Judge upholds €6,000 fine for destruction of hedgerows, mature trees

Landowner pleads guilty to five Wildlife Act offences at Ballickmoyler, Co Laois

A €6,000 fine for “horrendous” destruction of hedgerows and mature woodlands imposed on a landowner has been upheld at Carlow Circuit Criminal Court.

Brian O'Reilly of Clonagh, Hollywood, Co Laois, was convicted on five Wildlife Act offences committed at Ballickmoyler in May 2021.

At a hearing in Carlow District Court in September 2021, O'Reilly pleaded guilty to the five offences. Judge Geraldine Cathy imposed a fine of €3,000 for destruction of birds' nests and their eggs and €3,000 for damaging vegetation during the bird-nesting season.

O’Reilly appealed the penalties imposed to the Circuit Criminal Court. Details of that recent appeal were published on Wednesday by the National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS).

Appearing before Judge Gerard Griffin on April 26th last, NPWS district conservation officer Kieran Buckley said the sheer scale of the damage to the hedgerows and mature hardwood trees was effectively the death of a local farmland ecosystem.

Some 1,200m of hedgerow vegetation, with an average width of 11m, had been torn up along with 54 mature hardwood trees. The nests of five different hedgerow bird species were found with their eggs smashed or abandoned by the parent birds because of the damage. He said the outcome was a significant blow for local farmland birds, at a time when the State had declared a biodiversity crisis.

Mr Buckley told the court that by tearing out hedgerow vegetation and the trees, O'Reilly increased the size of areas farmed to claim additional subsidy payments. Judge Griffin described this as a reward for criminality.

Mature trees

The conservation officer said the average age of the mature trees was 100 years, which along with hedgerow vegetation would have sequestered significant amounts of carbon prior to their destruction. He believed it would take a half-century for this ecosystem to recover.

The judge described the photographic evidence of destroyed vegetation as “horrendous”, adding that it was an act of grave criminality which could have warranted a fine of €25,000 in the District Court under the Wildlife Act.

The judge told the defence counsel he was tempted to increase the fine imposed by the District Court. If O’Reilly had pleaded not guilty to the charges in Carlow Circuit Criminal Court he would have faced six months in prison, he said.

O’Reilly’s counsel suggested that if his client donated a smaller amount to a wildlife charity it would be more valuable than the fine going to the coffers of the State but Judge Griffin disagreed. Considering O’Reilly’s family circumstances, however, he extended time for the payment of the fine to six months.

The NPWS has processed 21 successful prosecutions for wildlife crime in 2021. A total of 15 more have been successfully closed to date in 2022, with a further 48 pending. It works closely with An Garda Síochána and other enforcement agencies such as the customs division of the Revenue Commissioners to address wildlife crime.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times