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Humphreys does Irish Farmers Association’s will on hedge-cutting

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht was beavering away looking for ways to ensure that no creature was stirring. Especially not a mouse.

On 23rd December last year, in the political dead of night, the Minister charged with protecting natural heritage announced a plan to make destroying it even easier for farmers.

Heather Humphreys – who lives on a farm, is married to a farmer, and whose brother is the Ulster/North Leinster Regional Chairman of the Irish Farmers Association – took the regressive decision to weaken Section 40 of the Wildlife Act, which deals with the cutting of hedgerows and burning of uplands, on the basis that doing so “will help to address some of the challenges faced by those living in rural areas”. She didn’t address rural people whose challenges are that they actually like hedges and uplands.

An already flimsy piece of environmental legislation and notoriously difficult to enforce, Section 40 of the Wildlife Act, 1976 and the subsequent Wildlife (Amendment) Act, 2000 ban cutting and burning between March 1st and August 31st on the well-evidenced grounds that this is the time of year when the birds – including endangered species such as curlew, yellowhammer, linnet and greenfinch – have their birdy babies. The legislation does make provisions to accommodate summer cutting for health and safety reasons (ie on dangerous stretches of road) and in “the ordinary course” of agriculture or forestry. Humphreys, however, contends that this is not, farmers are finding, enough.

                                       Heather Humphreys being persuaded

“I want to strike a balance here”, she said, in a press release that neglected to mention the enormous imbalance that already exists in favour of agriculture over nature. “While hedge-rows and upland areas are very important in terms of wildlife habitat, they also need to be managed in the interests of both farming and biodiversity”.

That biodiversity is a prerequisite for farming seems to elude the Minister. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, last month, for example, an international team of researchers (including Trinity College Dublin’s Yvonne Buckley) proved for the first time that biodiversity “strongly and consistently” enhances productivity. In addition, hedgerows and uplands are known to improve rainwater attenuation and filtration, mitigate flooding, harbour the species that control pests and provide important foraging for crop pollinators such as bees (a third of which are threatened in Ireland). They sequester carbon, support soil fertility, provide resilience to soil erosion and assimilate the nutrients in agricultural run-off. All that tedious old natural- balance stuff. The benefits are provided by the natural world to farmers for free, despite the fact that the environmental cost of farming remains unpaid (according to a 2015 FAO report, the unassailable Irish beef industry alone has racked up debts of at least $15bn in environmental destruction).

What might not be lost on her, however, are the 15,000 citizen signatures which oppose the measures. A petition launched by Birdwatch Ireland, An Taisce, the Irish Wildlife Trust and the Hedgelaying Association of Ireland has shown that healthy uplands and hedgerows and the biodiversity they support are beloved by more people than might have been expected, and that a freshly-slaughtered one at the height of summer is something a lot of people, though perhaps no-one the Minister ever meets, don’t want to see.

Nonetheless, the proposed changes will be included in the Heritage Bill 2015 on a “pilot” basis, for two years. According to the DAHG website:

  • “Managed hedge cutting will be allowed, under strict criteria, during August to help ensure issues such as overgrown hedges affecting roads can be tackled.
  • Power will also be given to the Minister to allow for controlled burning in certain areas around the country, to be specified by the Minister, during March, should it be necessary, for example, due to adverse weather conditions”.

No detail has yet been provided on the “strict criteria” and no provisions for the effective monitoring or enforcement of these measures have been mentioned.

To Humphreys and her ag-mates, hedgerows are the annoying prickly bits of brown and green between the luscious elds of monoculture through which Oscar nominees frolic in hazy late-summer sun. Like the overgrown fringes of small children, these superfluous strips of deficit require meticulous and regular trimming in order to avoid negative comment on their unkemptness.

The atavistic and visceral commitment to ‘tidiness’ and post-Victorian standards of natural beauty is the exact opposite of what is needed for an environment that is robust enough to support an ever-intensifying agricultural system and resilient enough to absorb the environmental impact it produces. The ‘dog- whistle’ call from IFA Environment Chairman, Harold Kingston, for “a workable outcome” has as so often been met with a grovelling response that works for farmers only, in the short-term, if at all.

Michael Smith