Just before Christmas it was announced that Heather Humphreys, TD and Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht was to introduce significant changes to the current Wildlife Act in time for the launch of the Heritage Bill 2016. Jennifer Mc Aree of Transition Monaghan believes such changes will allow further destruction of Ireland’s biodiversity.
Hedgerows in County Monaghan: corridors and habitats for wildlife
As the law stands, under Section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976, the cutting of hedgerows and burning of vegetation is prohibited between 1st March and 31st August each year. The proposed changes would mean that hedgerow cutting would be allowed throughout the month of March, while upland and bogland scrub and vegetation could be burned throughout the month of August.
The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), Wicklow Uplands Council and other lobby groups argue that the current Section 40 of the Wildlife Act is too strict as it prevents farmers from maintaining their farms and can lead to land abandonment in hilly areas. Under pressure from such organisations, Minister Humphreys decided to propose extending cutting and burning practices into March and August. Despite opposition from conservationists and the Seanad, the Bill has made it through to the Dáil. If passed, this would exacerbate Ireland’s record of violating EU wildlife legislation, with potential legal implications.
In response, Birdwatch Ireland, An Taisce, the Irish Wildlife Trust and the Hedgelayers Association of Ireland came together to launch the ‘No to more Slash and Burn’ campaign, encouraging people to sign an online petition asking the Minister to abandon her decision. They say that the change to the hedge-cutting dates will lead to further declines in populations of Yellowhammer, Linnet and Greenfinch birds and reduce essential food supplies for pollinators such as bees. A third of our pollinators are threatened with extinction. Ms. Humphreys insists that the proposed changes will be introduced on a pilot basis over two years and strictly controlled, even though the current regulations are consistently breached as they now stand.
Exceptions to Section 40 are already permitted for various public safety and agricultural purposes. Non-compliance stems from weak policing due to a lack of wildlife rangers employed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), confusion over the exact prohibited timeframe and a shortage of biodiversity officers in local authorities. Many citizens are also oblivious to the existing legislation so that any suspicious behaviour often goes unreported.
Hedgerow cutting has been carried out for generations to dissuade overgrowth and ensure public safety on roads. Hedges provide a natural barrier between lands and help to prevent soil erosion. They serve as superb habitats and green corridors for several bird species (e.g. wrens, robins, song thrushes and greenfinches) and pollinators (e.g. bees and butterflies). Food sources such as berries and insects are abundant along hedges, meaning birds can thrive when left alone. Hedge-cutting, especially with today’s robust mechanical machinery, has the potential to do much damage. Birdwatch Ireland recommends that hedges be tightly cut in February before most birds start nesting and then lightly trimmed throughout the summer months.
The burning of vegetation on uplands and boglands has been practised traditionally to maintain farmland and prevent scrub encroachment. It also ensures that a healthy mix of biodiversity can be maintained by allowing various habitats to host many species of birds, insects and small mammals. Scrubland bird species include warblers, linnets and yellow hammers. Their nesting sites and food sources can be devastated if burning occurs too soon or spreads out of control, which happens easily. The red grouse for example, has declined by 70% in the last 40 years, partially due to mismanaged burning and other farming practices.
So how can you help? Firstly, sign the online petition at my.uplift.ie/petitions/no-to-more-slash-and-burn. Report suspicious cutting or burning activity to the NPWS or the local council. You could go a step further by becoming a ‘citizen scientist’. This means you can look out for various plant and animal species, and record any sightings on the National Biodiversity Data Centre website at http://www.biodiversityireland.ie. It gives great advice on how to identify certain species and all findings will go towards recording and protecting our vulnerable wildlife. There is currently a severe lack of data on Ireland’s biodiversity. Nature is often overlooked until it is harmed – but we can all do our bit before even more damage is done.
Events on in February can be found here