Strict enforcement on hedgerow cutting and upland burning during the prohibited season is vital to avoid the level of devastation witnessed last year, a coalition of environmental groups has warned.
Once the remaining snow left from the Beast from the East along our country verges and on the uplands melts, it is crucial that we respect the ban on the cutting of any hedgerows and upland burning until the end of August. 
And for good reason according to the Environmental Pillar, a coalition of 30 national environmental organisations.
Our hedgerows provide foods for numerous species of birds, bees, and butterflies all throughout spring and summer, as well as nesting sites for many bird species. 
Yet, last year numerous Pillar groups and members of the public reported cases of cutting and flailing of roadside hedges all throughout the prohibited period.
Our uplands are also essential to the survival of endangered birds such as the near extinct curlew that mate and establish nesting sites in March. 
However, last year, a series of deliberately started scrub fires raged across the country within the first two months of the prohibited period, with the Fire Service, Air Corps and Defence Forces called in on several occasions. 
These fires undoubtedly destroyed the nests and food stores of birds and other wildlife and incinerated conservation habitats.
For example, two active Hen Harrier nests – another protected species – were destroyed in the Sliabh Beagh Special Protection Area in Norther Ireland in May last year. 
Last Friday, the Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed, TD, warned farmers that they risk prosecution if lands are burned during the closed period.  
Minister Creed added that illegal burning during the closed season would render the land ineligible for payment under the Basic Payment Scheme and other area-based schemes.
However, to date, enforcement of such issues has been weak at best, as indicated in documents released to the Irish Wildlife Trust last year under Freedom of Information legislation. 
The documents reveal that the use of satellite images to monitor burning on farmland had not led to any penalties for landowners since its introduction in March 2016 up to last summer.
In fact, only eleven prosecution cases were taken under the Wildlife Acts for illegal burning of vegetation between 2007 and April last year. 
It is now time for the authorities to take a holistic approach to upland management before our wildlife, habitats, and livelihoods come under threat again this year. 
Incoherence in national and EU policy also contributes to the problems in our uplands as the current Common Agricultural Policy penalises farmers if their land contains high-nature value scrub.
Land management practices to make land eligible for EU payments, such as burning, can be challenging to complete within the allowed timeframe, particularly in wet winters.
Oonagh Duggan, Environmental Pillar Spokesperson, said:
“Last year thousands of hectares of mountain, hill, bog and forest habitat were destroyed during the closed season, incinerating the wildlife that cannot escape fast enough, including helpless chicks in their nests. Our wildlife deserves better than this.”
“Aside from the impact on wildlife, extensive upland burning can cause irreparable damage to underlying peat soils, as well as a knock on impact on clean water supply, increased flood risk and the release of carbon emissions stored in these habitats.
“It is also injurious to public health and may damage property, as we tragically saw last May in Co Mayo as the home of a family of five burned to the ground.”
Elaine McGoff, Environmental Pillar Spokesperson, said:
“Hedgecutting outside of the current legal period will drive declines in a number of bird species and push some birds and pollinators towards national extinction. This is not the kind of legacy we should be leaving to future generations.
“In addition to providing food, nesting sites and habitat corridors to native wildlife species, they prevent soil erosion, store carbon and so contribute to managing climate change.”
Pádraic Fogarty, Environmental Pillar Spokesperson, said:
“The following months are crucial for our wildlife so we must ensure that the relevant laws are enforced to help protect vulnerable species that are battling against the odds to survive. It’s high time we placed a higher value on the amazing benefits nature brings.
“Every year, landscapes and nature have been replaced with scorched land, which contributes to carbon emissions, pollution, erosion, flooding, loss of scenic value and livelihoods. This has happened not because of lack of resources or uncertain science but a lack of political will.”
Mark McDowell, Environmental Pillar Spokesperson, said:
“Last year we saw plenty of flailing of roadside hedges during the nesting season. While some actions were necessary for road safety purposes, the majority of incidents reported to us were of a very questionable nature indeed.
“The public are being encouraged to report suspected illegal cutting that is taking place for reasons other than under the exemptions provided for in the Act.”
ENDS Section 40 (2) of the Wildlife Act gives grounds for roadside hedge cutting during the closed season for reasons of public health or safety but only by or under the instruction of the local authority roads section. Landowners who consider that their hedges pose a safety issue between now and 1st September should contact their local roads department for guidance. Roadside hedge cutting purely for aesthetic purposes is illegal during the closed period.  NoticeNature Hedgerows Factsheet: https://goo.gl/LUZUFy  Birdwatch Ireland. Breeding Curlew Survey 2016: https://goo.gl/dumAvm  According to the Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed, TD, over 50 illegal fire locations were located using satellite data between 1 March 2017 up to 21 April 2017, representing just under half of the total known fire locations to that date: https://goo.gl/976H5C  Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. 30 January 2018: https://goo.gl/WzGJrp  The Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine has no role in regard to prosecutions. Individuals who are found to burn vegetation within that prohibited period are liable to prosecution by An Garda Siochana or by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).  Minister for Agriculture Issues Warning About Illegal Burning of Land: https://goo.gl/RtfKYW  Irish Times. No landowners penalised for illegal gorse fires, says wildlife trust: https://goo.gl/KDUq49  Former Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, 11 April 2017: https://goo.gl/UimTGW  For example, gorse could be sustainably harvested for animal fodder and firewood as it was done in the past, cutting it back so that it retains its habitat function, rather than burning it.