Nature

The terms “nature” and “biodiversity” are interchangeable. Human beings are an intrinsic part of biodiversity and interact with it on a daily basis. Our activities change and shape the landscape in which we live. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defines ‘biological diversity’ or biodiversity as the variability among living organisms from all sources including, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems. Biodiversity underpins our economy, health and wellbeing and plays a key role in the functioning of ecosystems, their resilience and their continuing ability to provide ecosystem services.  Ireland has international and legal obligations to protect biodiversity. 

Current trends

The NPWS will report the current status and trends of our habitats and species later in 2019.  The last assessment was in 2013.

Habitats

Our aquatic systems and wetlands support internationally significant populations of birds, fish and invertebrates. Ireland is also relatively rich in bryophytes, algae, lichens and non-marine molluscs. EU Member States are required to monitor habitats and species that are considered threatened across Europe and are listed in the Habitats Directive. The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) reported in 2013  that only 9% of the habitats considered threatened and protected under the Habitats Directive are in favourable status. The Habitats of most pressing concern in Ireland are those that have reduced range and/or area, notably raised bogs and species-rich grasslands.  

Species

Levels of many species are reported to be stable, but a number of key or iconic species are declining. One of the species of greatest concern is the pollution-sensitive freshwater pearl mussel, as only a few rivers have populations with even near adequate recruitment of younger generations.
Red Lists identify species in most need of conservation interventions. According to the latest Red List on Irish Macro-moths, 43 species are assessed as threatened to some degree (i.e., vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered), which represents 8% of the current Irish list. Fourteen species are considered to have become regionally extinct.  The NPWS have reported in 2013 that 52% of the species considered threatened and protected under the Habitats Directive are in favourable status.

Since 2016, two new Red List assessments were undertaken in Ireland, namely vascular plants (higher plants) and cartilaginous fish (including sharks & their relatives).  The higher plants were the first group for which an Irish Red List assessment was undertaken in the late 1980s (Curtis & McGough, 1988).  The 2016 update assessed 1,211 taxa (Jackson et al, 2016).  Of these:-

  • 20 are critically endangered
  • 25 are endangered
  • 61 are vulnerable
  • 15 taxa are regionally extinct
  • 98 are near threatened
  • 887 are least concert

The remaining 105 taxa are assigned to a waiting list of taxa for which assessments could not be made.  Cartilaginous fish are a group of fish that include sharks and similar species.  Of the 58 species that were examined

  • six were assessed as Critically Endangered (including the Angel Shark; Squatina squatina)
  • five species were assessed as Endangered (including the Basking Shark, Cetorhinus maximus)
  • six species were assessed as vulnerable

Of the remaining species, 19 were assessed as Near Threatened and 22 species as least concern (Clarke et al, 2016).

Birds

The Bird Atlas (2007–2011) study of the population status of the birds of Ireland and Great Britain was published in 2013. Nearly all of the 300 species covered by the Atlas have experienced changes, such as range contractions or expansions, location shifts or subtle changes in abundance. Key findings for the island of Ireland are that, over the last 40 years, the breeding ranges of 47% of species have contracted, whereas 18% of species have expanded to new areas.

Two main “new” groups of concern highlighted are breeding waders and upland birds. Large range contractions are noted for the curlew, which has declined dramatically in recent years, and also lapwing, common sandpiper, golden plover, merlin, ring ouzel, snipe and teal.

In 2014, BirdWatch Ireland and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds collaborated in producing a revised Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland list. Of 185 birds that breed and/or winter in Ireland, 37 were placed on the Red List and 90 on the Amber List, based on conservation status. Red-Listed breeding species include the barn owl, corncrake, grey partridge, grey wagtail and red grouse. Red-Listed breeding and wintering species include the curlew, dunlin, golden plover and Bewick’s swan. Two birds of prey that have recently been reintroduced, the white-tailed eagle and the golden eagle are both Red-Listed.

