Land and Soil
Soil is a biologically active, complex mixture of weathered minerals, organic matter, organisms, air and water. This mixture supports a range of critical functions such as supporting terrestrial ecosystems and biological diversity, agricultural food production, flood alleviation, water filtration and storage, and carbon capture. Soils form over long time periods and should be considered as finite resources to be protected and managed carefully.
The environmental roles and functions provided by different soils are increasingly being recognised. There is now a greater awareness of the need to protect soils and manage their use in a sustainable manner and of the wider benefits that can accrue.
Land Use and Land Cover
The interactions between human activity, such as farming, forestry and the built environment, are interlinked with processes that shape the environment, landscape and biodiversity of the country. Land cover describes what is visible on the land surface. Land use describes the use(s) the land has been put to from a human perspective.
CORINE is a Pan-European land use and land cover (LULC) mapping programme and is the main source of national-scale LULC information. The most recent assessment shows that agriculture is the primary LULC type within Ireland (67.6% national land cover), followed by wetlands (14.9%) and forestry (9.5%). Sectoral land cover percentages prepared by Government Departments may vary due to the scale of assessment/resolution etc.
Work is underway by the Ordnance Survey of Ireland and the EPA to develop a high-resolution map of Ireland. Integration of sectoral data will allow for a much more consistent picture of national land cover and land use. The EPA aims to also develop a national land use map, to be used in reporting under the LULUCF Regulations (Regulation (EU) 841/2018). This will be directly related to the outputs of the national land cover mapping programme.
Agriculture accounts for 67.6% of the national land cover. The main agricultural class is pasture (55.1% national land cover), followed by land principally occupied by agriculture (primarily pasture), which is interspersed with areas of natural vegetation (6.9%), and arable land (4.5%). The objectives of Food Wise 2025 place a demand on soils to support the intensification of agriculture to meet the growth projections of the sector. Simultaneously, greening objectives of the Common Agricultural Policy (CSP) insist that increases in production must be achieved in a sustainable manner.
Peatlands provide a range of functions, including maintaining biodiversity and water quality, carbon storage and sequestration, agriculture, forestry, water regulation, recreation and flood attenuation.
The National Peatlands Strategy (DCHG, 2015) is the key national plan responsible for management and conservation of peatlands. It estimates that our peatlands store some 1566 million tonnes of carbon and represents about 64 per cent of the total soil organic carbon stock present in Ireland. It aims to restore, protect and manage our peatlands and the benefits they provide us. It reports that only 10 per cent of the original raised bogs and 28 per cent of the original blanket peatlands were deemed suitable for conservation (as natural peatlands).
Forests provide many environment-related functions, including carbon sequestration and storage, water regulation and support for biodiversity, in addition to their commercial value. Ireland’s National Forestry Programme 2014‑2020 has identified four key needs for Ireland’s forestry sector. These are (1) permanently increasing Ireland’s forest cover, (2) increasing and sustaining forest based biomass production to meet renewable energy targets, (3) supporting forest holders in actively managing their plantations and (4) optimising the environmental and social benefits of new and existing forests.
To meet these needs, a series of “woodland and afforestation” schemes have been prepared by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM). Forest cover is at its highest level in over 350 years, with forestation estimated at 11% of the total land area. Despite this, Ireland still has one of the lowest afforestation levels in the EU. Ireland’s national forest estate is an important carbon reservoir amounting to over 3.82 million tonnes of CO2 in 2018.
Ireland’s forests and wood products remove on average 4.26 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere on average per year since 1990 and are expected to contribute significantly to meeting Ireland’s 2030 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target under the Effort Sharing Regulations and the Climate Action Plan 2019.
Healthy soil provides us with clean air, food and water, supports ecosystem services, the growth of plant and animal life and provides the foundations for human habitats and structures. The threats to soils under current land use, management and climate conditions are low by international standards.
Approximately one-quarter of all living species live in our soils (e.g. fungi, bacteria and invertebrates). They play a crucial role in regulation of the atmosphere, water quantity and water quality, pest and disease incidences in agriculture, natural ecosystems and human diseases. Soil organic matter has a key role in maintaining soil functionality, water and air quality and carbon sequestration. Proper land use management is essential to prevent soil-stored carbon being released into the atmosphere, where it would contribute to climate change. Targeted nutrient management can also help limit pollution ofour waters if used correctly.
