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. ‘Biodiversity’ is a term used to describe the variety of life. It includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems. Ireland has a wide diversity of habitats for its small size including 16 priority habitats as designated under the EU Habitats Directive. Habitats of particular significance because of their scarcity in both Ireland and Europe include limestone pavements, turloughs, active peatlands, species rich grasslands and intact dune and machair systems. Ireland’s marine environment is also home to large seabird breeding colonies, a great range of invertebrate species, and its cold-water coral communities.
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. Only 9 per cent of habitats listed under the Habitats Directive are considered to have favourable status.
Many species are doing well in conservation terms, but there are a significant number of species that are not. Approximately 52 per cent of listed species are in a favourable state, these include bats, dolphins, certain cetaceans and plants, while Ireland is also particularly rich in bryophytes, lichens and algae. The number of species considered declining in status is low. Aquatic species are most at risk, although species such as the otter and especially the frog are doing very well. The natterjack toad is assessed as “bad but improving”. The National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency co-ordinate red lists in Ireland. Red lists identify those in most need of conservation interventions. Recent red lists indicate that more than a third of Irish bee species and non-marine mollusc species are threatened. In addition, over fifteen per cent of Irish water beetle species, butterfly species and dragonflies and damselflies are threatened.
In 2013, the Bird Atlas study of the population status of Ireland’s birds (2007–2011) was published. This indicated that of the 199 species assessed, 25 were placed on the red list (i.e. of most conservation concern). There is also evidence that some species are still undergoing significant declines (e.g. kestrel and skylark) or have become extinct in Ireland (corn bunting). Of particular concern are our seabirds, migratory waterfowl, and farmland birds. Iconic species such as the barn owl, corncrake, curlew and yellowhammer all face an uncertain future.
However, action to help many of these birds is being put in place by BirdWatch Ireland, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and government agencies. There is also evidence from the Countryside Bird Survey (1998-2013) that many countryside birds have fared quite well over the last number of years. Overall, twenty species showed increasing trends, seventeen species remained relatively stable and the remaining sixteen declined. Greatest increases were seen in Blackcap and Goldfinch. Greatest declines were in Grey Wagtail, Stonechat, Meadow Pipit and Greenfinch.
Ireland has experienced nearly a century of predominantly exotic conifer afforestation, some 40 years of agricultural intensification, and a decade long economic boom – all of which have put pressure on habitats and species.
The main issues that Ireland’s habitats and species face are direct habitat damage. This can be caused by wetland drainage/reclamation and infrastructural development; water pollution particularly from nutrients and silt; unsustainable exploitation such as over-fishing and peat extraction; invasive alien species and recreational pressures. Indirect pressures such as population growth and climate change is likely to bring additional pressures on a number of species and habitats in Ireland.
It is expected that climate change will alter Ireland’s habitats and the distribution of many species into the future. Many distributional changes have already become evident. Birds are indicating some of these changes.
A recent Bird Atlas for Ireland and Britain has shown that some phenomenal shifts have occurred in the distribution of breeding sub-Saharan migrants such as Swift and Swallow over the past 40 years; declines in south-eastern Britain and increases in Ireland and Scotland imply that a north-western shift in their breeding distribution has taken place. Furthermore, the predicted increases in sea-levels will affect coastal habitats and associated biodiversity.
What's being done
At EU level the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive 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) Acts, 2000-2010, and the EU (Natural Habitats) Regulations 1997-2011.
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 nearly all bird species and some 60 other animal species are afforded protected status, as are some 90 species of flora under the Flora Protection Order 1999.
In 2011, the EU adopted its 2020 Biodiversity Strategy (EC, 2011) following recognition that the EU had missed its 2010 target of halting biodiversity loss. Arising from this strategy, the National Biodiversity Plan 2011-2016 aims at developing a suite of biodiversity indicators which will help to inform the public and policy makers on the state and trends in biodiversity, pressures on biodiversity, and the effectiveness of key policy measures.
The Agri-Environmental Options Scheme and the Natura 2000 Scheme were launched in 2010. The objectives of the schemes are to promote biodiversity, especially in Natura 2000 sites, improve water quality and combat climate change. These schemes aim at building on the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS), by specifically targeting Natura 2000 sites and areas whose landscape and biodiversity have resulted from traditional farming methods.
The NPWS Farm Plan Scheme was launched in 2006 but curtailed in 2010 due to budgetary constraints. To date, 658 NPWS farm plans on Natura 2000 sites have been approved. NPWS farm plans include specifically targeted measures towards the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity.
The Cessation of Turf Cutting Scheme provides compensation for turf cutters who previously obtained turf from areas that have been statutorily proposed for designation as an SAC or Natural Heritage Area. Other measures such as the Native Woodland Scheme, the commercial Forestry Biodiversity Guidelines, and the broadleaf planting targets, all aim to promote biodiversity.
Several large-scale biodiversity research projects were undertaken in recent years to inform biodiversity policy, including the EPA-funded Biochange project, which addressed the main drivers of biodiversity loss and made recommendations to improve biodiversity governance. Notice Nature is Ireland's public awareness campaign on biodiversity, and aims to raise awareness of the importance of biodiversity and to encourage everyone to play their part in its protection.
As part of the National Biodiversity Plan, local and public authorities and government departments are required to make local/sectoral biodiversity action plans. The most recent EPA plan, published in 2012, is currently being updated, and 26 local authority biodiversity action plans have been completed or are in the final stages of preparation.
Based on the poor 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. Climate change and biodiversity protection issues are inter-linked globally; one cannot be satisfactorily addressed without addressing the other.
UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)
The CBD aims to promote the conservation of biodiversity, and the sustainable use of its components. As a contracting party to this Convention, Ireland is committed to measures to conserve biodiversity under the following themes:
- Conservation of ecosystems, habitats and species in their natural surroundings
- Conservation of the components of biological diversity outside their natural habitats
- Impact assessment
- Identification and monitoring
- Sustainable use of ecosystems, species and other biological resources
- Public awareness and education.
The effectiveness of our national biodiversity strategies and plans in meeting the goals and objectives of the Convention as outlined above will need to be assessed and reported on.