Cause

The key pressures on Ireland’s habitats and species include direct habitat damage from peat cutting, wetland drainage/reclamation, over- and under-grazing, water pollution, unsustainable exploitation (e.g. over-fishing), recreational pressures, climate change and invasive alien species (IAS) - introduced species that have a negative impact on ecosystems and the economy. An example of an indirect pressure is human population growth, the effects of which are exacerbated by limited public awareness of biodiversity and its benefits and economic value to society.

The continuing deterioration of high quality rivers is of great concern, particularly as species such as salmon, trout and the declining freshwater pearl mussel require and depend on high quality water and river habitat.

Climate Change

There is evidence that climate change is negatively impacting on coastal habitats, and is also likely to have some effect on Irish species. It is expected that climate change may alter some of Ireland’s habitats and the distribution of some species into the future.

What's being done

Legislation

Ireland has international and legal obligations to protect biodiversity. Implementation of the EU Habitats and Birds Directives has resulted in the creation of a comprehensive network of sites for habitat and species protection, the Natura 2000 network. Steps required to legally protect Ireland’s terrestrial network of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) under the Habitats Directive and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under the Birds Directive are largely complete.

In addition to existing rulings by the Court of Justice of the EU against Ireland on the slow progress being made in site designation, the European Commission has highlighted Ireland's lack of the required conservation measures for these protected areas.  In January 2019, the European Commission urged Ireland to protect our environment against alien species through implementation of the EU Regulation on Invasive Alience Species (Regulation no. 1143/2014) and to step up our implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive to protect our marine waters.

The Birds Directive requires Member States to report on aspects of the status of all regularly occurring bird species in the Member States’ territories. Ireland reported to the EU on trends in bird populations in 2013 and an update is due later in 2019. 

Biodiversity Planning

Implementation of the EU Habitats and Birds Directives has resulted in the creation of a comprehensive network of sites for habitat and species protection, the Natura 2000 network.  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. The PAF will be reviewed in 2019.

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 (IAS)

Regulations on the prevention and management of the introduction and spread of IAS came into force in the EU in 2015. These regulations seek to protect native biodiversity and ecosystem services 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) has developed an online invasive species database and an early warning system. 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. There is also a need for a co-ordinated and centralised all-island approach for tackling IAS to be re-established.

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 EC 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.

Research and Funding

Under the 2014-2020 EPA Research Programme, the EPA funds research in the Nature area under its Sustainability Pillar Theme Natural Capital and Ecosystem services including soils and biodiversity.

Natural capital refers to the elements of nature that produce value directly and indirectly to people, such as the stock of forests, rivers, land, minerals and oceans. It includes the living aspects of nature, such as fish stocks, as well as the non-living aspects such as minerals and energy resources.

Natural capital provides a huge range of benefits to us. These benefits, frequently referred to as ecosystem services, include the provision of food, materials, clean water, clean air, climate regulation, flood prevention, pollination, recreation and wellbeing. Since the flow of services from ecosystems requires that they function as whole systems, the structure and diversity of ecosystems are important components of natural capital. In this regard biodiversity, soil composition, land cover and land use are important elements to consider.

We continue to seriously degrade our natural capital, undermining our resilience to environmental shocks and jeopardising our sustainability. Sustainable management of natural capital is therefore required to protect and enhance the services we derive from it. This will require an integrated and cross-sectoral approach embedding ecosystem approaches such as natural capital, ecosystem services and green infrastructure into policy and practice.

Over the period 2014-2020, the core areas of research are within the following three areas:

  1. Evaluation/Assessment of our Natural Capital;Managing,
  2. Protecting & Restoring our Natural Capital; and
  3. Governance & Behavioural Changes.

Details of the latest EPA Funding Research Opportunities and Awards are available from here.

