Ireland is famed worldwide for its rugged and seemingly untouched landscape.
Amid images of rainforest destruction, bleached coral reefs and plastic seas elsewhere, our country appears to outshine others as a natural haven. Yet, what’s below the surface isn’t always quite as idyllic. Do some digging and it becomes clear that we too have many habitats that are being pushed to their limits.
Evidence of this comes in a recent study published in Science, which highlights that one-third of protected land worldwide is “under intense human pressure”. From an Irish perspective, the researchers note that 81pc of the country’s protected land is subject to such strain, which includes pressure from urban centres, intensive agriculture, pasture lands, human population density, night-time lights, roads, railways and navigable waterways.
This corresponds with figures in the most recent report on ‘The Status of EU Protected Habitats and Species in Ireland’ (known as the Article 17 Report) compiled by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) in 2013. It showed that 91pc of the country’s EU protected habitats were in poor condition, with 50pc categorised as ‘inadequate’ and 41pc labelled ‘bad’. The next report is due out next year.
While there’s evident disparity between the figures, likely a result of the different measuring tools used, the stark conclusion formed by both is the same.
LAW OF THE LAND
To understand how we got here, it’s important to note the several categories of protected habitats in Ireland. The most significant at a European and national level are the Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs). SACs, which cover approximately 13,500 sq km of the country, are areas selected and designated under the EU Habitats Directive to protect unique habitats and species. They include raised and blanket bogs, sand dunes, heaths and woodlands, to name a few. SPAs, which comprise of over 570,000 hectares of marine and terrestrial habitats, were designated under the EU Birds Directive for the protection of endangered species of wild birds. At a national level, and subject to less regulations, are the National Heritage Areas (NHA) and predominantly state-owned Nature Reserves and National Parks.
There are several reasons why our protected habitats have been degraded despite such stringent legislative framework, according to Conor Linehan, head of environmental and planning law with William Fry.
“The Birds Directive came about in 1979 and the Habitats Directive in 1992, but we really only started to take them seriously around 1997,” he explains.
“That 20-year period in which we have been giving effect to the requirements of these laws – and it has taken a long time to get to grips with them – has coincided more or less with a period where there has been a drive to upgrade waste infrastructure, roads infrastructure, energy infrastructure and agriculture.”
The boost in tourism and Ireland’s widely dispersed population are other factors, according to Linehan.
A lack of resources for conservation is an additional reason why these areas are more protected by name than by nature, says senior ecologist at the National Biodiversity Data Centre, Dr Tomás Murray.
“If the laws were fully implemented, everything would be fine,” he explains. “At present, approximately 16.8pc of our landscape is designated for nature conservation. Under the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, that must be 17pc by 2020 so, on paper, we’re pretty close to the international target. Implementation for legislation on those lands is needed but the resources to support conservation objectives for these areas just isn’t there.”
When looking at these figures, it’s also important to note that not all degradation on protected land arises from local activity, says professor of zoology at Trinity College Dublin, Yvonne Buckley.
The main pressures to habitats are ecologically-unsuitable grazing levels, freshwater pollution, drainage and cutting of peatlands and wetlands, invasive species, forestry and recreational pressures. The habitats of most pressing concern are species-rich grasslands and bogs.
“In the range of peatland habitats and species-rich grasslands, agriculture intensification is a particular pressure,” says advocacy officer with An Taisce, Ian Lumley.
“Land reclamation, drainage, removal of habitats and replanting of those areas with monoculture rye grass for cattle grazing, this all puts increased pressure on these habitats.”
Lumley adds that these factors, coupled with the wider use of chemicals, fertilisers and pesticides are linked to a decline in butterfly, bee and ground-nesting bird species. To resolve these issues, he says, it’s vital that the conflict between governmental plans for environmental protection and agricultural intensification is addressed and that more “area-based strategies” are introduced.
“On one hand you have a plan to protect biodiversity and habitats, on the other you have the cattle herd increasing” he says, noting that the rise is due to current targets for agricultural intensification.
Murray says that while farming can lead to habitat degradation, it can also be the solution to it, provided that farmers are supported. He says there’s a need for “effective agri-environment schemes” which support small-scale farmers to farm sustainably while at the same time, provide incentives for those who farm intensively to leave land to nature.
“In many places east of the Shannon, we have rich agricultural systems that cover large areas of our landscape. It always will be more profitable for farmers there to farm than not farm, so in this case, it isn’t about more sustainable agricultural practices, we need to pay them not to farm. It is this land sharing versus land sparing debate.” Indeed, agriculture is not the only driver of habitat decline. In fact, completely abandoning agricultural land can have negative consequences, notes Buckley from TCD.
“The Burren is the best example where, if traditional ways of farming are dropped because it’s no longer economically-viable, you will get an invasion of hazel into very diverse wildflower meadows. If you have wall-to-wall hazel, it’s not great for biodiversity.”
While our raised and blanket bogs – assessed as ‘bad’ and ‘declining’ in the previous Article 17 report – have been affected by agriculture, and-use, peat-extraction has been a key driver in their decline.
“Some of our peat bogs are very precious in terms of biodiversity so we should be protecting them. But there’s often conflict between people who want to use them for fuel and those who look at conserving them. Conflict can lead to delays in management and even lack of management,” says Buckley.
