Significant progress has been made in the designation of protected areas. However, many aspects of biodiversity in Ireland remain under considerable threat from unsustainable activities.
Ireland has a wide diversity of habitats for its small size including 16 priority habitats as designated under the EU Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC). Habitats of particular significance because of their scarcity in both Ireland and the rest of Europe include limestone pavements, turloughs, active peatlands, species rich grasslands and intact dune and machair systems.
Ireland has unique juxtapositions of Mediterranean species with species of colder climates. It also holds important numbers of bird species that are in decline or rare elsewhere and is an important destination for many migratory birds of international significance. Irish marine waters are amongst Europe’s richest for cetaceans, and the west coast maerl beds are of particular note, supporting a diverse array of associated fauna.
Ireland’s aquatic systems and wetlands support internationally significant populations of threatened species such as the Atlantic salmon Salmo salar, white-clawed crayfish Austropotamobius pallipes, freshwater pearl mussel Margaritifera margaritifera, and marsh fritillary butterfly Euphydras aurinia. Ireland is also particularly rich in bryophytes, lichens and algae and supports internationally important populations of non-marine molluscs and water beetles.
Biodiversity provides a wide range of ecosystem services including: food; fuel; fibre; medicines; regulation of water, air and climate; pollination; soil formation and retention; nutrient and carbon cycling; and natural hazards mitigation.
State and Impacts
The majority of Ireland’s most important habitats are reported to be of poor or bad conservation status, including raised and blanket bogs, dune systems, oligotrophic lakes, fens and mires, natural grasslands and woodlands.
Many protected species have a favourable conservation status but certain species, particularly of wetland and freshwater environments, such as the Atlantic salmon and freshwater pearl mussel are reported to be of bad conservation status. Bats, cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and seals appear to be doing well and there has been good progress in providing the natterjack toad Epidalea calamita habitat in its core range although it remains in bad conservation status.
A recent Birdwatch Ireland assessment of the population status of Ireland’s birds indicates that of the 199 species assessed, 25 were placed on the red list (i.e. of most conservation concern). There is evidence that some species are still undergoing significant declines (e.g. kestrel and skylark) or have become extinct in Ireland (corn bunting).
However, there is also evidence that many of the more common breeding birds in Ireland have fared quite well over the last ten years and the populations of roseate tern Sterna dougallii and buzzard Buteo buteo have increased significantly. In addition, there is evidence that the great spotted woodpecker Dendrocopos major established itself in Ireland as a breeding species.
Recent red lists indicate that some 30 per cent of Irish bee species, over 15 per cent of Irish water beetle species and 30 per cent of non-marine molluscs are threatened. Ireland’s mammals are judged to be generally in good status. However, three species - Leisler's bat Nyctalus leisleri, otter Lutra lutra, and red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris are considered near threatened. In relation to Ireland’s marine environment, most commercially targeted fish stocks in Irish waters are overexploited and in decline.
Drivers & Pressures
Ireland has experienced nearly a century of predominantly exotic conifer afforestation, some 40 years of agricultural intensification and a decade of economic boom – all of which have put pressure on habitats and species. The key threats to Ireland’s important habitats and species have been identified as direct habitat damage; overgrazing and undergrazing; water pollution; unsustainable exploitation; invasive alien species; and recreational pressure.
A variety of factors are contributing to the decline of some of Ireland’s bird species including changes in farming practices, drainage and mink predation. Habitat loss, habitat change and habitat management are primary contributors to the decline of many non-marine mollusc species.
Habitat loss and subsequent isolation are contributing to the decline of some bee species but for many species little is known about their ecological requirements. The potential impact of climate change on biodiversity in Ireland also requires further study.
At EU level the Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC) and Birds Directive (2009/147/EC) create a comprehensive scheme of protection for wild species and habitats. The most important national legislation on nature conservation are the Wildlife Act, 1976, the Wildlife (Amendment) Acts, 2000-2010, and the EU (Natural Habitats) Regulations 1997-2011.
The majority of Ireland's habitats that are listed under the Habitats Directive are reported to be of poor or bad conservation status. Only 7 per cent of listed habitats are considered to be in a favourable state.
In Ireland, 39 per cent of species listed under the Habitats Directive are in a favourable state. These include bats, seals, certain cetaceans and plants. Other species, particularly of wetland and freshwater environments, are reported to be of poor or bad conservation status, including a number of species of fish (e.g. Atlantic salmon), molluscs (e.g. freshwater pearl mussel) and the natterjack toad.
