Land and Soil

The rate and nature of land use changes indicate where future environmental pressures are likely to arise and Ireland has experienced a relatively high rate of land use change since the early 1990s.  The recent population growth has led to an increase in the extent of built-up areas (both urban and rural) which have resulted in increased pressure on existing critical service infrastructure services, designated nature conservation areas and water quality.  Significant control is required in relation to the zoning and development of lands to ensure sustainable development at a regional, county and local level is encouraged.

Current Trends

The CORINE (Co-Ordinated Information on the Environment) land cover (CLC) data series was devised as a means of compiling geo-spatial environmental information in a standardised and comparable manner.  The first dataset in 1990 provided a baseline of the geographical distribution of natural and build environments across Europe.  CORINE has become a key data source for informing environmental and planning policy on a national and European level.

Land Use and Land Cover

The main land cover type in Ireland is agricultural land including forestry, which accounts for two-thirds of the national landmass. Most of this is permanent grassland pastures.  Peatlands and wetlands are the second most widespread land cover type, covering almost one-fifth of the country, while forested areas cover about one-tenth of the country. Despite rapid development in the past two decades, Ireland's landscape is predominantly rural and agricultural. 

However, the rate of change in land use and land cover since the early 1990s is relatively high by European standards. The main changes have been an increase in the amount of forested lands and artificial areas, and a decrease in the total amount of agricultural land and peatland. For the period 2006 to 2012, afforestation (planting new forestry on non-forested land) accounted for the biggest landcover ‘type’ change with afforestation on agricultural and peatland together accounting for 12.7 per cent of all change.


Historically, little attention has been paid to the conservation and protection of soils. There is relatively little legislation relating directly to soil and soil protection and there is a scarcity of data. The large percentage of permanent pasture land has protected Ireland’s soils from serious degradation, with the notable exception of peatlands.

Irish scientists have recently developed a national soils map at the 1:250,000 scale, and an associated soil information system for Ireland. The National Soil Database (NSDB) has produced a national baseline database of soil geochemistry including data point maps and spatial distribution maps of major nutrients, and essential trace elements. This study has also generated a National Soil Archive which will provide Ireland with a good baseline of soil geochemical properties which should help in the development of any future soil protection policies.


Peatlands are wetland ecosystems that are characterised by the accumulation of organic matter called peat which derives from dead and slowly decaying plant material under wet conditions. Irish peatlands are principally bogs with a small proportion of fens.

Bogs are peatlands only fed by precipitation and consequently generally nutrient poor andacid. Bogs are further divided into raised bogs and blanketbogs which form the main category of peatlands in Ireland. The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) have prepared a Draft National Peatland Strategy, a Draft Raised Bog Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) Management Plan, and a Draft Raised Bog Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs) Review, to protect and manage significant peatlands in Ireland, which are designated under EU and National legislation.

Fens are peatlands that in addition to precipitation also receives water that has been in contact with mineral soil or bedrock.


Forestry accounts for only 9.2 per cent of national area land cover. Much of the forest in Ireland is young, with nearly 40 per cent of total forest planted since 1990.  This is significant from a climate change perspective, as the annual carbon store in afforestation since 1990 can be used to offset emissions from other sectors and helps Ireland attain greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.

The management of forest lands can be challenging from an environmental perspective especially during afforestation and forest harvesting as these processes can impact on water quality through increased sedimenttaion and nutrient mobilisation.  The range of benefits from Ireland’s forest cover is diverse, from basic timber production to employment, biodiversity, wildlife conservation, carbon sequestration, recreation and tourism. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) have prepared a Draft National Forestry Programme, and are currently carrying out a National Forestry Policy Review. This involves carrying out a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) to determine the potential for likely significant effects on the environment, and the measures needed to minimise these effects.


Land Use

Land is subject to many competing demands. Unsustainable land use change can impact human health, have a harmful effect on water, air, soil and biodiversity and conflict with land use planning.  The distinction between land cover and land use is fundamental, and the two are often confused.

