Nature protection and biodiversity (Ireland)
Why should we care about this issue
- Nature and biodiversity
Significant progress has been made in the designation of protected areas. However, many aspects of biodiversity in Ireland remain under considerable threat from unsustainable activities.
Ireland has a wide diversity of habitats for its small size including 16 priority habitats as designated under the EU Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC). Habitats of particular significance because of their scarcity in both Ireland and the rest of Europe include limestone pavements, turloughs, active peatlands, species rich grasslands and intact dune and machair systems.
Ireland has unique juxtapositions of Mediterranean species with species of colder climates. It also holds important numbers of bird species that are in decline or rare elsewhere and is an important destination for many migratory birds of international significance. Irish marine waters are amongst Europe’s richest for cetaceans, and the west coast maerl beds are of particular note, supporting a diverse array of associated fauna.
Ireland’s aquatic systems and wetlands support internationally significant populations of threatened species such as the Atlantic salmon Salmo salar, white-clawed crayfish Austropotomobius pallipes, freshwater pearl mussel Margaritifera margaritifera, and marsh fritillary butterfly Euphydras aurinia. Ireland is also particularly rich in bryophytes, lichen and algae and supports internationally important populations of non-marine molluscs and water beetles.
Biodiversity provides a wide range of ecosystem services including food, fuel, fibre, medicines, regulation of water, air and climate, pollination, soil formation and retention, nutrient and carbon cycling, and natural hazards mitigation.
The state and impacts
Countryside bird populations
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State and Impacts
The majority of Ireland’s most important habitats are reported to be of poor or bad conservation status, including raised and blanket bogs, dune systems, oligotrophic lakes, fens and mires, natural grasslands and woodlands.
Many protected species have a moderately satisfactory status but certain species, particularly of wetland and freshwater environments, are also reported to be of bad conservation status, such as the Atlantic salmon and freshwater pearl mussel. Species such as bats, cetaceans and seals appear to be doing well and there has been good progress in providing natterjack toad Epidalea calamita habitat in its core range.
A recent Birdwatch Ireland assessment of the population status of Ireland’s birds indicates that of the 199 species assessed, 25 were placed on the red list (i.e. of most conservation concern), 85 species were on the amber list (generally of unfavourable conservation status) and 89 on the green list (of least concern). Several red-listed bird species are believed to be on the brink of extinction in Ireland.
However, there is also evidence that many of the more common breeding birds in Ireland have fared quite well over the last ten years and the populations of roseate tern Sterna dougallii and buzzard Buteo buteo have increased significantly. In addition, there is evidence that the great spotted woodpecker Dendrocopus major established itself in Ireland in 2009 as a breeding species.
Recent red lists indicate that some 30 per cent of Irish bee species, 17 per cent of Irish water beetle species and 30 per cent of non-marine molluscs are threatened. Ireland’s mammals are judged to be generally in good status with just one species, the black rat Rattus rattus, judged to be vulnerable. In relation to Ireland’s marine environment, most commercially targeted fish stocks in Irish waters are overexploited and in decline.
The key drivers and pressures
Drivers & Pressures
Ireland has experienced nearly a century of predominantly exotic conifer afforestation, some 40 years of agricultural intensification and a decade of economic boom – all of which have put pressure on habitats and species. The key threats to Ireland’s important habitats and species have been identified as direct habitat damage; overgrazing and undergrazing; water pollution; unsustainable exploitation; invasive alien species; and recreational pressure.
A variety of factors are contributing to the decline of some of Ireland’s bird species including changes in farming practices, drainage and mink predation. Habitat loss, habitat change and habitat management are primary contributors to the decline of many non-marine mollusc species.
Habitat loss and subsequent isolation are contributing to the decline of some bee species but for many species little is known about their ecological requirements. The potential impact of climate change on biodiversity in Ireland also requires further study.
The 2020 outlook
The European Commission has assessed the Irish SAC and SPA lists as incomplete. In relation to the SACs, work is primarily required on designation of marine sites. The number of designated SPA sites is expected to increase to approximately 155 by the end of 2010.