Changes in Land Use and Land Cover
Land is subject to many, often competing, sectoral demands. The effects of poor land use management practices can be particularly evident in aquatic ecosystems (e.g. siltation and nutrient runoff and spread of invasive species). The following summary statistics below are based on CORINE.
- Agriculture remains the dominant national land cover type at 67.6 per cent. While this represents a small decrease in total since 2012, there is an overall downward trend with a reduction of 8230 hectares since 1990. The main change in land cover has been from agriculture to forestry and artificial areas.
- Wetlands cover about 14.9% of national area, which represents a moderate decrease since 2012. Since 1990, wetlands have reduced from 18.6 per cent of the national area. This represents a 20 per cent reduction in the area, with a loss of 258,800 hectares. The primary transition has been to forestry and the re-mapping of intertidal flats.
- The latest CORINE 2018 data indicates that forestry now represents 9.5 per cent of the national area. There is a general upward trend in forestry since 1990, with just a 0.02 per cent increase since 2012. Most of this growth relates to commercial coniferous plantations.
- Artificial areas have increased in area by a significant 65 per cent since 1990. Most of this change occurred between 1990 and 2006, slowing between 2006 and 2012 (likely linked to the economic recession), and is showing signs of increasing again in 2018. The primary changes have been increases in discontinuous urban development, commercial / industrial areas, transport infrastructure, and sports and leisure facilities. These changes have mainly impacted on losses in agricultural areas, with some smaller losses in forestry and wetland areas.
Both single rural housing and suburban growth can both impact on soils and landscape and need to be carefully managed. Ireland has adopted a “core strategy approach” to the development of settlements through the National Planning Framework. The National Planning Framework, adopted in 2018, is the top-level land use plan in Ireland. It will be implemented, at a regional level, by the Regional Spatial Economic Strategies.
Population increase and settlement growth are the principal causes of land use changes in urban areas. This has implications for soil quality, climate, biodiversity integrity, air quality, flood risk and water quality. Ireland’s population is projected to reach 6.7 million in 2051, with the most significant increase predicted for the Greater Dublin Area. Forward strategic planning and new infrastructure are needed to ensure that growth is sustainable and does not add to the environmental pressures that are already evident in delivering drinking water, treating urban wastewater and tackling air pollution.
Decline in Peatlands
According to the National Peatlands Strategy, only 10% of the original raised bog and 28% of the original blanket peatlands resource are suitable for conservation (as natural peatlands). Land drainage, reclamation for agricultural purposes and peat extraction have all impacted peatlands.
The damage caused by these activities also has a negative effect on climate mitigation, as it prevents carbon sequestration and reduces the available carbon stock as, when drained, peat oxidises and CO2 is released. The emergence of climate change as a key social, economic and environmental issue has brought fresh impetus to the need to preserve remaining functional peatlands and to accelerate the restoration of damaged peatlands.
Forestry Expansion Programme and Associated Environmental Challenges
Since 1990, Ireland has had one of the highest rates of increase in forest expansion in the EU. This rapid increase may potentially give rise to additional environmental pressures and requires sensitive environmental management. Afforestation and harvesting may adversely affect natural vegetation, soils, biodiversity, water quality and landscape resources.
However, if carried out in an environmentally sensitive manner and in the right places, expanding our national forestry cover can bring multiple benefits across society, the environment and the economy. The challenge will be to establish and maintain a sustainable level of broadleaf planting to protect environmental sensitivities (e.g. biodiversity and water quality) while still providing for an economically viable commercial forestry resource.
Soil Quality or Contamination
Six key degradation processes can impact on soils: soil sealing, erosion, organic matter decline, compaction, salination and landslides. EPA research shows that the main soil quality pressures in Ireland appear to relate to surface sealing (urbanisation). Human activity is also a significant driver of degradation through poor (or inappropriate) land management practices. However, in Ireland, the overall area of artificial surfaces remains low compared with that in other EU Member States.
Soil contamination can occur as a result of unauthorised waste-related activities, historical activities, leakages and accidental spillages of chemicals. There is currently no specific contaminated land policy in Ireland and therefore no legislation in place to deal with it. However, the EPA is responsible for enforcing the remediation of contamination identified at EPA-licensed facilities.
Whats Being Done
Spatial planning strongly influences land use. Good planning decisions can incentivise more efficient resource use in the built environment and avoid the intrusion of inappropriate urban infrastructure into natural areas. Integrated spatial planning can optimise economic development opportunities, ecosystem services, reduce human exposure to environmental pressures and reduce social inequities.
