I support Senator Ruane's amendment on protecting the interests of natural heritage. I take that in a general way, not just about the pikes and muskets but also the wildlife along the banks of the canals. Amendment No. 1c proposes that in page 4, line 9, after “designate” to insert “, without impeding navigation,”. One aspect of this is to ensure the canals are open and available for navigation by boats and so on.
Amendment No. 1d proposes the insertion of “, except for areas subject to protection or proposed protection for natural heritage or used by species listed in Annex IV or V ... on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora”. On this I take a slightly more general approach. I point out to the Minister that some 26,000 people signed the petition against this Bill and are totally against it.
On the issue of the county councils, Laois County Council, for example, has stated that no changes whatever should be made without recourse to the best scientific evidence. This has simply not been done. I want to emphasise this to the Minister. It is outrageous that a Minister should come into the House totally scientifically unprepared. There has been no preparation or examination of scientific data whatever. I could put on the record of the Seanad the list of birds that are threatened by this Bill. The beekeepers have also protested against it.
The Minister speaks about a pilot scheme. There is already a pilot scheme in existence that will report this month. Tipperary County Council has conducted a real pilot scheme in conjunction with Donegal County Council. As it will report this month, why are we having this debate on a Bill just before a vital and relevant pilot project makes its report? It is quite extraordinary. I saw the Minister shaking her head when I said there was no scientific basis for this Bill. I put it to her that between December 2014 and January 2015, she convened a working group. It reported back with a full report, which was made to the Minister in October 2015. One of the most significant points made by the working group was that it would be important to engage with the European Commission regarding any proposed changes, given the interests in the protection of wild birds generally and in the context of the implementation of the birds directive. Based on the response to an information request, it is my understanding that there has been no formal correspondence between the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and the EU Directorate General for Environment on this subject. Where is the scientific evidence to back this up? The report of the working party was clear that the Minister should engage with the European Commission. She has signally failed to do so.
In addition, the Minister has placed - on the record of the House - quite inaccurate information, which is contradicted by the scientific facts. For example, I refer to the question of cutting hedges and the resulting impact on natural fruits and so on. On 17 November the Minister said in this House:
If people want to get the best results out of their hedges in terms of seeds, berries and flowers, it is best to perform a light cutting every year. This is recognised to be the best husbandry and leads to a better production of flowers, seeds and berries.
I have a communication from a professional hedgerow manager and consultant. Let that sink in. Someone who is directly involved at the coalface as a professional consultant has written the Minister is 100% wrong in this regard:
I would like to point out to you that the scientific evidence does not support this statement; quite the opposite in fact. The annual trimming of hedgerows (particularly early in autumn) reduces the potential of hedgerows to produce flowers, seeds and berries. Whitethorn, by far the most dominant hedgerow shrub and found in 98% of hedgerows (National Hedgerow Database, NBDC), only flowers and fruits on wood that is at least two years old.
There are numerous research papers on this subject and he has said that he would be happy to supply this information.
My final piece comes from another correspondent who is also professionally qualified. I am talking about people who have a real standing in the matter:
In my capacity as an Agricultural advisor in the past I have never heard of farmers checking to confirm if breeding birds were to be disturbed by hedge cutting as suggested by the Minister. Farmers hire a contractor to cut and that's the end of it. As I followed the debate I found it very disheartening and insulting that the Minister never addressed the overwhelming evidence of the loss of breeding birds, the nonsense of a proposed pilot and why she was ignoring the existing body of evidence that would lead any rational person to conclude the proposed legislation in relation to hedgerow cutting will only serve to hastened the loss of birds.
Here I have put a substantial body of opinion from those engaged at the heart of this question with full scientific rigour and they contradict the Minister. I have also shown the absence of any contact with the European Commission despite what the working party report given to the Minister recommended. The scientific evidence is all against the Minister and I cannot understand why she is so obdurate in pushing the Bill through.
There are already six months of the year when farmers can do this. Senator Paul Daly made the reasonable point that there have been two major storms in the past couple of weeks. That is two weeks out of six months. Surely to goodness there is enough flexibility in the six months that are available already. I respectfully ask Fianna Fáil Members to consider their position and even take a neutral position. It would be a very good day for the Senate if we could knock out this Bill. It does not implicate Fianna Fáil in any negative response to the Bill. It can just be a neutral position. I respectfully ask that, as with the Canadian trade agreement, Fianna Fáil take this political position.