The passage of the destructive Heritage Bill through the Dail marks a dark day for Irish biodiversity, Ireland’s leading environmental coalition has said.
The Government’s Bill was voted through yesterday evening with the support of Fianna Fail despite widespread opposition from all other parties, environmentalists, conservation groups and farmers working together with biodiversity.  
The Bill will now return to the Seanad and it is vital that landowners are aware that the existing regulations prohibiting hedgecutting until the start of September remain in place, except for road safety concerns identified by authorised bodies. 
The Bill, introduced by the former Minister for Heritage, Heather Humphreys outlines plans to allow for the burning of heather and gorse in March and hedge cutting in August under a so-called pilot project which will encompass the entire country and has no scientific basis to justify the need for the move.
The burning of vegetation in March – which is currently prohibited – would critically endanger birds that are just starting to breed and will also impact bees that depend on gorse as a food source.
While the provisions of the Bill for roadside hedgecutting in August still require clarification, as it stands landowners will be allowed to self-define road safety issues as they deem fit.
This will result in severe consequences for late-nesting birds, such as the endangered yellowhammer, and pollinators who depend on hedgerows for food. 
If Ms Humphreys and the current Minister for Heritage, Josepha Madigan, TD had spent more time listening to conservation organisations instead of the large farming lobby, they would see that this Bill will do nothing but bring destruction to our uplands and hedgerows. 
Last night, the Minister tried to downplay the significant impact the Bill would have on our wildlife by emphasising that hedgecutting will only be allowed on hedges facing roads, and that a maximum of one year’s growth can be cut back. Ms Madigan, however, is well aware that the technical aspects of the Bill will be lost on the general public.
We instead agree with the comments of Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan, TD who said last night that if the Bill passes into law, the public, landowners and agricultural contractors will simply hear one message: “Hedgerows can be cut in August and the mountain tops can be burned in March”. 
Both Ms Madigan and her predecessor cited road safety concerns as the reason behind the push for the Bill and the need to fix a contradiction between the Road Act and the Wildlife Act.
However, Section 40 (2) of the Wildlife Act already gives grounds for roadside hedge cutting during the closed season for reasons of public health or safety. 
The Minister, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail all rejected numerous amendments last night from opposition parties which would have resolved any confusion over road safety concerns, while also protecting our already stressed biodiversity. 
The result of last night’s vote is a sad day for our wildlife, our biodiversity, and our heritage.
Our hopes now rest with the Seanad and the Irish public to come out and rally against this Bill to stop it entering into law, which would only enhance our reputation as the laggard of Europe in protecting the natural world.
Environmental Pillar Spokesperson and author of Whittled Away – Ireland’s Vanishing Nature, Pádraic Fogarty, said:
“The Heritage Bill will do untold damage to our already beleaguered wildlife populations. It’s high time we placed a higher value on the amazing benefits nature brings.
“The government should have abandoned their push for this regressive legislation a long time ago and taken note of warnings from conservation organisations and the concerns of more than 31,000 Irish citizens who signed a petition calling on the Minister to pull back on this legislation.
“The whole process has highlighted the influence of the farming lobby in the face of public opinion and indeed many farmers themselves. Ironically this law will do nothing to improve farmers’ livelihoods or halt the decline in bird populations in upland areas.
“If there is anything positive to be taken from it, it has been heartening to see the great public support for wildlife that the Bill provoked, further emphasising just how far out of step Fine Gael is on environmental issues.
“We hope that our Senators will stand up alongside conservation experts and the public in support of our already fragile biodiversity and block the Bill from passing into law.”
Elaine McGoff, Environmental Pillar Spokesperson and a Natural Environment Officer, said:
“This Bill will be disastrous for the birds of our uplands and hedgerows. Changes to wildlife legislation should strengthen the protection for nature, not reduce it. Unfortunately, the Government has got this one the wrong way around with the damaging Heritage Bill.
“We have already seen the devastation brought by gorse fires over the past weeks during the heatwave, destroying thousands of hectares of mountain, hill, bog and forest habitat, incinerating the wildlife that cannot escape fast enough, including helpless chicks in their nests.”
 Section 40 Wildlife 1976 Act (as amended 2000): “It shall be an offence for a person to cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy, during the period beginning on the 1st day of March and ending on the 31st day of August in any year, any vegetation growing on any land not then cultivated…. It shall be an offence for a person to cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy any vegetation growing in any hedge or ditch during the period…” https://goo.gl/ZhetZs
 Section 40 (2) Wildlife 1976 Act (as amended 2000) allows for “the cutting, grubbing or destroying of vegetation in the course of any works being duly carried out for reasons of public health or safety by a Minister of the Government or a body established or regulated by or under a statute” https://goo.gl/ZhetZs