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.

The CORINE (Co-ORdinated INformation on the Environment) data series was established by the European Community (EC) as a means of compiling geo-spatial land cover and environmental information in a standardised and comparable manner across Europe. The first data series covered 1990 with subsequent releases covering the years 2000, 2006, 2012 and 2018. CORINE has become a key data source for informing environmental and planning policy on a national and European level. CORINE is co-ordinated and part-financed by the European Environment Agency under the Copernicus land monitoring programme. On a national level in Ireland, the Environmental Protection Agency has been co-ordinating the CORINE project since 2000. The latest update of the CORINE landcover inventory - CORINE 2018 - is now available for Ireland on the EPAMaps page of the website under the section on Land and Soil -  https://gis.epa.ie/EPAMaps/

The most recent assessment (CORINE 2018) shows that agriculture is the primary Land Use Land Cover (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 compared to the CORINE results due to the scale of assessment/resolution/other in-situ data sources etc. used in preparing the different data sets.

The Ordnance Survey of Ireland and the EPA are working on developing a high-resolution map of Ireland to be completed in 2021. Based on high resolution aerial images and the integration of sectoral data the map will allow for a much more consistent picture of national land cover. The EPA is also developing a national land use map for Land Use Land Use Change & Forestry (LULUCF), to be used in reporting under the LULUCF Regulations (Regulation (EU) 841/2018) and the National Inventory Report that covers climate emission reporting.

Agriculture

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 (CAP) insist that increases in production must be achieved in a sustainable manner. The Department of Agriculture Food and Marine are currently preparing the Agri Food Strategy 2030 to replace Food Wise 2025.

 

Peatlands

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).

Recent progress report findings from the National Peatlands Strategy for 2018 and 2019 (Action 12) indicate that 1,500 hectares of Bord Na Móna lands, that are no longer used for peat production but are suitable for woodland establishment, have been identified. The focus is on planting of native tree species. This is being carried out in association with Coillte.

 

Forestry

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 have removed (sequestered) an average of 4.3 Mt of Carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2 eq.) per year from the atmosphere over the period 2007 to 2017 (DAFM – Annual Forestry Statistics Report for 2020) 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.

 

Soil

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.