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
The EU Invasive Alien Species (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: EU regulation on invasive alien species
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
EPA Research 2030 is a 10-year high-level research programming framework under which funding will be allocated under four interconnected research hubs. From 2021, nature-related research will be funded principally under the EPA Research 2030 Research Hub on:
• Protecting and Restoring our Natural Environment - Our natural environment provides us with clean air and water, food and the raw materials to sustain us and our economy. Research is required to inform and support a cross-sectoral approach to managing our natural environment and for the development of policies relating to the regulation of emissions and activities, and the protection of our water, land and ecosystems.
Previously, under its EPA Research Programme 2014-2020, the EPA funded research in the Nature area under its Sustainability Pillar Theme Natural Capital and Ecosystem services including soils and biodiversity.
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).
EPA-funded Research Projects
Since 2014, in this area, more than 80 research projects have been funded (total commitment of about €7.3m) (as of May 2021).
Examples of EPA-funded research projects include research on:
• Natural capital accounting; • Pollinators; • Ecosystem Services; • Peatlands; • Managing invasive alien plants in Ireland; and • Natural water retention measures.
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.