Red lists aim at providing an objective assessment of species using the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN) categories and criteria. They identify those in most need of conservation interventions. The NPWS and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency co-ordinate red lists in Ireland. Recent red lists indicate that more than a third of Irish bee species and non-marine mollusc species are threatened. In addition, over 15 per cent of Irish water beetle species, butterfly species and dragonflies and damselflies are threatened.
Ireland has designated 424 Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) under the Habitats Directive and 132 Special Protection Areas (SPA) under the Birds Directive. There are a variety of different protected areas designated at national level. Under the Wildlife Act all bird species and some 60 other animal species are afforded protected status, as are 89 species of flora under the Flora Protection Order 1999.
In 2011, the EU adopted its 2020 Biodiversity Strategy (EC, 2011) following recognition that the EU had missed its 2010 target of halting biodiversity loss.
The National Biodiversity Plan 2011-2016, which is the main tool by which Ireland seeks to meet its commitments under the Rio Convention on Biological Diversity and the EU Biodiversity Strategy were recently published.
Action/threat response plans have been published for 18 species of high conservation concern and a conservation plan for cetaceans has also been published. There have been native species reintroductions of the golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos, red kite Milvus milvus and white-tailed eagle Haliaeetus albicilla.
The Agri-Environmental Options Scheme and the Natura 2000 Scheme, were launched in 2010. The objectives of the schemes are to promote biodiversity, especially in Natura 2000 sites, improve water quality and combat climate change. These schemes aim at building on the Rural Environment Protection Scheme, which had been the principal agri-environment since 1994 but which was closed to new entrants in July 2009.
The NPWS Farm Plan Scheme was launched in 2006 but curtailed in 2010. To date, 658 NPWS farm plans on Natura 2000 sites have been approved. NPWS farm plans include specifically targeted measures towards the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity.
The Single Farm Payment Scheme applies to all farmers and, through mandatory cross-compliance, requires farmers to maintain their land in "good agricultural and environmental condition" and to comply with 19 Statutory Management Requirements.
The Cessation of Turf Cutting Scheme provides compensation for turf cutters who obtain turf from areas that have been statutorily proposed for designation as an SAC or Natural Heritage Area. Other measures such as the Native Woodland Scheme, commercial Forestry Biodiversity Guidelines and broadleaf planting targets aim to promote biodiversity. There is an Invasive Species in Ireland project running since 2006. A National Biodiversity Data Centre was established in 2007.
A Biodiversity Forum of relevant stakeholders was established in 2006 under the auspices of Comhar – the National Sustainable Development Council – to contribute to the development of national strategies in support of biodiversity. A public awareness campaign – Notice Nature - was launched in 2007.
The National Platform for Biodiversity Research was re-established in 2009 to define national biodiversity research needs and improve the exchange of information between researchers and policy makers. The EPA has supported several large-scale research projects designed to inform biodiversity policy.
The European Commission has assessed the Irish SAC and SPA lists as incomplete. Ireland has made progress in the designation of Natura 2000 sites, and in the process of designating marine/coastal sites is due to be completed by 2014.
There are 630 proposed Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs), comprising 65,000 ha, which were published on a non-statutory basis in 1995 and currently receive limited protection. These and other sites of biodiversity significance may be designated as NHAs in the coming years.
Biodiversity Planning and Conservation
As part of the National Biodiversity Plan, local and public authorities and government departments are required to make local/sectoral biodiversity action plans. The EPA published its updated biodiversity action plan in May 2012. 26 local authority biodiversity action plans are complete or in the final stages of preparation.
Based on the bad conservation status of many important habitats and some species, considerable efforts and resources will be required to improve their status, both within and outside protected areas. Conservation of marine fisheries is a major priority that needs to be addressed urgently.
Nature in Ireland will need to be given space to adapt to climate change through appropriate landscape planning. Globally, climate change and biodiversity protection are inter-linked issues – one cannot be satisfactorily addressed without addressing the other.
Research findings on the economic and social benefits of biodiversity in Ireland indicate a marginal value of at least €2.6 billion per annum. Given the value of biodiversity to Ireland’s economy, its protection is not just an ethical concern but an economic imperative.
Eurobarometer results from 2007 and findings from a 2010 Heritage Council study on attitudes to biodiversity among the public indicate that much more needs to be done to communicate issues relating to biodiversity to a wider audience.