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Heritage Bill: Debate in Seanad Leads to Limited Progress…

An amendment to limit a proposal to cut hedgerows in August solely to roadside hedges passed during a heated Seanad debate on the Heritage Bill late yesterday evening.

The amendment to section eight of the Bill was brought by Fianna Fáil Senator Paul Daly. It calls for the restriction of the out of season destruction of hedgerows to roadside hedges only.

Section eight would allow for the cutting of hedgerows in August under a two-year pilot project, as well as the burning of gorse during March.

The Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Heather Humphreys, proposed that hedge-cutting also be allowed on tillage farmland or where reseeding needs to be carried out.

An Taisce and BirdWatch Ireland welcomed the amendment last night, stating that it would greatly limit any potential impact on wildlife.

Heated Debate

Several Fine Gael senators, however, took issue with the amendment. Senator Tim Lombard said that it showed “total disregard for the farming community”.

“Entrenchment has become an issue with this debate,” he added. “Rural people think they have been driven into the ground about this.”

The Minister added that the amendment came down to whether or not we trust farmers as the “custodians of the countryside”. She earlier caused uproar when she said that accusations had been thrown around that farmers are out to destroy wildlife.

This led Senator David Norris to interrupt her for “making unjustified accusations”. Senator Alice Mary Higgins added that the Minister’s comments were “not constructive”. She asked the Minister to be careful not to “create division where division has not in fact been sown”.

“We have spoken very much about the interests of farmers, for example, horticultural farmers… who are deeply concerned about the pollination impacts,” Ms Higgins added.

The Minister went on to clarify that her statement was in relation to public comments made on social media.

Several prominent amendments were defeated, such as Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan’s one on road safety. The Minister has championed road safety as a key reason for bringing the Heritage Bill forward.

“This is a serious issue on local by-roads in rural Ireland where hedges are growing out on roads,” she said. “It damages cars and it’s restricting the views of motorists and it’s dangerous for cyclists.”

However, Labour’s Kevin Humphreys said that we can “now rule out once and for all” that this Bill is concerned with road safety”. “Let nobody in this house try and justify that this section of the Bill is about road safety, because it’s not.”

Mr Humphrey’s own amendment to limit any pilot project to no more than ten per cent of the State did not pass.

Scientific Baseline

Another major amendment tabled by Ms O’Sullivan for a baseline scientific study prior to the start of any pilot project was also defeated.

A lack of national scientific data on which to base a trial study is the main concern of many opposition Senators, with Ms O’Sullivan adding that the Minister was “putting the cart before the horse”.

Ms O’Sullivan’s amendment was supported by several Senators including Mr Norris. He said it was an “appalling prospect” that policy is brought in without any scientific research. He called for section eight to be “vigorously opposed”.

“There’s been absolutely no survey done whatever and I think this is disastrous,” he added. “We need Irish data… not the mass implementation of a policy that is unsupported by science.”

No Grubbing or Destroying

The Minister proposed that the words grubbing or destroying be removed from the Heritage Bill at Report Stage. Shea also said that trimming will be “limited to only the current year’s growth”.

“I am satisfied that the provisions to be put in place in section eight fully respect the requirements of the nesting and breeding seasons,” she added.

While welcoming the announcements, Ms Higgins said that none of the proposals are reflected in the Bill.

“The legislation at the moment gives an absolutely clear wide permission and none of the constraints or the concerns… are in the legislation before the house,” she added.

She said that it was “imperative” for the Minister to include this information in the legislation to reflect what was presented before the chamber yesterday.

“At the moment we have a very very very wide divide between state policy intent and between the legislation that’s before the house,” she added.

Secateurs and Measuring Tape

Yet, according to Independent Senator Michael McDowell, even if the limit of cutting to the current year’s growth is explicitly stated in the Heritage Bill, it will be impossible to monitor.

He dryly asked if inspectors would be sent out “to crawl along the hedges… with secateurs and measuring tapes” to determine if a hedge is cut to the proposed limitations.

“Either a hedge-cutting machine is going to be deployed on a hedge or it’s not, and in the aftermath there will be nothing to show really how far into last year’s growth the cutting actually went.”

He added that the “broad-brush” Bill would be better served if the Minister “walked away from section eight” as many people in Irish society oppose it.

“They object to its unscientific basis, the manner in which it has been done, the absence of draft regulations, the unthought-out way that this has been done,” Mr McDowell added.

To date, over 27,000 people have signed an online petition opposing the Heritage Bill. A flurry of signatures were received over the past 24 hours.

A version of this article appeared on The Green Diary on 30 March 2017