Since 2014:

  • More than 70 projects have been funded (total commitment of c. €6.1m) in the area of Natural Capital and Ecosystem services including soils and biodiversity. For more details regarding the EPA-funded projects, please go to our Public Searchable Projects Database (as of June 2019)
  • 8 EPA Research Reports have been published in relation to Nature (Biodiversity & Natural Capital) (as of June 2019).

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).

Mapping Ecosystem Services

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. The NCA process is underway in Ireland through the Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystem Services (MAES) project, commissioned by the NPWS, which aims to map a suite of prioritised ecosystem services based on available data. This project will contribute towards the production of an Ecosystem Services map.

Outlook

Pressures and threats to the environment arising from the energy, transport and agriculture sectors have potential to adversely impact biodiversity. Agricultural practices have a high impact on protected species that occur within agricultural systems, e.g. the Vertigo species of snail and the marsh fritillary butterfly. Pollution is considered a significant pressure and threat to the conservation status of some species, especially those species that need good or excellent quality water to survive such as the remaining limited populations of the freshwater pearl mussel.

Climate Change

Climate change is intensifying and the current underlying issues will persist. Predicted drier summers and higher levels of more intense rainfall are likely to result in bog bursts and landslides which may indirectly impact other habitats such as lakes. The predicted increases in sea-levels will affect coastal habitats and associated biodiversity. Species and habitat ranges may expand and contract in reaction to pressures from climate change. Such changes will facilitate a range expansion in some invasive alien species, for example. The impacts of climate change and the continuing threat of invasive alien species are areas that need to be constantly monitored and guarded against, where possible. 

Citizen Science

Citizen science is the involvement of volunteers in scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by members of the public.  Citizen science is included in the EPA Strategic Plan 2016-2020 (EPA, 2016).  The EPA's objective is to engage the public in the protection and improvement of the environment.  The National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC) greatly enhances public awareness through its online biodiversity recording service and via an extensive programme of workshops which targets capacity building within the citizen science sector.  The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan 2015-2020 is implemented by the NBDC and encourages citizens to get involved in undertaking actions for pollinators across Ireland.  Its website outlines clearly the actions sectors of the community can undertake to improve Ireland's environment for pollinators, including guidance for farmland, councils, communities, businesses, gardens, schools and faith communities.  Citizens are also encouraged to get involved in identifying and recording our bumblebee populations under the Bumblebee Monitoring Scheme.

The NBDC also teamed up with the Centre for Environmental Data and Recording for Northern Ireland (CEDaR) and the EPA in an all-Ireland survey of Dragonflies and Damselflies 2019-2024.  Volunteers are encouraged to record sightings and assess the state of the freshwater habitat that the dragonflies and damselflies live in.  This information will be used to increase our knowledge of their distribution and provide bio-indicators of water quality and climate change.

Other biodiversity related citizen science initiatives include the Irish Peatland Conservation Council's annual 'Hope to it National Frog Survey' where people are asked to submit records of frog spawn, tadpole or frog surveys, including information on their habitats and any potential threats noted.  BirdWatch Ireland offers a number of ways for people to get involved in protecting birds and biodiversity including the annual 'Irish Garden Bird Survey', while Bat Conservation Ireland runs various bat monitoring schemes and surveys with the help of hundreds of volunteers each year.  Stimulating community involvement requires considerable effort and takes time.  Sustaining public engagement can prove challenging for such initiatives.

Future Challenges

There is a real need to increase efforts at all levels to bring biodiversity into the mainstream using measures such as Biodiversity Action Plans, thorough environmental assessments and the ecosystem approach/natural capital accounting (NCA), where appropriate, in the development of our policies, plans and strategies. This will ensure that evidence-based decisions are made and unforeseen negative consequences for biodiversity are mitigated and avoided, where possible. Ongoing collaborative efforts to increase public awareness of biodiversity must be continued and augmented. Public awareness and appreciation of biodiversity and its intrinsic link to everyday life is vital if measures to protect our environment are to succeed.