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Heritage Bill 2016: Report Stage (Resumed) and Final Stage (Continued)

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 971 No. 2

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  10 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Danny Healy-Rae: Information on Danny Healy-Rae Zoom on Danny Healy-Rae] I ask the Minister to progress the legislation as quickly as possible given the huge number of people who are asking for it. Their roads are in a shocking state.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív Deputy Eamon Ryan is correct in one regard but it does not relate to the amendments under discussion. He is right in that the Bill in its original form allowed contractors to cut in August. I have no doubt of that. However, a Fianna Fáil amendment was accepted in the Seanad to do away with that justification. No contractor is pulling out a machine to do just one of the eight faces of a hedge in a field. We are talking about an issue that Fianna Fáil has dealt with. I have to take issue also with Deputy Burton on the market for meat drying up. Cattle have been of huge importance in Ireland going all the way back to mythology and Queen Medb but that has not been so true of the growing of grains. When one looks at the topography of a large part of the country, one realises that a lot of fields, including most of the fields where I live, are not fit for ploughing. Cattle and sheep have been the way to farm those lands for centuries upon centuries.

We have had a great Second Stage debate, but we should look at section 8 and the proposed amendment to it. Section 8 provides that the Road Traffic Act 1993 is excluded from any prohibition in the Bill. We should look at what the Road Traffic Act provides as that is what is at issue here as opposed to the talk that has been going on here for the past hour. It states explicitly that the owner or occupier of land shall take all reasonable steps to ensure that a tree, shrub, hedge or other vegetation on land is not a hazard or potential hazard to persons using public roads and that it does not obstruct or interfere with the safe use of a public road or the maintenance of a public road. The Wildlife Act as enacted contradicted the Road Traffic Act. If one tried to bring a prosecution under the former of a person who had cut a hedge in the closed period on a road for safety reasons, his or her solicitor would have quoted the Road Traffic Act to the judge and said there were two Acts in conflict. The legal understanding I have is that what we are doing here is to have these rhyming for once. The Road Traffic Act will not be made illegal by another Act even though in itself it is still legal.

I remember being on a local authority. Time and again, it said the legal responsibility to cut roadside hedges rested with the owner of the land and not with the local authority. Certainly, my local authority cuts hedges in winter, for which we are grateful. It does the main roads and not every bóithrín. One gets lots of people ringing to beg one to get the hedge cutter in given the major challenge presented by the type of farming and society we have, particularly with older people who have no way of cutting hedges in occupation of properties. We are allowing an owner-occupier to cut a tree, shrub, hedge or other vegetation on land to ensure it is not a hazard or potential hazard to persons using a public road. It is no more or less than that. Any other cutting of hedges in the closed period will be illegal. It is as simple as that.

One must also consider the practicality of this. Does anyone think a person will hire a contractor just for the fun of cutting outside hedges? I note the cost of hiring a contractor and getting that contractor, the required safety equipment and the necessary warning signs in place to cut a few hundred yards of hedge. It is not just a question of coming down the road and cutting the hedge. Why would anyone do that in the middle of summer if there were not an urgent safety issue? A great deal of hedge cutting in the area where I live is more likely to be done with hand-held strimmers than by the larger tractor-mounted equipment. Little is going to change. The idea that there is a whole lot of people out there waiting to cut hedges fails to recognise the sensible dynamic here, which is that one can cut a hedge for one reason only, namely safety. That is the only thing that is legal. There is no incentive in any event to go beyond that as it would not be economical for the farmer. The problem is often one of getting owners to cut hedges which are lethally dangerous.

There has been a wide debate. I agree that nature is under threat not only in the countryside, but in the cities as well. I grew up within a mile of this building and I note that a lot of the lungs that were in the city have disappeared in my lifetime. Many of the large gardens and even the urban farms that used to exist are gone. There was a great deal of life in the city when there were long gardens at the backs of the houses not far from here, which are now covered in Tarmac or which have been built on to provide mews housing. There has been an intensification of building in the city, which I regret. I remember being woken up by the dawn chorus here. While I regret that, it is a question of having to house our people. One cannot have it every way. There are massive challenges for wildlife and I do not make light of them. What we are doing here, however, is minor. We are simply making it legal to do no more or less than is required of a landowner. It is not something optional but is rather an obligation on a landowner under section 70 of the Roads Act 1993. We should stick to the subject.

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath I thank the Acting Chairman for letting me in. I am sorry I was not here earlier, albeit I was here for the votes and I am aware that this is a difficult and challenging matter. The Bill has had a long gestation and it has been widely debated. We have met people from all sides on it. I should declare an interest first in that I am an agricultural and plant contractor who is often involved in clearing vegetation and work like that.

We have to get the balance right between the environment, our flora and fauna and the need to have productive crops. I recall that ten years ago, set-aside was at its height. There is still set-aside. One was paid by Europe to spray the finest land in the Golden Vale in Tipperary and everywhere else in the country. It was part of the EU's deal-making. To this day, I consider it to have been abhorrent. It was a scorched earth policy. Everything was sprayed in the fields and one was paid to do it. It was regressive and contrary to nature. A field mouse could not live there. There were just ploughed fields. It was like the scorched earth one sees in wartime. As such, policies we have had here and at EU level over a long number of years have been detrimental to wildlife.

I remember cutting hay with a finger bar mower. One cut from the headlands in and tried to mind the corncrake and pheasants. There was generally a buachaill or cailín on the tractor too and one often got off the tractor to encourage the pheasants and other wildlife to move away from the machinery and back to the sward. That does not happen with the massive equipment being used now. A large mower is brought to a field to cut an 18 ft or 20 ft swathe with everything going into the middle. God help anything that is before it. That is mechanisation and modernisation, however, and the way agricultural contractors and farmers must operate to keep up with the times.

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