A full review of the regulations that govern permission to remove hedges, drain land and cultivate semi-natural grassland has commenced.

The review began with the opening of a six-week public consultation on the rules, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue announced in Dáil Éireann on Thursday.

Minister McConalogue encouraged all relevant stakeholders to make submissions to the consultation on environmental impact assessment regulations and that this is the first step in a “full review of the regulations in their entirety”.

The review will assess the conditions which determine whether farmers need Department of Agriculture permission to remove hedges, join fields or intensify uncultivated land should be changed.

If thresholds are met, a full environmental impact assessment report is needed to determine whether the works listed can proceed.

Current thresholds where these reports are mandatory are 4km for hedgerow removal, 50ha for land drainage works and 50ha for taking uncultivated/semi-natural land into intensive use.

Department screening

Sub-thresholds are also set that require land areas below the thresholds to be screened by the Department of Agriculture.

These lands do not need a full environmental impact assessment, but do need an environmental assessment and on-site assessment overseen by Department officials.

Current thresholds that rule Department screening is needed before works can take place include the removal of hedgerows above 500m, draining of land parcels larger than 15ha and taking more than 5ha of semi-natural areas into intensive agriculture.

The levelling off of hills on land or infilling of hollows are also covered by the screening requirement on areas over 2ha, as is the joining of two separate parcels when their combined size is 5ha.

The thresholds generally apply over a five-year duration. For example, a farmer who removes 100m of hedgerow annually will meet the 500m sub-threshold.

Need for screening

However, many activities on land designated as a natura 2000 site will also need screening by the Department, even if the planned works are below the regulation’s thresholds.

Screening is needed in all cases regardless of size where the proposed works will have a “significant effect on the environment”.

Determining this impact is dependent on whether removing a hedge will lower the diversity of plant species or if the works will affect an archaeological monument.