Thursday, 19 September 2019

Questions (4)

Mattie McGrath


4. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the status of the introduction of extensions to managed hedgerow and vegetation cutting; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [37291/19]

View answer

Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Culture)

Go raibh maith agat. Ar an gcéad dul síos, I echo what Deputy Niamh Smyth said about an Gaillimh aréir. I congratulate craobh Chomhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann i gCathair Dún Iascaigh, the Cahir branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and Mícheál and Mary Harty on hosting a wonderful traditional music festival i gCathair Dún Iascaigh last weekend. It is through festivals like this that our culture, music, song and dance are nurtured. It is very important that we support those and I compliment Mícheál and Mary Harty on their tremendous work on an ongoing basis.

There is palpable anger and frustration in rural communities at the way the Minister just drove a coach and four through the regulations that were debated here for more than a year, passed by this House and the Seanad and signed into law by the President. This July, the Minister decided to scrap those rules, which allow for hedge cutting in the interest of health and safety and things like that, instead of initiating legislation which was passed here in 2018.

First I wish to acknowledge the Deputy's comments on the recent traditional music festival. I also give my thanks to Mary and Mícheál Harty.

As the Deputy knows, the provisions under section 7 of the Heritage Act 2018 allow for the making of regulations relating to burning and cutting hedgerows. Section 7(1) of the Heritage Act 2018 provides that, as Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, I may make regulations to allow the burning of vegetation during certain periods in the month of March and in such parts of the country as specified in the Regulations.

I made a decision last February not to make regulations to extend the season for the burning of vegetation into March 2019.  This decision was taken as there would have been no basis for me to do so given the fact that the relatively dry weather during the six-month period when the burning of vegetation could have been undertaken under the law, that is, September to February, inclusive, would not have precluded landowners from burning vegetation.  The existing provisions on burning in the Wildlife Acts therefore remained in force for March 2019.

Regarding hedgerows, subsection 7(2) of the Heritage Act 2018 includes the power to make regulations to allow the cutting of roadside hedges during the month of August subject to conditions. In July I announced that I would not be proceeding with the making of such regulations this year. My decision recognised the increasing threats to biodiversity nationally and globally and follows a number of Government initiatives to protect and nurture Ireland's flora and fauna.

There was extensive public debate and engagement by my Department and myself on this matter including during the national biodiversity conference in Dublin earlier this year, which I hosted together with the Irish forum on natural capital.  Arising from this conference, the Seeds for Nature initiative, which comprised a range of initiatives for nature and biodiversity, was launched.  In addition, there was a wide public consultation on the Heritage Ireland 2030 plan, debates in the Dáil on biodiversity loss and the extensive engagement across Government on climate action, including on the part of my Department.  The report of the Joint Committee on Climate Action made a number of references to the importance of hedgerows.

Notwithstanding my decision not to make regulations to allow hedge cutting in August, I should point out that it is possible in accordance with the provisions of the Heritage Act 2018 and the Roads Act 1993 to cut roadside hedges in circumstances where road safety issues arise.

I said in July that there would be significant anger and frustration within rural communities when the Department confirmed, in response to a parliamentary question I submitted, that proposed regulations permitting the commencement of certain provisions of the Heritage Act 2018 were to be scrapped. The reply confirmed that plans to allow for hedgerow cutting during the month of August have now been abandoned in support of moves to protect nature and biodiversity. This is anti-democratic. It is a dangerous and ill-conceived concession from the Minister and the Government, which is proving yet again to be totally clueless about the reality of living in rural Ireland. Farmers and contractors are excellent custodians of the hedgerow and of nature. We are not out there slaughtering the ditches. We are acting in the interests of the health and safety of people trying to walk, to cycle or to enter or exit fields. Bushes grow out into the middle of the road. Tourists stop at road signs to try to clear them. I refer to signs indicating very interesting places on our heritage trails. It is farcical. We debated this matter for nearly two years, meeting all groups and stakeholders, and passed a Bill which the President then signed into law. Thereafter, the Minister acted at the behest of a small number of groups. Those groups do good work as well, but we need balance here. What is the point of having this Chamber and the Oireachtas to which we are elected if they are going to be undermined by conferences and groups campaigning on various issues? We all know about climate change, but farmers and rural people are very caring of biodiversity and of hedgerow flora and fauna. This is ridiculous regulation. It is fine in Dublin city where there are roads with signs, but in the country some bóithríns have been closed. One cannot walk up the middle of them because of the briars that hang down. These farcical regulations mean we are not allowed to cut them back in the interests of health and safety. The health and safety of the birds and bees is more important than the safety of human beings. That is where I draw a line. I will not accept what is happening.

