The decision by Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys to relax environmental regulations on burning and hedge-cutting has been welcomed by farming organisations. But environmental groups have reacted with grave concern and an online petition opposing the changes has attracted 11,000 signatures in just three days.
The timing of the minister’s announcement is open to charges of electoral opportunism. Its wording is sufficiently ambiguous to placate farming voters and yet avoid clashing directly with our EU environmental obligations. Section 40 of the Wildlife Acts prohibits cutting hedgerows and burning vegetation between March 1st and August 31st. These measures are particularly aimed at protecting nesting birds. But they are also critically important for entire ecosystems, like peat bogs and healthy hedgerows, which provide essential refuges and corridors for wildlife and support services from pollination to flood mitigation.
Exceptions to the regulations, especially on health and safety grounds, already exist. But the Minister is introducing “pilot measures” to allow hedge cutting during August, subject to (as yet unspecified) “strict criteria”; she will also allow controlled burning “in certain areas, should it be necessary” outside the season.
There are indeed good arguments from the farmer's perspective, well articulated by the Wicklow Uplands Council, for making the regulations more flexible. Birds do not nest according to strict calendar dates but vary their behaviour due to factors like altitude and seasonal weather, which also dictate farmer's work schedules. In a better world, we could rely more on the local knowledge of farmers to protect local wildlife. Sadly, our very poor national record of landscape management makes regulation – and enforcement – necessary. However, its rationale needs to be much better communicated to all stakeholders.
New ways are urgently needed to engage public opinion much more positively in conservation issues. But in the meantime we should be very cautious about relaxing regulations.