Tuesday 23 April 2019

Relaxing hedge cutting regulations - a political decision?

A farmer cuts his hedge
A farmer cuts his hedge

Jim Hurley

Just before Christmas, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht initiated a review of the legislative controls set out in Section 40 of the Wildlife Acts 1976 to 2012 governing the control of burning and hedge cutting. As part of the review the Minister sought the views of the public and of interested parties.

That consultation process attracted over one hundred submissions and those making the submissions fell broadly into two opposing camps: those in favour of relaxing the regulations and those against. In general, the farming organisations were in favour while the environmental groups were against.

The Minister decided in favour of those who wanted the regulations relaxed. Understandably, the farming organisations welcomed her decision. The environmental groups expressed their grave concerns and mounted an online petition. That petition attracted over 11,000 signatures in its first three days.

So, what are the issues? The closed period is between March 1 and August 31 each year. During that period, it is an offence to cut hedges or to burn vegetation.

The purpose of the closed period is to protect bird life during the nesting season, to prevent forest fires and to protect vegetation and wildlife habitats during the months of growth and reproduction.

In 1976, the closed period was April 15 to August 31. In 2000, Ireland took action to meet legal obligations under the EU Birds Directive and extended the period by six weeks to between March 1 and August 31. The reason for the extension was to try to protect declining biodiversity. Sixteen years later the decline continues. Studies show that 28% of Ireland's breeding bird species and 31% of our habitats are currently in decline.

Environmental groups argue that there are enough exemptions and special cases at present and that there is no need for further relaxations of the regulations. Landowners and the farming organisations do not agree and feel that the present regulations are too restrictive.

Current exempted activities with regard to cutting hedgerows include the destroying of vegetation in the ordinary course of agriculture and forestry, for reasons of public health or safety, in the course of fisheries development works, road and other construction works, etc. No exemptions were currently allowed with regard to burning.

Most political parties favour relaxing the regulations further to allow limited burning of land during March and hedge-cutting during August. In the run-up to Election 2016 they stand accused of basing their decisions more on political than on scientific grounds.