  • Land cover is the observed physical cover, including natural or planted vegetation and human constructions (buildings, roads, etc.), as well as water, bare rock, or sand surfaces.
  • Land use is based upon function, the purpose for which the land is being used ex. tillage, pasture, and coniferous forestry.

The development of settlements and their environs is based on Local Authorities (LA’s) zoning lands for particular purposes. It is important that lands are zoned appropriately to avoid significant negative effects on human health such as flooding, biodiversity loss from destruction of habitat, or water pollution events.

Population Growth

The principal causes of land use changes in urban areas and their hinterlands have been the development of housing and associated commercial services, and consequent growth of suburbs, satellite towns and villages. This increase in artificial surfaces, impacts on many aspects of the environment including landscape, climate, biodiversity, air quality, and water quality. Population growth also puts pressure on the ability to provide appropriate critical service infrastructure (drinking water, wastewater, waste).

In the 10 years between 1996 and 2006 there was a remarkable increase in the number of house completions in Ireland, from an annual total of 33,000 in 1996 to a peak of 93,000 in 2006.  The recent economic recovery and housing shortage in Dublin is likely to result in a phased increase in house completions from 2015 onwards. The Regional Planning Guidelines (RPGs) set out the population thresholds for the various counties within each region. These RPGs require LA development plans to be carried out in a phased and coordinated manner outwards from the core of a settlement (called a “Core Strategy”). Where excess lands are zoned, LA’s also need to consider re-zoning/dezoning or reserving excess lands not required for development during the development period.

Soil Degradation

Recent initiatives at EU level provide a timely incentive to assess critically the condition of soils in Ireland. The EU Commission set up the Thematic Group for Soil Strategy in 2004 to identify the potential threats to soil function. Its analysis identified six degradation processes that impact on soils: soil sealing, erosion, organic matter decline, compaction, salination and landslides. While a number of these processes are naturally occurring, human activity is an additional driver of degradation through poor land management.

The recent BOGLANDS:Sustainable Management of Peatlands in Ireland report found evidence of loss of species, loss of habitats and loss of entire ecosystems represented by the damage to almost all raised bogs and fens. Damage to peatland impacts on water quality due to silt release from mechanical peat harvesting, increased nutrient release from drained bogs, and increased acidification from afforestation on bogs.  As outlined above, the NPWS have prepared a National Peatlands Strategy to protect and manage significant peatlands in Ireland.

Soil Contamination

Contamination from point sources can arise as a result of leakages and accidental spillages from commercial activities e.g. petroleum storage tanks, old gas work sites, timber treatment or landfills. Diffuse contamination can arise from activities such as agriculture, forestry, horticulture and domestic septic tanks. The EPA has developed guidance for the management of contaminated land and groundwater at EPA licensed facilities.

The principal aim in managing contaminated land and groundwater related issues is to secure the protection of human health, water bodies (including groundwater) and the wider environment. The risk based approach outlined in Guidance on the Management of Contaminated Land and Groundwater at EPA licensed sites is considered best practice. 

Whats Being Done

EU Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA)

The main objective of the SEA Directive is to provide for a high level of environmental protection, and to contribute to the integration of environmental considerations in the preparation and implementation of plans and programmes, with a view to promoting sustainable development. SEA is mandatory for certain plans/programmes in the areas of agriculture, forestry, fisheries, energy, industry, transport, waste management, water management, telecommunications, tourism, town and country planning and land use.

Close to 400 SEAs have commenced in Ireland since the SEA Directive’s transposition in 2004. Of the sectors specified in the Directive, land use planning has had the most significant take-up, accounting for approximately 80 per cent of all the SEAs undertaken.

