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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 19 May 2022

Vol. 1022 No. 4

National Parks and Wildlife Service Strategic Plan: Statements

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak today on my strategic action plan for the renewal of the National Parks and Wildlife Service and to hear the contributions of Deputies from across the House on this vital subject. In 2019, Ireland became one of the first countries to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency. Many countries have since taken similar steps to acknowledge the systematic environmental, social and economic threats that humanity faces. Ireland is one of the only countries in the world to include biodiversity in its declaration. This deserves to be highlighted. The global biodiversity crisis and Ireland's national biodiversity emergency are equal in gravity to the climate crisis. While the two are deeply interconnected, they are also distinct and deserving of individual focus, not least because, like climate, biodiversity is an all-of-government issue that extends far beyond one Department or one ministerial portfolio.

I am proud that the programme for Government is one of the most ambitious for biodiversity in the history of the State. Chief among the commitments it made was to review the status, remit and funding of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS. The NPWS is currently a division of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage with approximately 400 staff and 32 offices across 19 counties. It is mandated with a wide range of functions and responsibilities, which I will outline. It holds significant policy-advisory and policy-making functions in respect of nature and biodiversity. It exercises a wide range of operational responsibilities, including the management and operation of six national parks, 78 nature reserves and a variety of other State lands accessible to the public. This includes managing tourism and visitor amenities and assets. It also manages a wide range of EU programmes, such as the €20 million LIFE programme to restore blanket bog in the north west, Wild Atlantic Nature, which I launched last week. This is alongside thousands of conservation measures across our national network of EU-designated sites.

The NPWS also has a broad scientific remit. It is the principal co-ordinator of the national biodiversity action plans, an action under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, as well as monitoring and reporting on designated sites. It exercises a statutory consultee role in a wide range of planning matters, including county and regional development plans. It also manages a range of regulatory and licensing functions, including the investigation and prosecution of wildlife crime. It administers grant schemes to support NPWS farm plans, delivery of conservation measures and actions for biodiversity at local level, as well as invasive species control measures.

This is an extensive range of responsibilities but, as the review of the National Parks and Wildlife Service pointed out, "the organisation is not fit for purpose and [is] not in a good position to deliver on its existing mandate". This is a damning assessment. When I was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for heritage, I knew my most important task would be to respond to the biodiversity crisis and to create a positive legacy for nature, and that the review of the National Parks and Wildlife Service would play a key role in achieving that. That objective was included in the programme for Government because of immense issues affecting nature in Ireland and the many voices calling for change. At the time, the NPWS had undergone a lost decade, with funding decimated following the financial crisis. Historical legacy issues such as EU infringement cases on both the birds and habitats directives could not be effectively addressed due to understaffing. There were not enough rangers to cover the country. There were deficits across all sections of the NPWS and morale was low.

Since then we have made significant progress, building on two budgets to restore funding to pre-2008 levels, at €47.3 million in the 2022 budget, and restoring staff numbers from boots on the ground to bolstering scientific expertise. I knew early in my tenure that it was important to see for myself the work that we do for nature in our nature reserves and national parks, with farmers, with State agencies, among communities and on the international stage in meeting our EU and global biodiversity commitments. What I found over that time was a team of incredibly dedicated, resourceful and creative people across the organisation and, indeed, across the country who were getting on with the jobs of engaging the public and raising awareness, managing a vast network of trails and visitor amenities, out on the ground rewetting bogs, establishing native woodlands, protecting endangered species such as the curlew, corncrake and natterjack toad, working with farmers to implement farm plans, tackling wildlife crime, literally putting out fires across the country, gathering scientific data in the field, building impactful international partnerships and working collaboratively across the Government to deliver the strongest possible outcomes for nature across a range of policy areas. These people are just incredible.

From my travels over many months, I knew that I had to match their unwavering commitment to the cause of nature conservation with an equal commitment to resource and equip the NPWS and to give those who work within the organisation the confidence that their work is valued by, and valuable to, the Government and people of Ireland. Eighteen months later, what we have before us today is a strategic action plan, resourced and targeted, to renew the National Parks and Wildlife Service to become the respected voice for nature that Ireland needs. Before I outline the main components of the plan, I wish to express my heartfelt thanks to some people who brought us to this moment of hope for nature in Ireland.

First, I thank Professor Jane Stout and Dr. Micheál Ó Cinnéide, who began the process through the phase one review phase with a forensic analysis that incorporated over 3,000 submissions and interviews with NPWS staff, key stakeholders and the general public, alongside an international benchmarking study and an external assessment of the organisation. This expansive and painstaking piece of work concluded in October 2021 with a suite of recommendations that reflected the urgency of the biodiversity emergency and the fact that nature has never been higher on the political agenda. Their report states:

As a country, we need to remove systemic direct and indirect drivers of biodiversity loss, and accelerate the just implementation of conservation and restoration measures. This requires a process of reform, not only of the NPWS, the body responsible for the protection of many of Ireland’s habitats and species, but across government and throughout society.