The challenge is to design a future urban environment with public appeal while meeting the needs of the population. The importance of clean and well-protected “green” and “blue spaces” such as parks, ponds and wild areas in the urban landscape is now recognised as a key part of urban landscapes that are needed for healthy communities.
Land Cover Mapping
Addressing the national level resolution gap in land cover mapping remains a challenge and requires collaboration between many organisations and government departments. The Ordnance Survey of Ireland are developing a high-resolution map in partnership with the EPA, as part of a national integrated land cover mapping programme. The EU Biodiversity Strategy calls on Member States to map and assess the state of ecosystems and their services.
A dedicated EU working group has been established to deliver this action. It has been identified that there is a need for better resolution national land cover and land use data. The current data limits our ability to understand small scale changes that can have a significant impact on the environment.
In recent years a National Land Cover Working Group has been working towards the development of a national mapping programme. This work included developing a mapping methodology and a clear use case benefit analysis. This programme will be essential to monitor, report and assess the environmental impacts of different land cover and land uses. The Ordnance Survey of Ireland, in partnership with the EPA, are now developing national landcover maps for 2018, these will be released at the end of 2020. The maps will have a high resolution with at least a parcel scale resolution.
Irish Soil Information System
One area which has seen significant improvement has been the establishment of a national soil map as part of the EPA-funded Irish Soil Information System Project in 2014. The overall objective of this project was to assess the national distribution of soil types and prepare a national soil map that would identify and classify soils using a consistent national classification. The soils map of Ireland is available here.
In addition to the map, a collection of tools to access and interact with the soils data were developed. The various soil types have been assessed taking into account their environmental and agronomic responses. This should assist soils management planning and related policy implementation.
National Landscape Strategy
The European Landscape Convention (ELC) seeks to strike a balance between management planning and landscape protection. In Ireland, this is being provided for through the Planning and Development Act Regulations 2000-2010 and Local Government Reform Act 2014. The National Landscape Strategy (NLS) also seeks to ensure that Ireland complies with the ELC by establishing principles for protecting and enhancing the landscape while positively managing changes.
Since 2018, Ordnance Survey Ireland has been developing a high-resolution map in partnership with the EPA. By integrating sectoral data, we should get a much more consistent picture of national land cover and land use. The EPA also aims to develop a national land use map for assist in reporting under the LULUCF Regulations (Regulation (EU) 841/2018). This will be directly related to the outputs of the national land cover mapping programme. High resolution data, at a minimum of land parcel scale, will provide detailed information on the status of land. It will be the basis for assessing past and future changes and will allow detailed environmental assessments and research.
National Peatlands Strategy
The National Peatlands Strategy sets out the actions required and partners responsible for its management and implementation. Bord Na Mona (one of the Strategy’s partners), report having restored over 1200 ha of raised bog at 12 different sites, including areas which had not been fully brought into peat production.
In 2016, Bord Na Mona also launched their Biodiversity Action Plan 2016-2021, to support ongoing restoration, rehabilitation and management activities. They review this plan’s progress every year. The 2018 review reported progress in rehabilitating former peat production areas, with 15,000 hectares having been rehabilitated with a further 1,250 hectares in progress of rehabilitation.
Food Wise 2025 includes many sustainability-related actions to improve the environmental footprint of the agriculture sector. By fully implementing the environmental-related elements of Ireland’s National Rural Development Programme 2014‑2020, adverse environmental effects (including on soils, water quality, etc.) can be minimised.
The EU Common Agricultural Policy and schemes such as Agri-Environmental Option Schemes, for example, encourage farming practices that maintain soil fertility and levels of organic matter. Teagasc’s SQUARE project continues to develop and refine its toolbox for farmers to assess soils and the impacts of soil degradation. Teagasc recommends that soil-specific management measures based on soil type are needed, so that suitable nutrient management options are used for that soil type. Teagasc have also published a soil management manual to assist farmers in this regard.
The DANÚ Farming Group, a European Innovation Partnership project (EIP Agri) funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, combines the best practices of conventional and organic farming.
River Catchment-based Flood Risk Assessment and Management
The incidents of widespread flooding, such as along parts of the Shannon catchment in 2015, highlighted the severe impacts on local communities and business. This highlighted the need for a wider debate and a national solution to managing flood risks in catchments and managing land use in areas at risk of significant flooding.
