The terms “nature” and “biodiversity” are interchangeable. Human beings are an intrinsic part of biodiversity and interact with it on a daily basis. Our activities change and shape the landscape in which we live. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defines ‘biological diversity’ or biodiversity as the variability among living organisms from all sources including, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems. Biodiversity underpins our economy, health and wellbeing and plays a key role in the functioning of ecosystems, their resilience and their continuing ability to provide ecosystem services. Ireland has international and legal obligations to protect biodiversity.
Our aquatic systems and wetlands support internationally significant populations of birds, fish and invertebrates. Ireland is also relatively rich in bryophytes, algae, lichens and non-marine molluscs. EU Member States are required to monitor habitats and species that are considered threatened across Europe and are listed in the Habitats Directive. The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) have reported that only 9% of the habitats considered threatened and protected under the Habitats Directive are in favourable status. The habitats of most pressing concern in Ireland are those that have reduced range and/or area, notably raised bogs and species-rich grasslands.
Levels of many species are reported to be stable, but a number of key or iconic species are declining. One of the species of greatest concern is the pollution-sensitive freshwater pearl mussel, as only a few rivers have populations with even near adequate recruitment of younger generations.
Red Lists identify species in most need of conservation interventions. According to the latest Red List on Irish Macro-moths, 43 species are assessed as threatened to some degree (i.e., vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered), which represents 8% of the current Irish list. Fourteen species are considered to have become regionally extinct. Overall the NPWS have reported that 52% of the species considered threatened and protected under the Habitats Directive are in favourable status.
The Bird Atlas (2007–2011) study of the population status of the birds of Ireland and Great Britain was published in 2013. Nearly all of the 300 species covered by the Atlas have experienced changes, such as range contractions or expansions, location shifts or subtle changes in abundance. Key findings for the island of Ireland are that, over the last 40 years, the breeding ranges of 47% of species have contracted, whereas 18% of species have expanded to new areas.
Two main “new” groups of concern highlighted are breeding waders and upland birds. Large range contractions are noted for the curlew, which has declined dramatically in recent years, and also lapwing, common sandpiper, golden plover, merlin, ring ouzel, snipe and teal.
In 2014, BirdWatch Ireland and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds collaborated in producing a revised Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland list. Of 185 birds that breed and/or winter in Ireland, 37 were placed on the Red List and 90 on the Amber List, based on conservation status. Red-Listed breeding species include the barn owl, corncrake, grey partridge, grey wagtail and red grouse. Red-Listed breeding and wintering species include the curlew, dunlin, golden plover and Bewick’s swan. Two birds of prey that have recently been reintroduced, the white-tailed eagle and the golden eagle are both Red-Listed.
The key pressures on Ireland’s habitats and species include direct habitat damage from peat cutting, wetland drainage/reclamation, over- and under-grazing, water pollution, unsustainable exploitation (e.g. over-fishing), recreational pressures and invasive alien species (IAS) - introduced species that have a negative impact on ecosystems and the economy. An example of an indirect pressure is human population growth, the effects of which are exacerbated by limited public awareness of biodiversity and its benefits and economic value to society.
Pressures from urbanisation, fertiliser use and road building have reduced since the first assessment of Ireland’s habitats and species (2001‑2006). However, in a recovering economy, it is foreseeable that future land use changes will further threaten Ireland’s habitats and species. The continuing deterioration of high quality rivers is of great concern, particularly as species such as salmon, trout and the declining freshwater pearl mussel require and depend on high quality water and river habitat.
There is evidence that climate change is negatively impacting on coastal habitats, and is also likely to have some effect on Irish species. It is expected that climate change may alter some of Ireland’s habitats and the distribution of some species into the future.
What's being done
Ireland has international and legal obligations to protect biodiversity. Implementation of the EU Habitats and Birds Directives has resulted in the creation of a comprehensive network of sites for habitat and species protection, the Natura 2000 network. Steps required to legally protect Ireland’s terrestrial network of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) under the Habitats Directive and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under the Birds Directive are largely complete.
However, the European Commission recently called on Ireland to step up its efforts to designate SACs and to establish conservation objectives and measures for all of them. The Birds Directive requires Member States to report on aspects of the status of all regularly occurring bird species in the Member States’ territories. Ireland reported to the EU on trends in bird populations in 2013.
Implementation of the EU Habitats and Birds Directives has resulted in the creation of a comprehensive network of sites for habitat and species protection, the Natura 2000 network. The National Biodiversity Plan (2011-16) includes a commitment to “prepare and implement site-specific conservation objectives, management advice and/or plans on Natura 2000 sites, Nature Reserves and National Parks”. The Prioritised Action Framework for Natura 2000 identifies a range of actions needed to help improve the status of Ireland’s habitats and wildlife, including conservation management strategies, more focused agri-environment schemes and habitat restoration.
