The terms “nature” and “biodiversity” are interchangeable. We 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.
In April 2019 the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht submitted the third Article 17 report on the assessment of the conservation status of habitats and species in Ireland protected under the EU Habitats Directive. The two previous assessments were reported in 2007 and 2013.
Reporting on the implementation of the EU Birds Directive under Article 12 was brought into closer alignment with that of the Habitats Directive since 2008, with the 6 yearly Article 12 reports being submitted in 2013 and 2019. These Article 12 Bird Directive reports are on the population and range and trends of regularly occurring breeding bird species as well as those wintering and passage species that trigger SPA (Special Protection Area) designations across the state.
These assessments serve as a bench mark for the status of biodiversity in Ireland.
In 2019 15% of assessed habitats were found to be at favourable conservation status. Achieving favourable conservation status means that these habitats must have a range across the state which is stable or increasing, and their specific structure and functions, essential for their long-term survival are considered to be in place and expected to continue to do so, and their typical species were also favourable.
85% of assessed habitats were found to be unfavourable. Furthermore, 46% of habitats demonstrated ongoing declines based on a 12-year short term trend period. None of Ireland’s grassland, heathland, bog, mire or fen habitats were found to be in favourable status. Declining trends are particularly notable in marine, peatland, grassland and woodland habitats.
Grasslands, such as orchid rich grasslands and hay meadows have undergone significant changes over the last 10-15 years, with 38% and 28% of the area monitored respectively reported as being lost.
Species assessments under the Habitats Directive are better than those for habitats, with 57% in favourable status. A declining trend is reported for 15% of species, with freshwater species most at risk. 17% of species are reported to have an improving trend, with populations of otter and pine marten as well as a number of bat species on the increase. 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. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) coordinates the Red Listing process at the global level, defining the categories and criteria so that they are standardised across all taxa. Recently published Irish Red List assessments include Terrestrial Mammals (2019) and Stoneflies (2019).
The Red List of Irish Terrestrial Mammals updates and supersedes the Red List published in 2009 and covers terrestrial species native to Ireland or naturalised in Ireland before 1500.
The Stonefly Red List assessed the 12,000 records for the island of Ireland dating from 1890 to 2018. Of the 20 species of stonefly (Plecoptera) evaluated, two were deemed under threat of extinction, a third species as Regionally Extinct and the remaining 17 as Least Concern. These species are threatened by a combination of factors including climate change, continuing organic pollution, sedimentation and habitat change.
NPWS also maintains and publishes a checklist of the Protected and Threatened Species in Ireland (2020). Other recently published checklists include the checklist and country status of European Bryophytes – update 2020.
The protection of bird species at EU level is provided for under the Birds Directive (2009/147/EC). Under Article 12 of this Directive, Member States are obliged to report on the progress made with implementation of the Directive. This requires reporting on aspects of the status of all regularly occurring bird species both within and outside protected areas.
Under the Birds Directive, Ireland reported in 2019 on key demographic data for over 200 bird species’ populations, including estimated population size, range and their trends over the short- and long-term periods. The majority of Ireland’s regularly occurring breeding birds as well as some key wintering bird populations were included. Assessment of the main pressures and threats relevant to each species was also undertaken.
The complete 2013-2018 series of season-specific bird assessments for Ireland can be accessed by following this link:
Additionally, there are a number of relevant Irish Wildlife Manual (IWM) publications also available on line that underpin the majority of this reporting:
- IWM 106, Irish Wetland Bird Survey: Waterbird Status and Distribution 2009/10 – 2015/16;
- IWM 114, The Status of Ireland’s Breeding Seabirds: Birds Directive Article 12 Reporting 2013-2018; and
- IWM 115, Countryside Bird Survey: Status and trends of common and widespread breeding birds 1998-2016.
All publications can be sourced at the following NPWS web link: https://www.npws.ie/publications
Approximately 30% of the breeding species assessed are estimated to have remained stable or increased in abundance over the long-term. This cohort includes those relatively recent colonists that have strong population growth including Little Egret, Great Skua, Mediterranean Gull, Little Ringed Plover, Bearded Tit and Great Spotted Woodpecker, as well as the re-introduced raptor species (Golden Eagle, White-tailed Eagle and Red Kite) and some other raptor species, namely Buzzard and Peregrine Falcon. These recent additions to Ireland’s breeding bird community need to be viewed in the context that, for those breeding bird species in Ireland for which there is available data, almost 20% are considered to be in long term decline.
Acute declines have been recorded for some ground nesting bird species such as Red Grouse, Whinchat, Twite, Dunlin, Golden Plover, Curlew, Corncrake and Redshank. Additionally, it is noteworthy that Ireland’s breeding Corn Bunting became extinct after the Birds Directive came into force in Ireland. Compared to the previous Article 12 report (2013), the number of species that had significant data gaps has reduced but it will be challenging to increase our monitoring effort sufficiently for the next reporting phase (due 2025).