The national Catchment-based Flood Risk Assessment and Management (CFRAM) programme, in its first cycle, assessed the existing flood risk of inland water courses and coastlines in Ireland and consider flood alleviation options. The programme is also considered the potential for significant increases in flood risk arising from climate change, ongoing development and other pressures that may arise in the future. The CFRAM programme is the vehicle for delivering on the main requirements of the European Floods Directive. This directive applies to inland waters as well as coastal waters.
EPA Research Programme
Under the 2014-2020 EPA Research Programme, the EPA funds research in the Land & Soil area under its Sustainability Pillar Theme Natural Capital and Ecosystem services including soils and biodiversity.
Natural capital refers to the elements of nature that produce value directly and indirectly to people, such as the stock of forests, rivers, land, minerals and oceans. It includes the living aspects of nature, such as fish stocks, as well as the non-living aspects such as minerals and energy resources.
Natural capital provides a huge range of benefits to us. These benefits, frequently referred to as ecosystem services, include the provision of food, materials, clean water, clean air, climate regulation, flood prevention, pollination, recreation and wellbeing. Since the flow of services from ecosystems requires that they function as whole systems, the structure and diversity of ecosystems are important components of natural capital. In this regard biodiversity, soil composition, land cover and land use are important elements to consider.
We continue to seriously degrade our natural capital, undermining our resilience to environmental shocks and jeopardising our sustainability. Sustainable management of natural capital is therefore required to protect and enhance the services we derive from it. This will require an integrated and cross-sectoral approach embedding ecosystem approaches such as natural capital, ecosystem services and green infrastructure into policy and practice.
Over the period 2014-2020, the core areas of research are within the following three areas:
- Evaluation/Assessment of our Natural Capital;
- Managing, Protecting & Restoring our Natural Capital; and
- Governance & Behavioural Changes.
Details of the latest EPA Funding Research Opportunities and Awards are available from here.
Since 2014, in this area:
- 79 projects have been funded (total commitment of c. €7.1m) (as of November 2020) in the area of Natural Capital and Ecosystem services including soils and biodiversity.
- For more details regarding the EPA-funded projects, please go to our Public Searchable Projects Database
- 19 EPA Research Reports have been published in relation to Land & Soil (as of November 2020).
Policy and Planning
Soils, land cover and landscapes are resources that need to be protected, monitored and managed, from high-level national and sectoral land use plans through to local management activities on farms, forest plantations, peatlands, urban and rural settlements. We must also support continued collaborative research to inform decision making that may affect soils, land use and landscapes.
In the absence of European and national soil legislation, the challenge remains to ensure a consistent approach to protecting and managing our limited soil resource, in the context of supporting environmentally sustainable economic and population growth. Establishing and implementing an integrated national land cover, land use and habitat mapping programme is essential to assist in reporting and assessing the impact of different land cover and land use types on the environment. Providing a single agency with a mandate to develop this programme would help streamline its delivery.
In relation to the urban environment, the challenge is to design a future urban environment with public appeal that incorporates climate-proofing aspects, along with green areas and wild spaces for wildlife and people, while also meeting the needs of the population. We need to fully integrate environmental commitments and objectives of the National Planning Framework into our land use and sectoral plans. Additionally, integrating the National Landscape Strategy (NLS) into land use planning, will allow us to progress sustainable landscape management practices. This will only be possible through the establishment of consistent characterisation frameworks to assist local authorities and national agencies in engaging in infrastructure development. More initiatives to develop greater awareness of landscape and that facilitate local community participation are also required.
Assessing the state of the Irish landscape to capture additional information is a key issue for future practice; such measurements may include the rate of Landscape Charter Assessment at a regional level, and the take-up of these assessments in decision making, policies and legislation, scenic designations, local community landscape initiatives, accessibility and awareness.
Flood Risk Assessment
The national Catchment-based Flood Risk Assessment and Management (CFRAM) programme is also considering the potential for significant increases in flood risk due to climate change. The CFRAM programme, co-ordinated by the Office of public works (OPW), should lead to better solutions to tackle flooding while minimising impacts on the wider environment, if correctly implemented and monitored at project level.
Food Wise 2025
Achieving the aims of Food Wise 2025, without damaging the environment, will be a significant challenge. Many significant actions included in the Food Wise implementation plan relate to sustainable food production and management and protection of soil quality. The implementation of all these sectoral plans and policies should be carefully monitored to ensure a sustainable approach to land use that does not negatively affect the environment, the wider economy and communities.