An Taisce was founded in 1948 as a membership-based charity affiliated to the International Organisation of National Trusts. In common with the National Trust, we hold properties, mainly areas of wildlife reserve. We were pioneers in the protection of bogs and taking areas of bogland into conservation in the 1970s. An Taisce is very widely known for its involvement in schools and education projects, including a new project in County Limerick which is pioneering learning about forests. We have an active role as an advocate for sustainable development, climate action and protection of nature through our consultee role in the planning process for agriculture and forestry, and in public advocacy and public debate generally.
We live in a time of global species loss and we have an obligation, which is not just ethical and moral but which comes under the UN Biodiversity Convention, to protect marine, terrestrial and other species. We have a reporting system in Ireland for the state of our habitats through the EU habitats directive's Article 17 reporting process. That takes place every six years, most recently in 2013. These are habitats which are rated as being of international importance. Of the 59 habitat evaluations, only five had favourable status. Thirty were inadequate and 24 were bad. The bad status habitats were concentrated in raised and blanket bogs, heathland areas and species-rich grasslands.
Of the 61 species overall assessments, only half were favourable. Looking at individual species and bird species in particular, there are currently threats to key bird species such as the hen harrier and the curlew and there is a continued decline in red grouse numbers. Looking at the marine environment, European fisheries data for northern Atlantic European waters suggest that 40% of fish species are being overfished beyond their safe population maintenance values. Along our inner and coastal waters, there is damaging scallop and razor clam dredging, problematic agricultural impacts which are not being properly addressed and new impacts such as mechanical kelp harvesting in Bantry Bay.
Although we have signed up to nature conservation policies and legal objectives at UN and European level, we are pursuing policies at national level which are in direct conflict with these actions through agricultural intensification. The environmental non-governmental organisations have collectively published a document entitled Not So Green, which raises issues with the targets which were adopted in Food Wise 2025 and how they conflict with water and nitrates standards. Recent data show a mounting problem with nitrates. The document also addresses the decline of ten key farmbird species, the extinction threat facing one third of bee species and issues around species-rich grasslands. This year the deliberate burning of land was highlighted, which was so serious in Gougane Barra in Cork and in the Cloosh Valley in Galway. We have a forestry incentive scheme which has not been subject to proper environmental and cumulative assessment as required by the habitats directive. That is exacerbating the pressure on species-rich grassland and on the hen harrier.
We have the Irish Sea, which is now being described as an ecological wreck, and we have inadequate resources to respond to this with the required actions. The National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, is inadequately resourced and successive national biodiversity action plans are weak in their scope and impact and have no real effective targets. There is no action to address the status of proposed natural heritage areas, which continue to operate with a legal limbo status. We have a national peat land strategy which is entirely ineffective because it does not address the continued decline of blanket bogs and heath areas. We have only now, because of legal action by the European Commission, faced up to the conservation of the remaining 1% of raised bogs with a conservation plan and turf-cutting scheme now in place.
The answer for this is that we must have a new vision for nature. An Taisce plays a major part in this because the key is public engagement. There is a very important concept that is now internationally understood and recognised, which is not just to consider the intrinsic value of nature - that must be paramount - but also what is defined as the concept of "ecosystems services". That should not sound too technical. It is simply the services that nature provides to maintain clean water, soil quality, fish stocks and pollination. As we face increasing climate change risk, natural services and natural functions, the restoration of river flood plains, wet woodlands, wetlands and peatlands have a major function in slowing down penetration of rainwater flows down river valleys causing flooding.
The NPWS needs to be adequately resourced with timetabled and targeted plans. We need to not just tinker with the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, but to completely reconstitute the CAP and the entire agricultural subsidy system to ensure that nature comes first. Biodiversity enhancement should be the central objective of all Government Departments and agencies, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Forest Service and Teagasc, with the reconstitution of the legal remit of those targets and agencies. Instead of the scatter-gun approach to rural environmental protection, which has not worked - including the successive rural environment protection schemes, REPS, agri-environment options schemes, AEOS, and other schemes - we need to look at models which the Heritage Council has already mentioned, such as the Burren life scheme, for area based high-nature value farming initiatives which could be combined, where ecologically appropriate, with historic native woodland restoration. We need to work on the great tradition of co-operative structures that we had in Ireland that were developed in the early 20th century, and these would have multiple benefits, not just to those communities, but in carbon soil management, flood attenuation, recreational amenity and tourism development.
We must completely rethink our relationship with the marine environment, which has been a story of continuous decline of one stock of fish species, only to move on to another when the first is exhausted or overstretched. There is a legal mechanism under the marine strategy framework directive to give better protection to marine life and habitats through the designation of marine protected areas. It has been shown that these designations, for instance for areas restricting fishing, allow fish populations to recover with greater benefit in surrounding areas as well as protected areas.
We need to have a meaningful peatland strategy which would endorse and activate the recommendations contained in the EPA bogland report for 2011, which are science-based and target-based. We need to adopt river flood management strategies which are based on working within actual systems and to ensure that our actions in taking climate mitigation - including alternative energy interventions in wind, solar and biomass - do not conflict with biodiversity. We need more effective action plans for invasive species and, with Brexit, to ensure that cross-Border co-operation on nature protection, and particularly the cross-Border habitats, which are designated under EU directives, are not endangered.
I would like to conclude by quoting from Pope Francis' encyclical, Laudato Si', Praise To, which refers to our common home and gives a very strong message on the need to stabilise our climate and our common home, and to cherish each creature which has its own purpose, where none is superfluous. It states that we must go beyond individual and sectoral interest to look at multi-generational interest for the future as, and I quote, "the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us".