A €6,000 fine and five convictions for offences under the Wildlife Act for a Laois farmer was upheld by judge Gerard Griffin at Carlow Circuit Criminal Court, on Tuesday 26 April 2022.
Brian O’Reilly of Clonagh, Hollywood, Co Laois was convicted of crimes including the destruction of birds’ nests and their eggs and damaging vegetation during the bird-nesting season. He committed the crimes at Ballickmoyler, Co Laois in May 2021.
Judge Griffin upheld the original September 2021 decision of the District Court to convict and fine O’Reilly in relation to the offences.
At the previous hearing in Carlow District Court in September 2021, O’Reilly pleaded guilty to all five offences. Then judge Geraldine Cathy imposed a fine of €3,000 for the destruction of the birds’ nests and €3,000 for the damaged vegetation.
The Laois farmer then moved to appeal the penalties imposed on him. The National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) took the appeal case, which was prosecuted by Alan Millard, state solicitor for Co Carlow.
Outlining the details of the case to judge Gerard Griffin during the recent appeal hearing, NPWS district conservation officer Kieran Buckley, who was the investigating officer for the incident in May 2021, described the scale of the damage to the hedgerows and the mature hardwood trees at Ballickmoyler.
He said it was effectively the death of a local farmland ecosystem.
Buckley reported that 1,200 linear metres of hedgerow vegetation, with an average width of eleven metres, had been completely torn up, along with 54 mature hardwood trees.
He said that the nests of five different hedgerow bird species were found with their eggs smashed or abandoned by the parent birds because of the damage. He described this outcome to the Judge as a significant blow for local farmland birds, notably when the State had declared a biodiversity crisis.
Prosecuting state solicitor Alan Millard asked the NPWS conservation officer what he believed may have been O’ Reilly's motivation to act in the way he had and to describe the broader environmental implications.
Buckley told the Carlow Circuit Criminal Court that by tearing out the hedgerow vegetation and the mature trees, the offending farmer had increased the size of his areas farmed to claim additional subsidy payments. In response, Judge Griffin described this as a reward for criminality.
Buckley also told the judge that the average age of the mature trees was 100 years and that along with the sheer volume of hedgerow vegetation, these trees would have sequestered significant amounts of carbon before their destruction.
He highlighted that this environmental benefit will now be confined to history by the damage inflicted, adding that it would take a half-century for this ecosystem to recover.
Kieran Buckley told judge Griffin that O’Reilly was “furtive” with his answers at the beginning of his investigation. To explain, he gave evidence that after his first visit to the clearing site, he circled back to speak with Mr O’Reilly to clarify a matter. However, he added that on that occasion, O’Reilly had completely changed his story.
The judge described the defence protestations as a mealy-mouthed refusal by O’Reilly to accept that he had done anything wrong and contested that the farmer knew the law and the dates when it was unlawful to cut vegetation. He went as far as to remark that even the dogs on the street know the dates prescribed.
Judge Griffin described the photographic evidence of the destroyed vegetation as “horrendous”. He said what O’Reilly had done was an act of “grave” criminality and told him that he could have been fined €25,000 in the District Court for the Wildlife Act offences he committed.
Tempted to increase
The judge told the defence counsel that the court was tempted to increase, not reduce, the fine imposed by the District Court, adding that if O’Reilly had pleaded not guilty to the charges in Carlow Circuit Criminal Court, he would have faced six months in prison for what he had done.
The defence counsel suggested to the judge that if his client donated a smaller amount to a wildlife charity, it would be more valuable than the fine going to the coffers of the State. Judge Griffin disagreed.
The State, he said, is required to pay the salary of Mr Buckley, and that is why this fine would go to the State. However, considering O'Reilly’s family circumstances, judge Griffin extended time for the payment of the fine to six months.
Upholding the decision of the District Court, the judge disallowed the appeal and commended the work of the NPWS for following up with this investigation.