The conservation of habitats and species, through the designation of conservation areas, is required under Irish and European law. Natural and semi-natural habitats, such as those found in designated sites are natural carbon sinks, particularly peatlands. By protecting and restoring these habitats, their carbon sequestration potential is maintained and improved.
My Department is responsible for implementing the Wildlife Acts 1976 to 2018, which underpins the protection of biodiversity and nature in Ireland. The legislative framework in place to protect our natural heritage is further strengthened by the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011 SI No 477/2011, which also falls 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, giving 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 those species listed on Annex 1 to the Directive as well as regulatory occurring migratory birds, and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), aimed at protecting other animal species and habitats. Under Article 4 of the Birds Directive (Directive 2009/ 147/EC), six Special Protection Areas (SPAs), covering a total land area of c.1,671km², have been classified for the conservation of breeding Hen Harrier populations in Ireland.
When considering a site for designation, proposed sites are evaluated by scientists within my Department under a variety of selection criteria. These criteria include the contribution to the conservation of one or more species which are considered vulnerable, rare or endangered in Ireland, the importance within Ireland of the site for its habitats or species and the significance of the contribution to the conservation of one or more species which are protected in Ireland under national or international law that the designation of such land will make.
Any afforestation proposals in Special Protection Areas designated under the EU Birds Directive require the completion of an Appropriate Assessment by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in accordance with Article 6.3 of the EU Habitats Directive. The primary test in such an assessment is the potential for the planting of the SPA land to have a significant adverse effect on the conservation interest of the species and site in question. As per European Union Guidelines for State aid, any afforestation within the SPAs must be agreed in advance by the Competent Authority responsible for designating Natura sites, that is to say my Department.