Protection of biodiversity within and outside protected areas is necessary, and this will require greater integration of biodiversity concerns in sectoral policy development and implementation, at local and national levels.
Invasive Alien Species (IAS)
Regulations on the prevention and management of the introduction and spread of IAS came into force in the EU in 2015. These regulations seek to protect native biodiversity and ecosystem services from damage caused by IAS, as well as minimising and mitigating the effects they can have on human health and the economy.
The National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC) has developed an online invasive species database and an early warning system. In 2014, a report on Ireland’s Invasive and Non-native Species found that 13% of invasive alien species recorded in Ireland are high-impact IAS. The safe disposal of IAS material, including soil infested with seed, is problematic and needs to be further addressed. There is also a need for a co-ordinated and centralised all-island approach for tackling IAS to be re-established.
Peatlands and Raised Bogs
The National Peatlands Strategy aims to give direction to Ireland’s approach to peatland management and guidance on how to optimise the ecosystem services provided by our peatlands for the future. The EC is currently co-financing a LIFE project entitled “LIFE Irish Raised Bogs” to improve the conservation status of active raised bogs through restoration measures in 12 Natura 2000 sites in the Irish midlands.
On a local level, Abbeyleix Bog Project is an example of a community initiative tasked with ensuring that the site is managed for conservation, education and local amenity purposes. The project is actively engaged in the restoration and management of the bog. Community engagement projects undertaken to date include the installation of a boardwalk and bog bridge, invasive rhododendron clearance and butterfly surveys.
Research and Funding
Much information and knowledge about ecosystems is generated from research projects and demonstration projects. These projects help to pilot management measures to show how effective management can be in improving conditions for biodiversity. The EU provides funding for nature/biodiversity, environment and climate action under the LIFE programme. A number of Irish projects incorporate a significant element of nature/ biodiversity research in their remit including Burren LIFE, Aran LIFE, and Raised Bog Restoration LIFE project.
Mapping Ecosystem Services
The main challenge in protecting and restoring biodiversity has been raising sufficient awareness of the benefits and value of diverse ecosystems to society. The ecosystem approach, incorporating natural capital accounting, seeks to redress this by ensuring that biodiversity is recognised as part of a wider socio-economic ecological system and is considered in decision making.
Natural capital consists of the world’s stocks of physical and biological resources, including air, water, minerals, soils, fossil fuels and all living things. Natural capital accounting (NCA) involves attributing a measurable economic and/or ecological value to the ecosystem goods and services that provide benefits to society. The NCA process is underway in Ireland through the Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystem Services (MAES) project, commissioned by the NPWS, which aims to map a suite of prioritised ecosystem services based on available data. This project will contribute towards the production of an Ecosystem Services map.
Pressures and threats to the environment arising from the energy, transport and agriculture sectors have potential to adversely impact biodiversity. Agricultural practices have a high impact on protected species that occur within agricultural systems, e.g. the Vertigo species of snail and the marsh fritillary butterfly. Pollution is considered a significant pressure and threat to the conservation status of some species, especially those species that need good or excellent quality water to survive such as the remaining limited populations of the freshwater pearl mussel.
Climate change is intensifying and the current underlying issues will persist. Predicted drier summers and higher levels of more intense rainfall are likely to result in bog bursts and landslides which may indirectly impact other habitats such as lakes. The predicted increases in sea-levels will affect coastal habitats and associated biodiversity. Species and habitat ranges may expand and contract in reaction to pressures from climate change. Such changes will facilitate a range expansion in some invasive alien species, for example. The impacts of climate change and the continuing threat of invasive alien species are areas that need to be constantly monitored and guarded against, where possible.
Citizen science is the involvement of volunteers in scientific research, and citizen science is included in the EPA’s Strategic Plan. The EPA’s objective is to engage the public in the protection and improvement of the environment. The National Biodiversity Data Centre greatly enhances public awareness through its online biodiversity recording service and via an extensive programme of workshops. Other popular citizen science projects include the garden bird survey and the Bird Atlas run by BirdWatch Ireland, bat monitoring projects run by Bat Conservation Ireland, and coastal projects run by Coastwatch and An Taisce.
There is a real need to increase efforts at all levels to bring biodiversity into the mainstream using measures such as Biodiversity Action Plans, thorough environmental assessments and the ecosystem approach/natural capital accounting (NCA), where appropriate, in the development of our policies, plans and strategies. This will ensure that evidence-based decisions are made and unforeseen negative consequences for biodiversity are mitigated and avoided, where possible. Ongoing collaborative efforts to increase public awareness of biodiversity must be continued and augmented. Public awareness and appreciation of biodiversity and its intrinsic link to everyday life is vital if measures to protect our environment are to succeed.