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 growth

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.