A majority of 90 TDs including Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil members agreed to move the bill forward this Thursday, referring it to the Select Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. The Committee must discuss the text and report back to the Dáil before a final vote.
The Heritage Bill introduced by Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys in January 2016 would allow scrub burning in March in areas designated by the Government and hedge cutting in August, also subject to restrictions. After lengthy debates in the Seanad earlier this year, proposed August cutting was restricted to roadside hedgerows only.
This week's Dáil debates repeated many of the arguments heard in the Seanad, with supporters of the legislation arguing that it would improve road safety.
If a person is driving a tractor out of a field, he or she needs a view of 12 foot before it moves to the road
Independent TD Michael Collins argued that flexibility should have been introduced a long time ago and "would have avoided a hell of a lot of issues we are dealing with today, including people being killed on roadsides by falling trees, as well as the problem of illegal burning that is not being properly controlled". Independent TD Mattie McGrath added: "If a person is driving a tractor out of a field, he or she needs a view of 12 foot before it moves to the road. Every roadside hedge should be cut. It is as simple as that."
Opponents said extending hedge cutting and burning dates would reflect badly on Ireland's environmental standing in Europe. "It may very well weaken the case for funding for farmers in the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, as part of the Common Agricultural Policy," said Independents 4 Change TD Mick Wallace.
Sinne Féin opposed the bill and party member Martin Ferris linked declining bird populations to excessive burning. Green TD Catherine Martin described the bill as "anti-heritage slash and burn legislation".
Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice also raised concerns about the enforcement provisions of the bill, which would allow environmental officers to enter private land at any time and arrest offenders.
Several TDs called for greater consultation with stakeholders including farmers and environmentalists before the legislation can come into force.
IFA hill farmers chairman Pat Dunne has welcomed the passing of the Heritage Bill in the Dáil. "It is vital that it is enacted before March so that farmers are permitted to manage their land in a more effective way," he said.