There are still shredded branches and exposed roots of shrubs along the Howth tramway, and the faintest outline of track marks.

A flail, operated by a contractor for Fingal County Council, razed the vegetation along the route about six weeks back, during nesting season.

People living locally were devastated, said Social Democrats Councillor Joan Hopkins, who first flagged the excessive hedge cutting, at the Howth-Malahide Area Committee meeting on 6 September.

“Because people care so much about the environment and our citizens are just so aware now and just will not accept this kind of thing,” she said.

At the meeting, councillors talked about possible ways to try to prevent it happening again – from nature skills training to more manual labour rather than heavy machinery.

Karen Gallagher, a senior engineer in the council’s operations department, said it was an unfortunate incident. 

Normally, the council’s staff or contractors wouldn’t take such a heavy-handed approach to biodiversity, she said. “We held our hands up and a mistake was made and a bit too much was cut.”

Need for training

The Wildlife (Amendment) Act of 2000 restricts cutting vegetation, including hedges, on uncultivated land during nesting season, between 1 March and 31 August.

But there is an exemption for reasons of public health and safety and to make a walkway safe for public use, says a spokesperson for Talamh Contracts Limited, the company which Fingal County Council contracted to cut the hedges.

At the Howth-Malahide Area Committee meeting this month, in a written response to a councillor’s motion, Gallagher said work carried out on the tramway was done because of numerous complaints about the encroachment of bramble. 

“All contractors and staff working on behalf of the Operations Department continually strive to protect and conserve nature and promote biodiversity in the daily work carried out,” she wrote.

Green Party Councillor David Healy had tabled the motion, which recommended that the council arrange for staff and contractors to get nature-skills training.

A pilot course had launched in May, which was a collaboration between the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Laois and Offaly Education and Training Board, he said. “This is kind of looking at the issue in a longer-term sense.”

Gallagher wrote in her response that once that pilot course is open to all, the council will arrange for the relevant contractors and staff to attend.

“In the interim, Fingal County Council staff and contractors working in environmentally sensitive areas are made aware of how to proceed with their works with caution to protect and conserve nature,” said the response.

A spokesperson for Talamh Contracts Limited says all of its staff undergo training, and that their machines are state-of-the-art to allow the work to be done to a high standard.

“We follow all proper safety procedures and guidelines when completing the work,” they said.

Another way?

At the meeting, Hopkins said the council cannot have large machines going up to remove a small amount of vegetation in an area such as the Howth tramline. 

“It does require smaller machinery or no machinery at all, but manual clipping back,” she said.

She asked if the council could review its contract with contractors. “To make sure that not only are they engaging with this kind of biodiversity training but also that they are not allowed on site in council-owned areas with machinery that can do this kind of damage.”

Gallagher, the council official in the operations department, said the tramway is a difficult area. 

“I know it seems easy for people to say we’ll just send up you know, a few lads with a hedge clippers and trim it back just a little trim,” she said.

But manual labour of that kind is costly, she said. “We’ll make the decision as to whether it’s appropriate for manual intervention or whether it’s appropriate for mechanical or whatever.”

A spokesperson for the council said later that its current resources do not allow for manual clipping or the use of smaller machinery, which is both time and labour intensive.

Hopkins, on Tuesday evening, said that this response concerned her, because the council still thinks that the protection of nature is too expensive, she says. “This has to change from the top down.”

Recovery

Gallagher told councillors on the area committee that the hedges will grow back. “It’s not as if we’ve cut it back and it can’t recover. It will recover.”

But Dunne, who runs the Howth Foraging walking tours, says this misses the point. The big concern is the wildlife affected, rather than the vegetation, she said.

“They’re the ones you’re potentially stopping their cycle for next year. You’re helping them [become] extinct, eradicating their little ecosystem,” she said.

Councillor Hopkins agrees saying the council’s response highlights a lack of understanding around this issue. “The reality is that this food and habitat supply will take several seasons to grow back.”

Two weeks after the tramlines were cut, Dunne flagged a photo posted on Facebook on 17 August, showing that a tractor was being used to trim hedges along the Thormanby Road.

Dunne says that the cutting along the sides of Thormanby Road is worrying.“It’s where you’ve got brambles and lots of different important grasses. Again, that would be important for butterflies to lay their eggs.”

But who is behind this is less clear than the tramline case.

Thormanby Road was one of the areas listed when the council tendered earlier this year for a tractor and flail operator for the 2023 grass cutting and hedge cutting seasons in the Howth-Malahide area.

But a spokesperson for Talamh Contracts Limited, which won that tender, said that they did not complete any work on the Thormanby Road.

 “That work was not authorised by the council so it would’ve been done privately by a different contractor,” they said.

According to a council press spokesperson, the Operations Department also said that it did not cut hedgerows along the road during nesting season. “The Operations Department commenced hedge cutting on the 4th of September 2023.”

Dunne says that even commencing cutting in September should be reviewed. “That is when everything goes into fruit.” 

“You’re cutting back hedgerows in September, you’re taking away a food source,” she said. “The whole strategy needs to be reconsidered.”

Michael Lanigan is a freelance journalist who covers arts and culture for Dublin Inquirer. His work also appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, TheJournal.ie and the Business Post. You can reach him at michael@dublininquirer.com.

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