Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 8 Nov 2006

Vol. 185 No. 2

National Parks.

I welcome the Minister to the House. This matter has caused some controversy locally because of the opposing points of views and I am anxious to hear the official line. An official complaint was made to the European Commission regarding the fencing project. I understand the need for fencing in order to provide for regeneration. However, the EU habitats directive and the UNESCO biosphere reserve designation must be considered. A study by Dr. Daniel Kelly of Trinity College Dublin shows that fencing off areas to all grazers could lead to an overall reduction in plant biodiversity. The native woodland scheme guidelines, which should improve plant biodiversity, must be examined. Would a limited amount of grazing not be beneficial to the woodland ecosystem? Some discussion took place behind closed doors but no agreement was reached. What are the views of the Minister on the two independent reports compiled by Mr. Bill Quirke, a professional ecologist? The Minister's assurance that there will be no damage or act of violence regarding this project is of vital importance. Is funding made available from Europe for the project?

The red deer are naturally woodland animals. Is the Minister satisfied that by excluding them from these woods he is not denying them important winter and calving refuge? Can he ensure the complete exclusion of trespassing sheep? It is not possible to fence the deer in or the sheep out. There is continual trespass and the area is treated as a commonage by a small number of people.

What is the official number of red deer in the Killarney National Park? A cull has been suggested if numbers are high but I would prefer if the sika deer were removed without disturbing red deer. Can the Minister assure the House that the mosses, ferns and lichens for which the woodland is internationally famous will not suffer a reduction because of the project?

I thank the Senator for his passionate interest in Killarney National Park, an interest I share. The park is an extraordinary asset, one of the jewels in the crown. It is a requirement of the European Communities (Natural Habitats) Regulations 1997, which transposed the European habitats directive, that appropriate steps are taken to avoid the deterioration of natural habitats such as the old oak woodland in Killarney National Park. As members of Wicklow County Council, Senator Ross and I battled to save woodland.

I hope the members were successful.

We were. Under strategy 1.4 of the Killarney National Park management plan 2005-09, it is a priority of the national park policy to provide conditions where woodland regeneration and expansion can occur, including the use of fencing strategies to protect against overgrazing by ruminant animals. This management plan has regard to the park's status as a UNESCO biosphere reserve and it was adopted by all stakeholders on the Killarney National Park liaison committee including the Killarney Nature Conservation Group, which now seems to be campaigning against this important initiative to help the regeneration of the woodlands. I regret this.

The programme referred to by the Senator is the erection of a medium-disturbance deer fence over an area of some 150 hectares. The fencing is being done with the consent and financial support of the forest service under the native woodland scheme. The erection of the fencing is necessary because the presence of deer and feral goats has resulted in there being virtually no natural regeneration of native trees and no young or medium-aged oak trees in the woodland. The forest service has estimated that, unless the problem is addressed, there will be no woodland in the area in 80 or 90 years' time. Natural regeneration is important, especially in woodland. I have not had the opportunity to see this but I am told that is precisely the position there.

The woodland is being fenced in separate blocks with corridors several hundred metres long in between. This will allow deer to move through the woodland between their traditional grazing areas. It is envisaged that the fence will be left in place for a period of ten to 15 years, and will be removed as soon as monitoring shows that sustainable browsing and grazing can be put in place. Once oak reaches a particular point, it does not need to be fenced but, before that, is susceptible to the activities of ruminant animals. The forest service has confirmed the view of my Department that the erection of the fencing is the only viable way to restore semi-natural woodland to this area.

The fencing programme has been the subject of expert assessments by my Department's ecologists and by ecological and archaeological experts of the forest service. The work is also being undertaken in accordance with a detailed forest service-approved management plan that has been prepared by an ecologist of my Department and an experienced native woodland scheme forester. As the works are directly connected with, and necessary to, the management of the site, the carrying out of an additional environmental impact assessment under the habitats directive is not required.

I am aware of recent reports in the media of complaints about the fencing works, particularly in regard to damage to famine-era field walls and lazy beds and the displacement of a boulder from the corner of a single-room roofless cottage. The conditions laid down by the forest service archaeologist relating to recorded monuments have been adhered to in all cases. Furthermore, no element of this 18th or 19th century settlement and farming complex has been entered in the register of historical monuments, the record of monuments and places, or the record of protected structures for County Kerry. It is the view of the forest service archaeologist that, while it was unfortunate that some damage was done to these features, it could not have been totally avoided. The forest service has stipulated certain remedial works and my Department has agreed to carry these out and to rebuild any old wall that has been interfered with during the fencing operation.

The forest service has met the complainants on several occasions, including at two on-site meetings, to explain the rationale behind the fencing programme and has also responded to requests for information that the forest service has received from the European Commission. The fencing programme is essential for the survival of this woodland and for compliance with the requirements of the Habitats Directive. The project has been the subject of several expert assessments and the works are being conducted in accordance with an approved native woodland scheme management plan and without interfering with any protected structure or recorded monument in the area. I assure the Senator that these essential works have been and will continue to be carried out to the highest conservation standards.

I do not have the information he sought on the number of red deer but will arrange for it to be sent to him. I note too his point about the non-native sika deer, which are smaller animals, and the potential for them to invade and cause damage. I will ensure that is taken on board and will address that issue in my response.