THE National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is investigating the spraying of hedgerows in Meath to determine if wildlife legislation could have been breached, the Dept of the Environment has confirmed.
The Wildlife legislation governs the cutting of hedges and clearing of vegetation during the bird nesting season which runs from Ist March to 31st August.
Environment Minister, John Gormley, has sent a circular to all local authorities in the country following complaints about the Meath spraying incident to remind them about the legislation.
A spokesman for the Dept of the Environment yesterday (Tuesday) said the minister would not make any decision about whether a prosecution was appropriate until the NPWS reported back on its findings.
One local resident, Jim Byrne, Athboy Road, said that he and neighbours were very annoyed about the spraying operation when they noticed that hedges appeared to be wilting. Mr Byrne also observed five small dead birds in the area of his house alone. He said that it was not normal for this to occur and it was his understanding that the locality was a Special Conservation Area (SAC).
The funding for spraying to eliminate the ragworth hazard on grass verges all around the country was made available by the National Roads Authority (NRA).
Meath County Council director of services, Eugene Cummins, said yesterday (Tuesday) that, from initial surveys, it seemed that reports of the damage caused by the spraying in the county had been "grossly exaggerated". The area impacted upon was very small, said Mr Cummins.
A Sunday newspaper had referred to 400kms of hedgerow being sprayed with herbicide by a contractor employed by Meath County Council. Mr Cummins clarified this, saying that the entire national road network in Meath was 200kms. This was equivalent to 400kms of verges. However, it was not correct to equate the length of hedgerows in the county with the total of the verges.
Mr Cummins added that, in 2007, the council had been "inundated" with phone calls from the general public demanding what the local authority was doing about ragwort on the roadsides. A weed which is hazardous to humans but particularly to animals, ragwort had steadily made inroads in Meath and the spraying operation, in conjunction with the NRA, had been initiated to combat this hazard. The NRA also prepared guidelines control of weeds.
As far as Meath County Council was concerned, said Mr Cummins, it had followed the guidelines. "Notwithstanding that, it seems that, in some areas, there was some overspraying which would have affected the leafy parts of some plants," said the council director of services.
National conservation body, An Taisce, expressed alarm at the operation. A spokeswoman, Anja Murray, said that the spraying had happened at a time when songbirds were busily feeding nests full of hatchlings. Ms Murray said their food supply depended on plants. The danger to "bubblebees, butterflies, hedgerows, indeed the whole hedgerow ecosystem" was source of grave concern to An Taisce. She was also worried about possible long-term impact on aquatic life such as frogs and fish.
The circular sent to all the local authorities on behalf of Mr Gormley directed their attention to the requirements of Section 40 of the Wildlife Act, 1976, as amended by Section 46 of the Wildlife Amendment Act, 2000, in relation to the cutting of hedges and the clearing of vegetation during the bird nesting season from Ist March to 31 st. August.
The National Biodiversity Plan, adopted by Government in 2002, recognises that hedgerows provide important habitats for a variety of species and states "for the future, the overall goal should be to have no net loss of the hedgerow resource".
The minister's circular urges councils to convey the message to people in the organisations who have any involvement in organising or managing operations involving roadside trimming, hedge-cutting or other operations that might require the clearance of vegetation. The circular also refers to the role of contractors.
Infringements by local authorities would be viewed particularly seriously, said the circular, and wildlife staff of the Dept had been asked to pay special attention to this. Notices are being placed in national newspapers setting out the substance of the law regarding hedge-cutting.
The minister referred to the local authorities' role in "guardianship of hedgerows". He said he was pleased to note evidence of an improvement in compliance by local authorities and he welcomed the leadership that had been shown by a number of them in this regard.
Meath Green party vice-1 chairman, Fergal O'Byrne, outlined his concerns about the use of herbicide. He said that many studies had shown that the use of herbicides had negative affects on hedgerows, impacting on leaves, flowers, green berries and mature berries. He urged Meath County Council to include a full environmental risk assessment and impact analysis into any contact agreement with any subcontractors prior to works commencing.