Dependence on rural dwellers and the farming community to help manage and maintain the countryside has been acknowledged by Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys.
She has moved to introduce a limited amount of flexibility to help with land management, which is of particular concern to farmers.
Farmers say there has been land abandonment in many hill areas because they cannot burning overgrown vegetation before September 1, or in March.
This leads to land becoming ineligible for various EU payments, and increases the risk of uncontrolled wildfires.
Farmers have therefore called for burning dates to be extended — and for hedge cutting to be allowed in August, saying it will improve road safety and allow the work to be done in daylight and in better weather.
According to IFA, hedgecutting has been reduced about 33% by unpredictable winter weather.
Following consideration of the issues involved and of submissions received in a public consultation, the minister has decided to introduce changes on a two-year pilot basis. However, existing rules remain in place until the passage of the Heritage Bill 2016 through the Oireachtas.
The Bill will allow managed hedge cutting, under strict criteria, during Augustwill allow managed hedge cutting, under strict criteria, during August, to help tackle issues such as overgrown hedges affecting road safety.
Power will also be given to the minister to allow for controlled burning in certain areas, to be specified by the minister, during March, should it be necessary, for example, due to bad weather.
Any burning or cutting will be subject to very strict conditions and restrictions, to protect fauna and flora.
The minister said: “While hedgerows and upland areas are very important in terms of wildlife habitat, they also need to be managed in the interests of both farming and biodiversity.”
For the next two years, her department will gather data on bird nesting and the level and the impact of cutting and other factors, to determine if the pilot scheme changes in the hedge cutting and burning closed period continues.
“We must ensure that the change to the hedge-cutting period in August does not impact on our population of wild birds,” said the minister, in reference to the European Commission judgment issued in 2007 against Ireland for non-compliance with the EU birds directive.
She said most issues in the judgment have now been addressed to the satisfaction of the European Commission and no fines have been applied against the State.
However, the case is not yet closed, as some unresolved elements remain. These issues, and actions to deal with them, have been agreed by the Goverment with the commission.
An Taisce has warned that shortening the closed period for hedge cutting and burning will have serious adverse consequences for Ireland’s already threatened and declining biodiversity.
Instead, the heritage conservation body says the closed period should be extended, to protect early nesting/breeding species and the nest building period, and birds that nest into August and September, including ground-nesting birds such the hen harrier.
An Taisce wants the closed period to include February and September, and wants a review of existing closed period exemptions, which they say provide almost a carte blanche for cutting during the closed period.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved