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 in 2012 shows that agriculture is the primary LULC type within Ireland (67.4% national land cover), followed by wetlands (15.6%) and forestry (9.4%). Sectoral land cover percentages prepared by Government Departments may vary due to the scale of assessment/resolution etc.
No single detailed integrated national baseline LULC dataset currently exists in Ireland. A national working group is developing a co-ordinated national mapping programme. This programme will be essential to monitor, report and assess the environmental impacts of different land cover and land uses. This is illustrated in the water environment, where LULC can, for example, influence susceptibility to flooding and its impact on water quality and water-related ecosystems.
Agriculture accounts for 67.4% of the national land cover. The main agricultural class is pasture (54.7% national land cover), followed by land principally occupied by agriculture (primarily pasture), which is interspersed with areas of natural vegetation (7%), and arable land (4.9%). The objectives of Food Harvest 2020 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. Peat soils cover 20.6% of Ireland’s land area. Near-intact peatlands may actively sequester, on average, 57,400 tonnes of carbon per year over the whole country.
The National Peatlands Strategy sets out how to sustainably manage and protect/conserve our national peatland resource. This strategy estimated that Irish peatlands store some 1,566 million tonnes of carbon, representing approximately 64% of the total soil organic carbon stock present in Ireland.
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 10.5% of the total land area. Despite this, Ireland still has one of the lowest afforestation levels in the EU. The national forest estate is an important carbon reservoir, amounting to 381 million tonnes of carbon in 2012, an increase from 348 million tonnes in 2006.
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.
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). Between 1990 and 2012, the amount of forestry increased (due to afforestation programmes) and wetland areas decreased by 3% (due to extraction in peatlands, agricultural drainage, etc.).
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 with the adoption of the Regional Planning Guidelines (2010‑2022). The benefits of a core strategy development approach through compact urban development and resource efficient approaches to the built-environment can provide opportunities to alleviate environmental pressures and enhance human wellbeing and also protect from the impacts of climate change.
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 5.1 million in 2031, 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. An EPA study in 2010 found that there is still a need for a national high-resolution (1–5 ha scale) land cover dataset to characterise and assess LULC adequately, as small areas of biodiversity, water bodies and rural/one-off housing are indiscernible at a 25 ha scale. 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.
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.
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.
The National Land Cover and Habitat Mapping Programme is considering developing detailed land cover maps that will be essential to assess the potential impacts on our landscape resource of land use planning.
National Peatlands Strategy
The National Peatlands Strategy sets out the actions required and partners responsible for its management and implementation. In 2015, Bord Na Móna (BNM), one of the strategy partners, announced its intention to cease peat harvesting activities by 2030 and focus on supplying renewable energy. It is also notable that between 2009 and 2014, BNM restored 1,136ha of drained raised bog. In 2016, BNM launched its Biodiversity Action Plan 2016‑21, which supports the ongoing restoration and management of peatlands.
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 is developing a toolbox for farmers to use to assess soil structural quality, soil functional capacity/quality and impacts of soil structural degradation on its functional capacity. This will be a useful management tool to minimise nitrogen and phosphorus losses.
River Catchment-based Flood Risk Assessment and Management
The flooding along parts of the Shannon catchment experienced in 2015 had severe impacts on local communities and business. This flooding has 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 currently aims to assess the existing flood risk of inland water courses and coastlines in Ireland and consider flood alleviation options. The programme is also considering 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.
The EPA research programme funds research that informs land and soil policy development and implementation, enforcement and sustainable use. The range of projects funded includes desk and medium-scale studies, scholarships and fellowships. A number of key significant soil and land use-related research projects have been undertaken including the LANDMARK Project: a pan-European project seeking to unearth pathways to sustainable land management; and the Irish Soils Information System Project.
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. By integrating the National Landscape Strategy (NLS) into land use planning, sustainable landscape management practices can be progressed. 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.
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.