This week, President Higgins signed the Heritage Bill into law. One might think, with a name like this, that this would be something good for our countryside and our heritage, that we should be celebrating its enactment, but sadly no. This Act will see an extension to the hedge-cutting and the scrub-burning seasons, from 6 months to 7 months.
Public Consultation Process
This process began back in 2015, when a public consultation took place on hedge cutting and scrub burning dates. The then Heritage Minister, Heather Humphries, may have expected a swift passage of the Bill when it was introduced into the Seanad in January 2016, with its misleading title, perhaps designed to deflect attention or criticism. However, it was met with great opposition from many, whose only agenda is to protect our wildlife and biodiversity. Even now, public awareness has grown and will continue to grow as the realisation of what this Act means for rural Ireland. Nearly 35,000 people signed a public petition against the Bill, and it is expected that public condemnation will increase now it has been passed.
Biodiversity in decline
We all know that our biodiversity is in decline, we hear about it all the time. Our bee species are threatened, our insects are disappearing, our small mammals are struggling, and many of our native birds are now endangered, so extending the cutting season back into August, or the burning season into March, to the areas where these creatures rely on to live: to shelter, to feed, to breed, or to rear their young, will be devastating for their populations. Strong evidence suggests that bird-nesting season is starting earlier each year, and some birds have chicks in nests into September.
“Negative image of our farmers”
The agriculture sector is under the spotlight a lot these days. This Bill, which was driven intensely by the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) and other representative organisations, just serves to cultivate a negative image of our farmers. It’s crucial that Irish agriculture has a positive public perception, especially in these very uncertain times with CAP Reform and Brexit.
I feel, as many farmers do, that the IFA has got this really wrong, they have neither represented the views of farmers, nor indeed the views of their own members on this, and that they have used their lobbying might, to represent only a handful of people who will benefit, financially, from this measure. What farmer would like to hold their hands up to say they contributed to the extinction of a species like the curlew or the Yellowhammer? None that I know.
“Environmentally aware” farmers
We “environmentally aware” farmers have been accused of scaremongering, or of framing the Heritage Bill in the wrong context, but unfortunately, there is no way of framing it right. The only agenda here that the farmers, the politicians, and the environmentalists who were against this Bill was to protect our wildlife. Nothing else. But what was the IFA’s agenda?
I can’t imagine the now Minister for Heritage, Josepha Madigan, was too thrilled to have inherited this Bill and to have it on her record as her first Bil passed. In fact, when she announced the passing of the Bill on Twitter last week, there was not one positive or congratulatory comment from over 100 tweets. Where were all her supporters then?
To query the motives behind demands
It is also concerning that in their original submission, the IFA wanted to increase the hedge cutting season to seven-and-a half-months. What sort of message does that send out to the public from our largest farming representative body? From a political perspective, it is alarming that in this day and age, our Wildlife Act, which was strengthened in 2000 to further improve protection for birds, has, nearly two decades later, been degraded so unceremoniously in this manner.
The fact that short-sighted Fine Gael and Fianna FaÌil politicians have had their heads turned so easily by the IFA, to benefit just a tiny number of beneficiaries, calls into question the power of such organisations, and it highlights the need to always query the motives behind their demands.
At the end of the day, whatever way you look at it, the Heritage Bill is bad news – for our wildlife and for our farmers’ image. However it does not compel anyone to adhere to these new dates, so if you consider yourself to be a farmer who cares about your wildlife, then just do the right thing, and leave August and March to the birds.
By Pippa Hackett PhD BSc Green Party / Comhaontas Glas Spokesperson for Agriculture, Food, Forestry, Heritage and Animal Welfare.