The key pressures impacting 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, climate change and Invasive Alien Species (IAS). 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.
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.
Generally the Irish mammalian fauna is considered to be in good status, however the underlying status of the natural habitats on which these species rely is a concern. The pressures on our protected species can sometimes be quite specific, such as physical barriers in rivers affecting fish movement. A wide range of species are reported to be negatively affected by agricultural activities and, to a lesser extent, by forestry. The absence of reliable population data for many species is an issue.
There is evidence that climate change is negatively impacting on coastal habitats, and is also likely to have some effect on Irish species. Ireland’s wintering waterbirds, for example, may be responding to climate change as many species are showing a north-easterly shift in their range across Europe.
Invasive alien species (IAS) are species that have become problematic after they have been introduced (deliberately or accidentally) to places where they do not occur naturally. They can have a negative impact on the economy, wildlife or habitats and are one of the top five causes of biodiversity loss across the globe. Many IAS, both plants and animals, are now well-established in Ireland and some of the different invasive species in Ireland present a significant threat to native species and to habitats and several, including rhododendron and zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha), have proven to be extremely difficult to eradicate. In general, once established IAS are extremely costly and difficult to eradicate. The pressures presented by land use activities and trends towards increased trade and human movement globally, and now potentially climate change, mean that the risk of new IAS arriving and becoming established may increase in coming years.
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 network of sites for habitat and species protection, the Natura 2000 network. A total of 430 SACs are legally protected in Ireland, although currently a little over 40% of these have yet to be formally designated by statutory instruments. To date, 150 of the 154 SPAs in Ireland are statutorily designated, although all share full protection under the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011.
However the European Commission has recently (June 2020) referred Ireland to the European Court of Justice over its failure to designate SACs with specific conservation objectives and corresponding conservation measures within the required timeframe under the EU Habitats Directive. In January 2019, the European Commission urged Ireland to protect our environment against alien species through implementation of the EU Regulation on Invasive Alien Species (Regulation no. 1143/2014) and to step up our implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive to protect our marine waters.
Ireland’s National Biodiversity Action Plan (2017-2021) includes a vision to conserve and restore biodiversity and ecosystems in Ireland, delivering essential benefits for all sectors of society and that Ireland contributes to efforts to halt the loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems in the EU and globally. The Prioritised Action Framework (PAF) 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. Consultation on the PAF took place across Government Departments in 2019 and public consultation took place from July to September 2020.
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)
The EU IAS Regulation (1143/2014) on the prevention and management of the introduction and spread of IAS came into force in the EU in 2015. This regulation seeks to protect native biodiversity and ecosystem services across the EU 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) maintains the National Invasive Species Database. 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 by the appropriate agencies.
Invasive alien species do not recognise jurisdictional boundaries and there are benefits to a coordinated and cooperative all-island approach for tackling IAS. Agreement has been reached by the principal Government Agencies and stakeholders to exchange information on invasive species, a process coordinated by the National Parks and Wildlife Service under the Invasive Alien Species Stakeholder Group. The National Biodiversity Data Centre also support an early detection notification system linked to the European Commission’s European Alien Species Information Network. The British-Irish Council (BIC) also provides a context to facilitate information sharing and discussion, particularly with respect to experiences with eradication and management measures in the different jurisdictions.
Invasive aquatic species are a particular problem, requiring cooperation between various agencies including Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI) and the cross-border organisations Waterways Ireland and the Loughs Agency. IFI has been proactive in providing training to staff and also hosted an international conference on the subject in 2013. The National Botanic Gardens have considerable data and expertise to support these activities. The Office of Public Works manages invasive plants where water-based works it undertakes may cause further dispersal. Their recent expenditure in this area has predominantly been directed at the control of Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam, the two most common riparian invasive plant species encountered during arterial drainage maintenance operations. Under the EU IAS Regulation (1143/2014), the National Biodiversity Data Centre are coordinating developing of pathway actions plans aimed at reducing the risk of introduction and spread of invasive species through recreational water sport activities.
Japanese knotweed and other invasive plants are also the target of the Invasive Alien Plants Project which commenced in 2014. This joint initiative between Transport Infrastructure Ireland and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is a 5.5 million Euro project aimed at eradicating invasive knotweed and other invasive plant species on the national road network and where they intersect with regional roads. It facilitates local authorities drawing down on the funds through a framework of competitive tendering for call-off contracts for the on-site control work.
