A Co. Mayo farmer has been fined €4,000 and received a 20% penalty to his farm payments for the destruction of vegetation during bird nesting season.

At the September 10 sitting of Ballina District Court, the farmer from Swinford, Co. Mayo entered a plea via his solicitor, to two offences under the Wildlife Acts.

The charges related to Section 40 of the Wildlife Acts – the destruction of vegetation on lands not then cultivated during the statutory bird nesting season, and Section 69 relating to procuring the commissioning of an offence under the Acts.

The case was taken by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and prosecuted by barrister, Brendan McDonagh, under instruction form Vincent Deane, state solicitor for Co. Mayo.

Destruction of vegetation

Conservation ranger, Irene O’Brien, from the NPWS, outlined the facts of the case to Judge Fiona Lydon.

Conservation rangers Irene O’Brien and Hazel Doyle visited lands owned by the farmer on May 1, 2020 in Foxford, Co. Mayo.

An excavator was witnessed actively grubbing out and removing trees and scrub. The court heard that there were numerous piles of freshly removed vegetation over an area of approximately 1.9ac.

The machine operator admitted carrying out the works for the landowner, who was subsequently interviewed and admitted he had commissioned the works, but was not aware of the requirements of Section 40.

The conservation ranger outlined to the court it is an offence to remove vegetation on lands not then cultivated, or from any hedge or ditch, during the bird nesting period that runs from March 1 until August 31 every year.

These works were deemed not to be derogated for under Section 40 and did not come within the ‘ordinary course of agriculture’ defence and were done at the height of the bird nesting season.

Hedgerows in Ireland

Ireland’s hedgerows, woodlands and scrub are critically important areas for nesting and foraging birds and for biodiversity in general, according to the NPWS.

While Section 40 of the Wildlife Acts prohibits removal of vegetation during nesting season if not derogated, the complete removal of hedgerows at any time of the year is also strictly governed by cross compliance with EU Basic Payment Scheme rules.

The majority of farmed lands in Ireland come under Basic Payment Scheme requirements, where landscape features such as hedgerows, lines of trees and drains/ditches are protected and have to be retained.

Any other removal of scrub has to comply with the Statutory Management Requirements for the Conservation of Wild Birds and prohibits the removal of vegetation during the bird nesting season.

The court also heard that the farmer received a 20% penalty to his farm payments following a cross compliance report on the incident submitted to the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine (DAFM).

Judge’s remarks on destruction of vegetation

In summing up, Judge Lydon remarked that since the pandemic began, people took a lot of solace and mental wellbeing from connecting with nature and bird life.

She said that the accused should have been more mindful of his actions and his responsibilities, and that we need to ensure the preservation of our natural habitats and woodlands.

She then directed the farmer to pay €4000 to the Native Woodland Trust charity on the Section 40 charge.

The case was concluded at the October 12 sitting of Ballina District Court with the fines paid to the nominated charity and the charges struck out.

The NPWS said it has noted an increase in the number of reports of the complete removal of hedgerows and vegetation on lands not cultivated during the statutory bird nesting season.

These are predominantly done for agricultural improvement reasons, according to the NPWS.

Currently, there are a number of Section 40 cases before the courts nationally, and the NPWS is urging landowners to be aware of their legal responsibilities in terms of Section 40 of the Wildlife Acts and also any requirements under EU Basic Payment Scheme Rules, and cross compliance where this applies.

Minister of State for Heritage

The Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform, Malcolm Noonan, has welcomed a number of recent fines convictions for destruction of hedgerows and woodland during bird nesting season.

“I welcome these convictions, and the strong messages they send on the consequences of wildlife crime – in these cases, significant fines and a 20% penalty on farm payments.

“I also welcome the judges’ comments in highlighting the importance of Section 40, the need to protect our wildlife and habitats, and the responsibility landowners have in ensuring their actions comply with that objective,” the minister concluded.