The Deputy is trying to create a very false and misleading narrative of rural Ireland versus urban Ireland.

The Minister should come and see it.

I refute it in the strongest possible terms. This is not remotely anti-democratic. There were very good reasons that I did not extend the regulations this year. Hedgerows provide a very important wildlife habitat. As already stated, they provide food, shelter, corridors of movement and nesting and hibernation sites for many of our native fauna. I also refer to the national biodiversity conference, the Seeds for Nature initiative and the very stark pronouncement on the status quo made by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which published its assessment on the state of the world's biodiversity and ecosystems in March this year.

The Association of Farm and Forestry Contractors in Ireland gave its take on my recent announcement on hedge cutting. In a short statement, it indicated that it was very pleased that I had retained the regulations to allow for roadside hedges to be cut for reasons of road safety. As I have pointed out, things like overgrown hedges and fallen trees can sometimes narrow carriageways and force traffic into an oncoming flow. Hedges can be cut for that reason. If briars and overhanging branches are forcing pedestrians and cyclists from the road margins, the hedges can be cut. Overgrown hedges blocking or impeding egress from farm holdings and fields can be cut. Hedges concealing entrances or signage installed for road safety or direction can be cut. Hedges concealing culverts or sharp bends can be cut.

The reality is that they are not being cut. Contractors and farmers are afraid to cut them because they will be photographed with mobile phones and reported. It is nonsense. There are signs covered everywhere I go in my county. I refer to signs which indicate the way to particular places, speed limits and that there are dangerous bends ahead. Access to and egress from fields forces the implements on the fronts of tractors out into the middle of the road. It is highly dangerous. It just shows that the Minister is out of touch and does not understand the reality of rural Ireland. I invite her to visit any part of Tipperary. I will show her countless signs, including those indicating national monuments, which are covered up. It is farcical. The county council is strapped for cash and uses a great excuse - it is not allowed to cut them. Health and safety or road safety can go to hell. That is the reality on the ground. The hedges are not being cut. They were always cut by county councils, but that is not being done now. There are accidents and people get scratched and scraped. We encourage cyclists, but people could not cycle on these roads without some kind of protective gear. One would need a helmet to go up and down some roads. That is the reality. The Minister should know. She visits Tipperary the odd time. She has some relatives there. It is no different to any other county. This is patent nonsense. It is literally usurping the power of this House to make legislation, which it did. What is the point of debating here and consulting all the stakeholders? We were at it for a year and a half and the Minister just decided to draw a red line through it and forget about it. In my view, that is a subversion of democracy any day of the week.

I am not remotely out of touch with the rural situation. As the Deputy knows, my mother is from Clonmel, which is located in his constituency, and my father is from Mayo. I know a great deal about rural issues. This Government is hugely supportive of rural Ireland in terms of job creation, broadband and infrastructure-----

What broadband?

-----the rural regeneration and development fund, investment in national parks and reserves and, specifically, hedge cutting. Among the findings in the report I mentioned earlier is that the decline in the numbers of bees, butterflies and other insects has largely resulted from the effects of monoculture and the drive to ever higher levels of productivity, characterised by loss or neglect of hedgerows, farmland edges and scrub.

It has also led to the deliberate removal of habitats, such as hedgerows and wetlands, and there has been some criticism of agricultural policy which does not support diverse hedgerows. If I had been in a position to extend the regulations, I would have done so. For all the reasons I have outlined, however, I was not in a position to do so and I stand by that decision. It would not have been the right thing to do in these circumstances.