There are 630 proposed Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs), comprising 65,000 ha, which were published on a non-statutory basis in 1995 and currently receive limited protection. These and other sites of biodiversity significance may be designated as NHAs in the coming years.
Conservation management plans have been prepared for 45 SACs and SPAs and the National Parks Wildlife Service aim to draw up management plans for all areas designated for nature conservation. 295 draft conservation management plans have been developed.
Biodiversity Planning and Conservation
As part of the National Biodiversity Plan, local and public authorities and government departments are required to make local/sectoral biodiversity action plans. The EPA published its biodiversity action plan in 2010. 26 local authority biodiversity action plans are complete or in the final stages of preparation.
Based on the bad conservation status of many important habitats and some species, considerable efforts and resources will be required to improve their status, both within and outside protected areas. Conservation of marine fisheries is a major priority that needs to be addressed urgently.
Nature in Ireland will need to be given space to adapt to climate change through appropriate landscape planning. Globally, climate change and biodiversity protection are inter-linked issues – one cannot be satisfactorily addressed without addressing the other.
Research findings on the economic and social benefits of biodiversity in Ireland indicate a marginal value of at least €2.6 billion per annum. Given the value of biodiversity to Ireland’s economy, its protection is not just an ethical concern but an economic imperative.
Eurobarometer results from 2007 and findings from a 2010 Heritage Council study on attitudes to biodiversity among the public indicate that much more needs to be done to communicate issues relating to biodiversity to a wider audience.
Existing and planned responses
Protected Areas under the Habitats Directive SACs
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National Designated Protected Areas
- Data source
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Protected Areas under the Birds Directive SPAs
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At EU level the Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC) and Birds Directive (2009/147/EC) create a comprehensive scheme of protection for wild species and habitats. The most important national legislation on nature conservation are the Wildlife Act, 1976, the Wildlife (Amendment) Act, 2000, and the EU (Natural Habitats) Regulations 1997-2005.
Ireland has designated 424 Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) under the Habitats Directive and 132 Special Protection Areas (SPA) under the Birds Directive. There are a variety of different protected areas designated at national level. Under the Wildlife Act all bird species and some 60 other animal species are afforded protected status, as are 89 species of flora under the Flora Protection Order 1999.
The National Biodiversity Plan 2002-2006, which is the main tool by which Ireland seeks to meet its commitments under the Rio Convention on Biological Diversity, is currently being reviewed and a National Strategy for Plant Conservation has also been developed.
Action/threat response plans have been published for 18 species of high conservation concern and a draft conservation plan for cetaceans has also been published. There have been native species reintroductions of the golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos, red kite Milvus milvus and white-tailed eagle Haliaeetus albicilla. A ban on drift netting of salmon was introduced in 2007.
Protection of aquatic systems is being driven by implementation of the Water Framework Directive. Overgrazing issues are being addressed through the Single Farm Payment scheme and development of over 4000 Commonage Framework Plans. Some 62,000 farmers participate in the Rural Environment Protection Scheme, which is the main scheme supporting farmland biodiversity.
The Cessation of Turf Cutting Scheme provides compensation for purchase of bogs that have been statutorily proposed for designation as an SAC or Natural Heritage Area. Other measures such as the Native Woodland Scheme, commercial Forestry Biodiversity Guidelines and broadleaf planting targets aim to promote biodiversity. There is an Invasive Species in Ireland project running since 2006. A National Biodiversity Data Centre was established in 2007.
A Biodiversity Forum of relevant stakeholders was established in 2006 under the auspices of Comhar – the National Sustainable Development Council – to contribute to the development of national strategies in support of biodiversity. A public awareness campaign – Notice Nature - was launched in 2007.
The National Platform for Biodiversity Research has been re-established in 2009 to define national biodiversity research needs and improve the exchange of information between researchers and policy makers. The EPA has supported several large-scale research projects designed to inform biodiversity policy.