foreshore. Third, I had to take account of considerations of public safety and the potential exposure of the State to claims for damages by persons harmed or otherwise adversely affected by hunting on national parks and wildlife services properties. The Heritage Council has recommended against any change in the long-standing policy of not permitting hunting on national parks and wildlife lands.

In reaching my conclusions on this matter I also had available the report of a joint scientific group comprising officials of my Department and nominees of the NARGC. Whereas this group considered that scientific reasons would not obtain for an automatic ban where hunting was sustainable, its report did not advance specific advice on how populations and sustainability should be assessed. While the group's report did propose a methodology for considering this matter further, the implementation of this would require significant national parks and wildlife personnel resources which would have to be diverted from other priority work. For the reasons indicated, I did not consider that the report of the scientific group justified a departure from the existing established policy in this matter.

Will the Minister confirm that Deputy Brendan Smith in representing him at the regional game council's AGM last October indicated that there would be a relaxation of the regulations on hunting on State-owned lands? Can he confirm also that the report to which he referred showed that there was no scientific basis for a blanket ban on hunting on State owned lands and that there were no international or European regulations which prevented such hunting?

I am aware of what my colleague, Deputy Smith, said in good faith and which was accurately reported at the time. He had a note from my Department which indicated that I was considering the issue and that I was probably likely to allow for three pilot schemes to operate. That was factually correct at the time but I have now come to a different conclusion. A key point that sways me is that the total amount of land managed on behalf of the people by the national parks and wildlife service is only 1.08% of the total land bank, a tiny proportion. There are extensive Coillte and private lands available for hunting. Many people, children and families, enjoy the national parks and to allow shooting with the inevitable dangers to them would be a very foolish move.

When this matter first came to my attention, I thought that there was a large proportion of land under the national parks and wildlife service but was astonished to find it was such a small fraction of the total land bank. If we cannot preserve this land which was bought with taxpayer's' money for everyone to enjoy in safety, there is something wrong. The extensive Coillte and private lands available more than meet the needs of hunting. I am not opposed to hunting and shooting but have to make a balanced judgment. This is the correct one.

Is the Minister saying he made a decision to introduce three pilot schemes based on misinformation?

The pilot schemes were publicly announced at the AGM of the association of clubs. Subsequently factors were brought to the Minister's attention which caused him to rescind the schemes. What were those factors?

Deputy Smith said I was prepared to consider proposals from the NARGC for hunting to be permitted on State lands, on a trial basis at three locations in different regions.

There were to be three pilot schemes.

That was correct at the time. I was considering this and was minded that way until I received all the assessments and the scientific report, which it is true, did not provide a substantive reason for prohibiting hunting or shooting.

Did the Minister decide on safety grounds?

There were many factors. One has to ask the reason for which the lands are bought and for whose benefit. It is a benefit for most of the people. When I realised that the percentage of lands involved was so minuscule, I was not minded to put at risk the lives of children and families who use the lands extensively. Had I felt this was extremely unfair to the hunting lobby and that a large portion of land was being removed from it, I might have acted differently but it is only 1.08% of the total land bank while hunting is available on the vast lands held by Coillte and on a large portion of private lands. This was the wisest decision in the public interest.