Heritage Bill progression highlights State’s poor record on nature protection

BirdWatch Ireland is disappointed that late on July 4th the controversial Heritage Bill was approved in Dáil Éireann. It is important to note that the Bill must still go back to the Seanad for final review, then await the signature of the President of Ireland and the enactment of regulations before it comes into force. The existing regulations under Section 40 of the Wildlife Act prohibiting hedgecutting until August 31, notwithstanding the exemptions for cutting for road safety concerns, still stand.
Heritage Bill Provisions
The Heritage Bill contains provisions which will alter the dates of the closed period for the burning of vegetation and ‘the cutting, grubbing, removal and otherwise destroying of hedgerows’ contained in Section 40 of the Wildlife Act (1976 and amended 2000). The legislation which will be implemented through as-yet unseen regulations would allow burning of uncultivated land including mountains and hills in March extending the open period for burning by one month. The provision would last for 2 years before review and potential continuation by Oireachtas approval. The extension of burning in March could negatively impact threatened bird species like Curlew and Hen Harrier which will have returned to the uplands to begin their nesting activities at that time. The extension to the burning season has been proposed as a measure to stop out-of-control fires like those seen in Cloosh Valley in 2017. However, BirdWatch Ireland is concerned that this will not have the intended result and other measures need to be considered. In Northern Ireland, where burning is allowed up to April 14th, the extended season has not stopped fires from going out of control and causing significant environmental damage. In 2017 there were over 2200 out-of-control fires between January and May requiring the deployment of the fire service with over 500 of those after May 1.
Sections 7.2 and 8 of the Bill which aim to make changes to the hedgecutting dates appear to contradict each other and require explicit clarification from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. It is clear though that both of these sections, as they stand, could negatively impact breeding birds of hedgerows such as the already-threatened Yellowhammer. The changes in hedgecutting dates have been presented as a means of harmonising the Wildlife Act and the Roads Act for road safety purposes but not only are the Sections unclear, it is our view that the changes will not solve the problem of compelling those who should cut potentially hazardous roadside hedgerows but don’t. We are concerned that the changes could lead to roadside hedgecutting without any regulatory oversight or protection for wildlife, worsening already weak enforcement of Section 40 of the Wildlife Act. Currently, concerns for breeding birds from road side hedgecutting on roads with no obvious road safety hazard is the number 1 complaint to BirdWatch Ireland from members of the public every year.
Weakening of Wildlife Act
A week after the public was informed that Ireland could lose one third of its wild bees by 2030 due to habitat loss and other pressures, the leading political parties of today have shown insufficient regard for Ireland’s natural heritage or regard for the best available science on bird nesting times as presented by BirdWatch Ireland, or regard for the precautionary principle when making these changes to the Wildlife Act. The Wildlife Act was a forward-thinking law at its time of enactment in Ireland in 1976 and Section 40 of the Act set out a system of protection for breeding birds, their nests and eggs. It preceded the EU’s Birds Directive which came into being in 1979. Section 40 was strengthened in 2000 to further improve protection for birds and the transcripts from the Dáil debates at that time reveal leading Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael politicians speaking with passion about the importance of protecting our wildlife. Eighteen years later and the same parties are rolling back the same law marking a significant departure in the value afforded our biodiversity at political level and perhaps shining a spotlight on where the power centres lie in political lobbying.
Complaints to the European Commission
Ireland does not have a good track record in enforcement of our national nature laws or compliance with EU laws. In 2007 Ireland was found guilty by the European Court of Justice for several breaches of the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive and this case, known as the Birds Case, is still open. BirdWatch Ireland has informed the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the European Commission of its concerns that the provisions within the Heritage Bill may not be in compliance with the requirements of the Birds Directive. No baseline research on bird nesting times has been undertaken nor has data been provided by the Minister leading the the Bill, Ms Josepha Madigan, T.D., Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, to support the view that there will be no impact on breeding birds or other wildlife. In 2018 BirdWatch Ireland submitted an official complaint to the Commission outlining existing government failures under Articles 5 and 9 of the Birds Directive. In addition, in 2016 BirdWatch Ireland submitted a separate complaint to the Commission which is now being investigated. This complaint outlines failures to address out-of-control and illegal burning in the uplands which is resulting in degradation of upland Annex 1 habitats like blanket bog and wet heath, Special Areas of Conservation and impacting bird species.
Nature needs all the help it can get
The passing of the Heritage Bill will signal a weakening of the laws protecting birds, bees and other animals which use our upland and hedgerow habitats at a time when they need all the help they can get. The conservation status of Ireland’s biodiversity isn’t looking great when 91% of our internationally-important habitats have ‘bad’ or ‘inadequate’ ecological status[1]; the Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland List [2] of threatened bird species is at its longest yet and one third of Ireland’s 98 wild bee species are under threat of extinction[3].
BirdWatch Ireland has campaigned on the Heritage Bill for over 3 years. Along with other national conservation organisations we succeeded in mobilising people around the country to voice their concerns about provisions in the Heritage Bill. Over 32,500 people signed a petition saying no to the Heritage Bill while BirdWatch Ireland members nationwide contacted their local and national representatives to make them aware of their concerns for birds and their habitats. We called for stakeholder forums to be set up to work out solutions to the issues that exist in our uplands and in relation to harmonisation of the Wildlife Act and Roads Act but to no avail. People need nature and a healthy environment and in Ireland nature needs the protection and support of government. BirdWatch Ireland is available to assist the government to better protect nature in Ireland.

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