Meanwhile, the forestry industry and our growing list off invasive species such as Japanese knotweed are also doing damage to our habitats.When it comes to the status of marine habitats, the waters are a little murky. Under the EU’s Marine Strategy Framework directive, Ireland has committed to establishing a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) across 10pc of our seas and coastlines by 2020 but to date, only 2.3pc has been designated, one of the lowest percentages in the EU. In light of this, a motion calling on the Government to act on these agreements was recently introduced and subsequently passed in the Seanad.”Ireland is emerging as being particularly behind on marine protection. Because we haven’t designated protected marine areas yet, we don’t have reporting on areas showing how well or badly we are faring,” says Lumley from An Taisce.
Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom for our habitats.
Buckley notes some positive sustainable agriculture initiatives, such as the BurrenLIFE and AranLIFE projects, which fund sustainable agricultural management of the priority habitats in The Burren and Aran Islands respectively.
She adds that citizen science initiatives, including bee and butterfly monitoring schemes launched by the National Biodiversity Data Centre, have proven beneficial as they help to increase the public’s appreciation of the natural world.
Additionally, there has been some movement in the area of bog protection and restoration. Lodge Bog in Kildare is one example of a good news story.
“Lodge Bog was given to the Irish Peat Conservation Council in the early 2000s by Bord na Móna. It had been drained but not cut over yet,” says natural environment officer with An Taisce, Elaine McGoff. “Since then, they have blocked all the grounds, used corrugated plastic and put in drains which allowed the water to rise again.
“Because they acted on it as quickly as possible, there are areas of actively growing bog now.”
Now designated as a nature reserve, Lodge Bog has a rich diversity of wildlife with over 388 plants, birds and animals calling it home, including the iconic and endangered curlew.
The Abbeyleix Bog Project is another one of a selection of projects helping with bog protection and recovery, notes McGoff. Another notable step up came in 2015, when €5.4m in EU funding was granted for the restoration of Active Raised Bog in Ireland’s SAC network. This work will continue until 2020.
On another note, Linehan from William Fry says that recent years have seen an improved understanding of our requirements under the Habitats and Birds Directive by planning bodies,.
It’s clear that human activity in many forms is behind much of the decline of our protected habitats. Rather than abandoning these activities altogether, Buckley from TCD says creating a diverse landscape that melds pockets of these activities with untouched habitats is the way forward. Another way of helping our habitats is by introducing public payments for ecosystem services.
“These areas provide people with clean water, water filtration, beauty, clean air, and health benefits,” she says. “If we want those benefits, we do need to pay for them, either through taxes or direct payments.”
Directly engaging the public in nature is another step forward that we can make, says Murray from the National Biodiversity Data Centre, who says that environmental education should not just be focused on those of school age.
“There has to be a much broader education resource that can get people outside to teach people about Irish wildlife and encourage them to become interested.”
Engagement will also lead people to consider environmental issues when voting, continues Murray, who says that overall, nature conservation is not a priority for the Irish voting public. Finally, he suggests expanding or adding to our existing nature reserves.
Along with the aforementioned government actions, Lumley also suggests some practical actions that can be taken by members of the public. These include joining local conservation groups and Tidy Towns initiatives, making your garden wildlife-friendly by reducing chemical usage and moving towards a more plant-based diet.
However, more resources for environmental protection are what’s truly needed.
“All of this is futile unless we take the protection of nature seriously and we resource that protection more effectively, both legally and financially, as well as equally,” says Lumley.
Murray agrees, saying that our environmental problems are not due to lack of knowledge, but a lack of resources.
“For me, there’s little you can do without resources for conservation in Ireland,” echoes Buckley.
‘No one is leading farmers on this’
With the right knowledge and resources, Donal Sheehan believes farmers can serve as friends of the environment.
Driven by his passion for nature, the Cork-based dairy farmer has incorporated various measures such as bird feeders, rainwater harvesting systems and pollinator corridors into his farming practice.
Sheehan notes that a lack of both knowledge and financial incentives can serve as barriers to some farmers who want to move to more sustainable practices.
“There is a huge appetite from farmers. They want to do it, but there’s no one leading them,” says Sheehan, who is based in Castlelyons.
One way he hopes to tackle this issue is through locally-led projects. Sheehan is currently the project manager of the BRIDE (Biodiversity Regeneration In a Dairying Environment) project in the Bride Valley in east Cork.
This project – which was selected by the Department of Agriculture and the EU under the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) funding programme – rewards farmers who protect important wildlife habitats on their farmland, such as hedgerows, bogs, woodland and ponds.
Over a five-year period, the wildlife on these farms will be assessed and farmers will be rewarded on a unique results-based payment system, i.e. one that sees higher payments for higher wildlife gains.
The project, which is one of our first to focus on intensive farmland, was designed by local farmers for local farmers.
“This is for habitats, species and people in the Bride valley. If farmers can focus on their own immediate area, you will get better buy-in from others as it’s local and people will feel the effects locally,” he says, adding that much of the farmland by the Bride riverbank is an SAC (Special Area of Conservation).
“This is one way we can solve the many environmental issues.”
(First published in the Irish Independent Review on July 15 2018. Available online at: https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/what-lies-beneath-protected-habitats-under-pressure-37112290.html)