Heritage Bill 2016 appears more like an Anti-Heritage Bill in many ways

Curlew Image
Curlew Image

Last week saw a strong debate in the Seanad on the Heritage Bill 2016, which amongst a number of other controversial provisions, proposes to expand the hedge-cutting and burning period beyond the limits set out in the current wildlife legislation.

These proposed changes by Minister for Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs Heather Humphreys, would allow hedge-cutting commence in August and burning of uplands in March.

Speaking in the Seanad last week, Senator Alice-Mary Higgins along with many other Senators, highlighted that changing the dates would have a serious impact on a range of wildlife species and habitats in Ireland, and pose a huge threat to nesting birds and other creatures found in hedgerows and uplands.

Along with a number of Senators, Senator Higgins expressed concern at the lack of research, regulations and conditions accompanying the Minister’s proposal, particularly as it could automatically be extended after the initial two year period without Oireachtas approval.

Senator Higgins said “Coming from the west of Ireland, I know hedgerows and gorse but the hedgerows are not simply the preserve, responsibility and interest of a few.”  “We all live in Ireland together and, more to the point, we all live on a shared planet. The hedgerows of Ireland are a heritage for generations to come. They are part of who we are as a nation. They are the conduit of our wildlife and nature.”  Senator Higgins also asked the Minister to explain how the measures proposed were compatible with other Government commitments in areas such as climate change and the national pollinator plan. The lack of data was also discussed with Senator Higgins supporting calls for a ‘baseline research’ which would allow for more informed decision-making in this area.

Senator Higgins referred to the hundreds of emails she had received from people right across the country expressing concern about the proposed changes. Highlighting the importance of initiatives such as Galway’s Food on the Edge festival, she spoke about the concerns which many small farmers and artisan producers from the west of Ireland had in relation to this legislation.

Road safety issues were one key concern in last week’s debate and a number of constructive measures were put forward as alternatives to the Minister’s proposals.

Currently hedges can be cut outside the 6 month period set out in the Wildlife Act, whenever there is a road safety concern. This happens through the issuing of a section 70 order from a Local Authority. However, recognising that this may not always work as well as it should, Senator Higgins spoke in support of practical amendments proposed by Senator Grace O’Sullivan to strengthen Road Safety legislation and ensure any concerned citizens could seek a section 70 order.

Senators from across a number of parties also asked why, if road safety was a key concern, was the Government making absolutely no distinction being between on-road and off-road hedges?

Senator Higgins encouraged Minster Humphreys to redirect her focus to more innovative and targeted initiatives such as those currently underway in County Clare, where practical resources are allocated to support landowners in meeting their road safety obligations.

The Heritage Bill 2016 will be debated again in the Seanad this Thursday 17th November. Thursday’s debate will focus on provisions in relation to canals and Senator Higgins will be championing a number of amendments in this area also, including the extension of the proposed public consultation period around any new canal bye laws from an inadequate 21 days to a more reasonable 90 days.

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