Previously described by Senator Higgins as an “Anti-Heritage Bill”, the legislation proposed extension of the permitted cutting of hedgerows into August and the burning of uplands into March. It has been widely highlighted that this extension would cut across the nesting season and into a crucial food period for bees and other pollinators and the Bill faced huge opposition from groups such as An Taisce, Birdwatch Ireland, the Irish Wildlife Trust, Hedgelaying Association of Ireland, the Federation of Irish Beekeepers and thousands of others who signed petitions and wrote to express their strong concerns. Senator Higgins said "we have had an extraordinary range of contact from people right across rural and urban Ireland who are very concerned. Farmers reliant on pollinators for their crops would be particularly affected.”
Senator Higgins had been working closely alongside these groups, leading cross-party opposition to the Bill in the Seanad chamber and ensuring the successful delivery of a number of crucial amendments, including removal of references to “grubbing and destroying” of hedgerows and a roll back from blanket cutting of all hedgerows in August to a more constrained focus on roadside hedges."
Speaking at conclusion of today’s debate, Senator Higgins regretfully noted that "while the Government had initially been forced to accept some dilution of the controversial measures proposed in this flawed Bill, a cynical last minute amendment, added by the Government, and supported by Fianna Fail, threatens to unravel progress made and indeed unravel the protections of the 1976 Wildlife Bill on an unprecedented level.
"Minister Humphries has proposed a new amendment which would make a dangerous and radical reversal to the protection for road-side hedges. It effectively will allow landowners to engage in closed season cutting of roadside hedges without oversight or regulation, will have a hugely negative impact on our bird and bee populations and the flora and fauna of our natural heritage."
While Senator Higgins had previously supported amendments to make closed season cutting permits accessible where road safety is a concern, known as Section 70 orders; the Government amendment which narrowly passed today will remove the requirement for such permits entirely.
The Senator also expressed regret that Government and Fianna Fail did not support amendments to give special consideration to the All-Island Pollinator Plan and to closely monitor the burning of uplands at all times of the year.
Senator Higgins concluded, “After today’s Report and Final Stage in the Seanad, Heritage Bill 2016 will move to the Dáil. I will continue to work hard to ensure the hard fought concessions won to date are not diluted and these latest worrying proposals are robustly fought.”
"One further genuine concern which I will continue to highlight is the potential for this legislation to deeply undermine Ireland’s national case for greening payments under the Common Agricultural Policy."