My Department is responsible for implementing the Wildlife Act, the primary legislation underpinning the protection of biodiversity and nature in Ireland. The Wildlife Act affords protection to a range of habitats and species and provides for regulation and control of activities that impinge on biodiversity, such as hunting and trade.
The legislative framework in place to protect biodiversity is further strengthened by the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011 SI No 477/2011, which also fall under the remit of my Department. These Regulations transpose the EU Birds Directive and the EU Habitats Directive into national law, and provide for protection of certain habitats and species across the European Union and give a framework for specific measures to be taken to target areas of concern in each Member State. The main instruments provided for are the designation of Special Protection Areas (SPA) aimed at the protection of threatened species of birds and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) aimed at protecting other animal species and habitats. There are currently 18 SAC sites and 6 SPA sites designated in County Offaly.
These include the Slieve Bloom Mountains Nature Reserve, Ireland’s largest state-owned Nature Reserve. It was established in 1985, so that it could be managed in such a way as to ensure the conservation of the mountain blanket bog ecosystem. In addition, the Nature Reserve is designated a Ramsar Wetland Site and a Council of Europe Biogenetic Reserve. Much of the greater upland area has been designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The primary interest of the SAC is mountain blanket bog.
The Slieve Bloom Mountains are also designated a Special Protection Area (SPA), of special conservation interest for the hen harrier, a rare bird of prey. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine are operating "the Hen Harrier Project" in 6 SPAs, including the Slieve Blooms, which aims to reward farmers for managing their land to favour the Hen Harrier.
Clara Bog in County Offaly is one of the best remaining examples of midland raised bog in Western Europe. The Clara Bog Nature Reserve Visitor Centre includes an interactive exhibition space and is open seasonally from May to October and admission is free to the public.
My Department is also responsible for developing and publishing Ireland's National Biodiversity Action Plan. The most recent Plan (Ireland's 3rd) was published in October 2017 and includes a number of actions aimed at assisting local authorities throughout the country in their efforts to protect and conserve biodiversity in their areas. Local authorities undertake much valuable work in this sphere and are an important element in the overall approach to halting biodiversity loss.
In support of the work carried out by local authorities, last February I announced at the National Biodiversity Conference a commitment in the coming years to double the funding my Department makes available for local Heritage and Biodiversity Officers to implement biodiversity actions at local level and to tackle invasive species. I am pleased that the pilot grant scheme, introduced in 2018, to assist local authority led biodiversity projects will be extended with increased funding in 2019.
In 2018, under this grant scheme, Offaly County Council received biodiversity funding of €13,600 from my Department for the conducting of Swift surveys; support for the All Ireland Pollinator Plan; Tidy Towns support; and conducting workshops in schools and preschools. They also received additional funding of €4,800 for the control of Himalayan Balsam, as part of a local invasive alien species project.
I look forward to local authorities, including Offaly County Council, using the funding available in 2019 in their areas to support locally led and targeted biodiversity projects, supporting the implementation of our National Biodiversity Action Plan and raising awareness of biodiversity generally. The allocation of these grants will be announced in the coming weeks.