Stalking and shooting organisations have been lobbying the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure that Section 9 of the divisive Bill is watered down or eliminated.

Originally, it proposed granting the Forest Service, which manages 76,000 hectares of publicly owned forest, compulsory purchase powers for both sporting rights and land; exemption from wildlife laws so that it can shoot deer day or night, 365 days a year, with any calibre of bullet; and powers to create firebreaks on privately owned land.

Northern Ireland?s minister for agriculture and rural development, Michelle Gildernew, originally introduced the Bill to the Northern Ireland Assembly in June 2009 to update the 1953 Forestry Act.

On 2 March, she confirmed it had now passed the Committee Stage at Stormont and it was scheduled to become law this year.

According to BASC, the Bill?s proposals give the Forest Service unprecedented sweeping powers with almost no checks or balances and creates Crown immunity for Forest Service rangers.

BASC?s director for Northern Ireland, Roger Pollen, said: ?Almost everything in the Bill has been developed by the Forest Service, not principally for the benefit of forestry in Northern Ireland but for the benefit of the Forest Service itself. The key problem is that the Forest Service is both regulator and main operator.?

Mr Pollen added that following intense pressure from BASC, the Forest Service has now relinquished its bid for powers of compulsory purchase of sporting rights.

?While this might be seen as a major triumph, the reality is that an enormous amount of effort, funded by BASC members, has been expended on a campaign simply to maintain the status quo against an outrageous proposal to use the might of the state to deprive individuals of ancient rights.?

BASC has given evidence twice to the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee over the past few weeks.

?We have lobbied very hard behind the scenes to see the bid for powers of compulsory access on to private land to shoot deer adjacent to forestry abandoned,? said Mr Pollen.

He added: ?The committee has been supportive, sensible and measured – a stark contrast to the proposals that have been championed by the Forest Service.?

Charles Canavan, of the Northern Ireland branch of the British Deer Society, said some of the more contentious clauses have been modified or dropped in recent days.

?Gone, for example, is the provision that would have allowed Forest Service personnel to shoot deer at any time, including during the night. And the clause allowing them to cull deer merely because they were ?likely to damage trees?, rather than only where evidence exists that significant damage has been done, has been watered down to a useful degree, though by no means eliminated.?

Mr Canavan added that though the changes are to be welcomed, there is still more lobbying to be done by stalking and shooting groups: ?To date, it has not been possible to secure provision for suitably qualified local stalkers to contribute to managing deer in these publicly owned forests, as already happens elsewhere in the UK. However, the ball is still in play as now the legislation must be debated in the Assembly.?

Lyall Plant, of Countryside Alliance Ireland, said: ?Since the Bill?s publication, all country sports organisations have been deeply concerned about the outrageous powers being sought by the Forest Service. Representations have been made as the Bill went through its committee stages and we are hopeful that these powers under Section 9 of the proposed Bill will not be brought into law with this current legislation. We will not know what has been agreed until the committee?s report is published, which will be this week.?

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