National Landscape Strategy (NLS)

The National Landscape Strategy (NSL) Steering Group was established in 2011 to develop a NLS with the aim of sustainable management of change affecting landscape.The objectives of the NLS are to develop specific measures to integrate and embed landscape considerations in all sectors which influence the landscape, and to improve and enhance the quality of decision-making by those who have an impact on it. A Draft NLS was prepared by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, (DAHG) in 2014, and this should assist in providing a consistent approach to landscape character assessment across local authority areas.

Soil Protection Strategy

The EPA has developed a discussion document ‘The Soil Protection Strategy for Ireland’ which recommends the need to develop a soil protection strategy for Ireland, including a national soil quality monitoring programme, and the selection of a set of indicators which are representative of soil quality. 

Draft National Peatlands Strategy (NPS)

The Draft NPS strategy is designed to highlight the role of healthy peatlands in the provision of clean water, in regulating climate and providing support for unique biodiversity and associated aesthetic and touristic values is not widely appreciated against the production values of a drained peatland in the form of peat, turf or support for agriculture and forestry. An understanding of these peatlands ecosystem services is key to sound decision making regarding the management and use of peatlands, which will centre on balancing the needs and interests of the entire community.

Water Framework Directive 

In Ireland, there are currently seven River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs). These identify the key water-related pressures and protected areas within each plan area. The WFD requires commitments be made to restore, or maintain good quality status of all water bodies by 2017. A 2nd RBMP cycle is currently under preparation and is to focus on an integrated catchment management (ICM) approach as the means to achieve effective water and catchment management.  It is of key importance that Ireland’s water resources and water quality are protected.

Environmental Liability

The Environmental Liabilities Directive (ELD) establishes a framework for environmental liability based on the "polluter pays" principle and aimed at preventing environmental damage to water resources, soil, fauna, flora and natural habitats. The central aim of the ELD is to hold operators, whose activities have caused environmental damage, financially liable for remedying this damage.


The trend in the past decade towards the development of low-density residential development on the periphery of cities and the suburbanisation of satellite villages and towns has largely ended.  However, the improving economic situation in Ireland means that it is likely that there will be some pressures to convert some land for development purposes. 

A 2014 Economic Social and Research Institute (ESRI) report has indicated that a minimum of 80,000 homes are required in urban areas over the next five years, with 47 per cent of the total required in the Dublin region.  Nonetheless, the main drivers of land use change over the coming decade will be the agricultural policies of Food Harvest 2020, along with the 2025 Agri-food strategy, and afforestation policies associated of the Draft National Forestry Programme. 

Environmental considerations must be appropriately integrated in the implementation of these policies from the outset in order to prevent significant adverse impacts on the environment.

Land and Soil

The sustainable management of both land use and soils requires an integrated approach from the relevant statutory bodies and other key stakeholders. The Draft National Landscape Strategy for Ireland needs to be finalised, adopted, and fully implemented by LAs and other Plan-making bodies. Similarly, a National Soil Protection Strategy which would include the identification of soils at risk, and also address the need to establish a soil monitoring network, needs to be developed and rolled out.


Ireland’s peatlands are of immense value and their degradation impacts on climate change, biodiversity and water quality. Inappropriate development, unregulated extraction and site preparation at peatland sites have been shown to degrade peatland ecosystems. It is important that these threats to ecosystem function and carbon stocks be minimised through robust and integrated planning, assessment, restoration, and management processes. In this context the proposed National Peatland Strategy will be of considerable benefit in protecting and managing our peatlands.

Policy and Planning

Issues such as sector specific spatial planning, land use, water quality and soil quality are all intertwined and interdependent, and this should be reflected in integrated policies and plans at national, regional and local levels. The need for continued uptake of the Habitats Directive requirements with regard to appropriate assessment across all relevant sectors is important. In addition, planners and programme-makers should ensure that environmental issues identified in the SEA process are incorporated into the relevant plans and programes. Sufficiently robust mitigation measures should be developed, and then implemented, so as to mitigate for any potential significant environmental impacts identified.