The work of Professor Stout and Dr. Ó Cinnéide was massively important in underpinning the second phase of the process, the reflect phase, which was undertaken by the former Secretary General, Mr. Gerry Kearney. Mr. Kearney applied his considerable expertise and sharp insight to the challenge of NPWS renewal, with a focus on its internal governance, structures and systems. He travelled the length and breadth of the country meeting staff, a very useful exercise through which he saw what they do on the ground and how it all interacts with the organisation’s scientific, enforcement and policy work. It is an ecosystem of sorts, in and of itself. He acknowledged that although the NPWS was relatively small, it had “an extraordinarily complex range of responsibilities”, and went on to say that for any proposed solution to the challenges faced by the NPWS to be meaningful, it must take account of the diversity of its functions and the complexity of its interfaces. Mr. Kearney’s work was vital in consolidating the work of Professor Stout and Dr. Ó Cinnéide in the context of the additional resources and funding levels restored by this Government over the past two years, and resulted in phase three of the process, renew, which forms the basis of my strategic action plan.

I am deeply grateful to all three independent authors for their patience, tenacity and willingness to go above and beyond what was asked of them and to get into the heart of the matter and into the heart of the NPWS. I also thank all within the NPWS who engaged so positively and constructively throughout the engagement process. The publication of the reports and submissions is a validation of the time and expertise put in by them and by all from outside who have a foothold in, or care for, nature conservation and restoration in Ireland. Finally, I thank my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, for his support. I can say with certainty that in him we have a strong voice for nature at the Cabinet table, but also someone who has genuine interest in ensuring that Ireland plays a leading role in conservation and restoration internationally.

Cross-party support is vital if we are to address the systemic drivers of biodiversity loss and fast-track the process of ecological restoration. The Green Party cannot and should not be the only party taking this crisis seriously. The nature crisis is often described as "death by a thousand cuts". Each cut is a decision, and we need to make different ones, collectively, as a Government, as an Oireachtas, as a society and as a nation. We must put nature first. I believe that is what the public wants. The people are way ahead of us here. They know that we depend on the natural world.

I will now discuss the plan. My strategic action plan for the renewal of the National Parks and Wildlife Service comprises a suite of time-bound actions that will fundamentally transform the organisation and ensure it is fit for purpose. It will establish the NPWS as an executive agency within the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, with a dedicated senior management team and a distinct mission statement. It will deliver a full structural redesign, including the urgent recruitment of 60 additional staff to key posts. Critically, it will be properly resourced, with an additional €55 million in funding over the next three years. It will put us on a path towards a more robust, fit-for-purpose organisation that can meet both our national and international commitments for nature. It will deliver a NPWS that is more resilient, more stable and better resourced, with a stronger identity and better equipped to cope with change. It will have clearer core priorities and better direction of resources toward those priorities. It will ensure better communications, both internally and externally, and a much stronger focus on customer service and delivery for the public and the citizen.

Furthermore, it will strengthen Ireland’s ability to meet existing national and international commitments for nature and put us on the right path to deliver on the increased ambition coming down the tracks from the new national biodiversity action plan, the EU biodiversity strategy, the proposed EU nature restoration law and the new post-2020 global biodiversity framework that will have to be agreed later this year at COP15. There are immense challenges but also immense opportunities that have the potential to bring significant benefits to all corners of the country. My action plan will guide us through this process of change and bring us to a place where we can lead with confidence on nature restoration and conservation, on public engagement and enjoyment of nature and on the many areas of Government policy that interact with the natural world, and help us to turn the tide of biodiversity loss in Ireland.

Táim an-bhródúil as an bplean seo. Tá sé thar a bheith tábhachtach go gcuirfear béim iomlán air. Molaim an plean don Teach. I will give way to my colleague, a great advocate for biodiversity, Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan.

An bhfuil cóip de ráiteas an Aire Stáit ar fáil?

Níl sé ar fáil fós.

It is not available yet.

We will make it available.