The EU Regulation has also catalysed local action to combat IAS which has included the preparation of the first IAS Action Plan by Dublin City Council (2016-2020) and the development of local Community Action Groups such as Upper Achill, County Mayo which has been working to eradicate Giant Rhubarb and Japanese Knotweed since 2016.
Under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EC) environmental targets, monitoring programs and measures are being set with the overall aim that non-indigenous species introduced by human activities are at levels that do not adversely alter the ecosystems.
The core provisions of the EU Regulation (1143/2014) are in effect in Ireland. These deal with, among other things, bringing into the territory of the Union, keeping, breeding, transporting and placing on the market, species included on the list of invasive alien species of Union concern (the ‘Union list’ which came into force on the 3rd August, 2016). However, legislation is being prepared here to deal with some remaining issues, such as penalties for breaches of the Regulation, which are a matter for each Member State. This legislation will be introduced early in 2021. More information on the EU IAS Regulation, including the text of the Regulation itself, can be found at: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/invasivealien/index_en.htm
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 EU 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.
A new LIFE project ‘Wild Atlantic Nature’, will run from 2020 to 2029. The project will target conservation of blanket bog across 24 of the 50 Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) designated for blanket bog in Ireland under the Habitats Directive. These SACs are part of the wider Natura 2000 network of sites. It is expected that 50% of the targeted areas of degraded peatland will show evidence of returning to Active blanket bog at the end of the nine-year project, with consequential improvement to water quality and on habitats for terrestrial species and birds and that improvement will continue after the lifetime of the project.
EPA Research Programme
Under the 2014-2020 EPA Research Programme, the EPA funds research in the Nature 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, awareness of 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:
- 81 projects have been funded (total commitment of c. €7.6m) (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
- 15 EPA Research Reports have been published in relation to Nature (Biodiversity & Natural Capital) (as of November 2020).
The EPA is a full member of BiodivERsA, which is a network of national and regional funding organisations promoting pan-European research on biodiversity, ecosystem services and nature-based solutions and offering innovative opportunities for the conservation and sustainable management of biodiversity (www.biodiversa.org).
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. A pilot project to map and assess ecosystems and their services in Ireland was undertaken in 2016 by the NPWS. This developed a national spatial framework for ecosystem services mapping and assessment which can be further developed and refined for regional and local assessments.
More recently the EPA funded the INCASE Project, which is a four-year research project running from 2019 to 2023 to develop a system for natural capital accounting for Ireland and which will build upon the pilot development by NPWS.
Pressures and threats to the environment arising from numerous sectors such as energy, transport and agriculture have potential to adversely impact biodiversity. Environmental degradation and pollution are significant pressures and threaten the conservation status of some species, especially those species that need good or excellent water quality to survive such as the remaining limited populations of the freshwater pearl mussel.
Climate change is predicted to further intensify some of the current pressures on our biodiversity. Predicted drier summers and frequent 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 may facilitate a range expansion in some invasive alien species. 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 conducted, in whole or in part, by members of the public. Citizen science is included in the EPA Strategic Plan 2016-2020 (EPA, 2016). The EPA's objective is to engage the public in the protection and improvement of the environment. The National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC) greatly enhances public awareness through its online biodiversity recording service and via an extensive programme of workshops which targets capacity building within the citizen science sector. The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan 2015-2020 is implemented by the NBDC and encourages citizens to get involved in undertaking actions for pollinators across Ireland. Its website outlines the actions sectors of the community can undertake to improve Ireland's environment for pollinators, including guidance for farmland, councils, communities, businesses, gardens, schools and faith communities. Citizens are also encouraged to get involved in identifying and recording our bumblebee populations under the Bumblebee Monitoring Scheme.
The NBDC also teamed up with the Centre for Environmental Data and Recording for Northern Ireland (CEDaR) and the EPA in an all-Ireland survey of Dragonflies and Damselflies 2019-2024. Volunteers are encouraged to record sightings and assess the state of the freshwater habitat that the dragonflies and damselflies live in. This information will be used to increase our knowledge of their distribution and provide bio-indicators of water quality and climate change.
Other biodiversity related citizen science initiatives include the Irish Peatland Conservation Council's annual 'Hope to it National Frog Survey' where people are asked to submit records of frog spawn, tadpole or frog surveys, including information on their habitats and any potential threats noted. BirdWatch Ireland offers a number of ways for people to get involved in protecting birds and biodiversity including the annual 'Irish Garden Bird Survey', while Bat Conservation Ireland runs various bat monitoring schemes and surveys with the help of hundreds of volunteers each year. Stimulating community involvement requires considerable effort and takes time. Sustaining public engagement can prove challenging for such initiatives.
The Community Foundation Ireland have initiated a Biodiversity Fund that links ecologists with local communities to draw up local Biodiversity Plans. 51 Plans have been funded.
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, 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.