Inappropriate hedge-cutting and burning of scrub and upland habitats is undermining native wildlife and hampering the ability of the Irish landscape to store large quantities of carbon, BirdWatch Ireland has warned.
Changes to the Wildlife Act under the 2018 Heritage Act "have sadly weakened the protections afforded to breeding birds of uplands and hedgerows" and must be repealed, according to Oonagh Duggan, its assistant head of policy and advocacy.
The changes to the legisalation extended the period during which vegetation can be burned by land owners.
Ms Duggan told the Oireachtas Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht that there had been a huge increase in public concern about hedge cutting from March to August when it was supposed to be prohibited. It had become the "number one complaint" received by BirdWatch Ireland, she said.
This was coinciding with a tipping point, whereby Irish people wanted “more nature, not less”, she said.
“Irish people care deeply about their natural heritage as witnessed by the green wave which has taken hold in recent times.”
She complimented the National Parks and Wildlife Service for successfully bringing prosecutions in spite of difficulties in securing convictions as the legislation meant those cutting down hedges had to be caught in the act.
Senator Fintan Warfield (Sinn Féin) said the scale of destruction was such it was clear that human activity was contributing to accelerating biodiversity loss. He welcomed the call to repeal the legislation.
On biodiversity loss, Ms Duggan noted that one in every five of all Irish species assessed “is threatened with extinction”, and that for many birds the rate of loss of their habitats was happening so fast they could not cope with the change.
The fact that once biodiversity-rich farmland landscape had become less and less hospitable for wildlife, as agricultural methods and technologies intensified, was clearly reflected in the almost complete extermination of farmland birds such as the corncrake, she added.
“Once, not long ago, the famed cry of the curlew was literally the sound of wild Ireland, but most of its former strongholds have now fallen silent.”
The main reason for the declines of many farmland birds was habitat loss – the widespread drainage of wetlands and damp pastures and the more intensive management of agricultural grasslands through reseeding and increased fertiliser use. Other factors included industrial-scale extraction of peat bogs and afforestation of habitats with non native species.
While agri-environment schemes such as GLAS, where farmers were incentivised to work the land in an environmentally-friendly way, had gone some way towards maintaining or in some cases improving bird habitat on farmland, such schemes did not go far enough, Ms Duggan said.
On urban birds, she said species such as the swift “is undergoing a shocking 50 per cent decline in the last 20 years”. There were some good news stories, such as increases in roseate tern populations on Rockabill Island, but the trends for some key species groups were very worrying.