I thank the Minister of State and I welcome the review and restructure of the NPWS. I welcome the €55 million worth of funding that will be put into the service and the announcement of 60 additional staff who will be recruited urgently. I want to thank the Minister of State for that because I know that since he has taken up his position he has put biodiversity front and centre and that is important on this National Biodiversity Week. It is not just this announcement of the review and restructure of the NPWS that was so badly needed; the Minister of State has been front and centre in ensuring that the Government and Cabinet, more than any other Government or Cabinet before, are starting to put biodiversity measures front and centre and in place. We have seen that recently with the establishment of the Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, which will be so important to advising and informing us of how we address loss in biodiversity. We have seen it with the budget allocation of €47 million that the Minister of State fought for in 2022. That is significant when it is considered that the allocation by the main Opposition party, Sinn Féin, in its alternative budget was a measly €5 million. In his first few months in office we saw the establishment of a dedicated wildlife crime investigation unit, which will be staffed with the recruitment of this extra staff, and we have seen a 300% increase in the local biodiversity action fund, which will make a huge difference on the ground, particularly with the Tidy Towns committees and their approach to how they look after their towns and villages.

We have seen the recent announcements that legislation is being brought forward to give basking sharks protected species status. There is a range and list of measures that the Government has put in place that make me confident that we will see a turning of the tide of biodiversity loss. As the Minister of State well knows and as he alluded to, we cannot sit on our hands and rest on our laurels with those successes and the measures we have put in place. There is so much more to do. For example, we have seen the success of some targeted conservation measures, and the Minister of State has been touring the country to see some of them. We have seen the Corncrake LIFE project, which has seen the number of corncrakes in Ireland bounce back and go up, which is a success. We have seen the Hen Harrier project. The hen harrier was on the brink of extinction in Ireland but with the co-operation of farmers, we have introduced a results-based payment for them, we have seen hen harrier numbers start to increase for the first time. These targeted measures work but we need more of them and we need more widespread targeted measures for more species so that we can see more species have better outcomes. The Minister of State mentioned the curlew and there are other wading birds like the redshank and the kestrel, a bird of prey the numbers of which are decreasing rapidly. We also have seabirds that are under severe pressure, including the puffin and the kittiwake. We need targeted measures to ensure these species survive and bounce back.

Then there are those species that are quietly disappearing from our countryside, including farmland birds like the yellowhammer, which we do not hear much about. We hear about the curlew and the corncrake but birds like the yellowhammer will meet the same fate as a similar farm bird, the corn bunting, which is now extinct as a breeding species in Ireland. We need to once again roll out those targeted measures across the board. It is not just targeted measures that will work. The overall approach and strategy have to be right as well and that is where the upcoming agri-environment scheme, which is due to commence in 2023, will have to play an important role. I know it is a priority for the Minister of State but I ask him to also liaise with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to ensure that, similar to those targeted measures I spoke about earlier, this is results-based and has proper outcomes for wildlife across Ireland. Farmers should be rewarded and paid for putting wetland on their farm holdings or for planting trees and hedgerows so that we see better outcomes for wildlife, which is so important.

We also need to see the roll-out of those marine protected areas, MPAs. That would not only benefit those seabirds that I spoke about earlier but it would also benefit the incredible cetaceans, including whales and dolphins, that we are lucky enough to get in Ireland. As I have consistently said, Ireland is a world-class location for whale watching but we need to ensure that those whales and dolphins keep coming to our coast to feed and the only way we can do that is by protecting fish stocks and by allocating and setting up those marine protected areas. That is vitally important. I must mention the National Biodiversity Data Centre and that must see an increase in its funding, remit and resources so that it can collect data. Data are key to protecting wildlife in Ireland.

I will return to the NPWS and the announcement of the €55 million investment and the 60 extra staff, which is so important. That will allow this organisation to restructure itself and to do what it needs to be doing, namely, reacting to wildlife crime at a much faster pace and ensuring that there are prosecutions when it comes to same. It must react to the loss of habitat and ensure that it does not only react to the loss of habitat but is actively engaged and involved in setting up a nature reserve and in improving habitat and biodiversity right across Ireland. In order to do that it needs investment and recruitment but that is not all that is needed. Being an NPWS ranger, ecologist or scientist need to be valid career paths and that is something we need to get into our schools so that when students are meeting their career guidance counsellors and say they want to pursue a future in biodiversity or ecology, they are not just told to go away and do law or medicine but that they see it as a viable career path, which is important.

I want to thank the Minister of State again personally. I mention Clogheen Marsh, which is a marsh area near my home town of Clonakilty. The Minister of State has visited the marsh, which I am grateful for. About 20 years ago a group of birdwatchers had a dream of turning this marsh into a nature reserve. Time and again they were met with closed doors and obstacles and their efforts failed. I must thank the Minister of State personally for the fact that for the first time, they are starting to see progress. We have seen funding sanctioned by the Minister of State for a year-long biodiversity survey on the site to inform how we go about this and we have seen funding for a feasibility study for the establishment of a visitor centre. For the first time, this group of birdwatchers sees light at the end of the tunnel. We will have a world-class nature reserve at Clogheen Marsh near Clonakilty and I want to thank the Minister of State for that. Well done.