The 6 existing National Parks of Ireland account for circa 65,000 hectares with another almost 22,000 hectares of nature reserves and other heritage sites. The existing National Parks are managed from a conservation perspective, and attract in excess of 4 million visitors annually. Given the resources available for capital investment within our National Parks and Nature Reserves, I am ever mindful of the need to focus on the core responsibilities relating to the management of the existing Parks and Reserves lands and have no plans at present to increase the number of National Parks in the country.
As far as our marine heritage is concerned, it is protected by such designations as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Areas (SPA). It is worth noting that roughly 53% of SACs is land, the remainder being marine or large lakes. Ireland’s SPA Network encompasses over 570,000 hectares of marine and terrestrial habitats. The marine areas include some of the productive intertidal zones of our bays and estuaries that provide vital food resources for several wintering wader species including Dunlin, Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit. Marine waters adjacent to the breeding seabird colonies and other important areas for seaducks, divers and grebes are also included in the network.
As part of my Department’s continuing commitment and contribution to protecting our heritage and improving our tourism and recreation product, we have been exploring ways to optimise the sustainable potential of heritage sites under our control in a way that is compatible with conservation objectives.
In this context, it should be noted that in late 2016 my Department negotiated the extension of Wicklow Mountains National Park by purchasing almost 4,900 acres of Dublin Uplands at Glenasmole in 2016 at a cost of €800,000. The purchase underpins the Government’s on-going commitment to the preservation of our natural heritage for future generations of citizens and visitors alike to enjoy.
In 2017 the entire Wild Nephin area was consolidated into the ownership of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. This creates a State – Owned wilderness project of over 11,000 hectares and aims to provide increased nature conservation benefits and biodiversity as well as enhanced recreational and social benefits through the ‘re-wilding’ of the forest which adjoins the National Park. Thanks to the acquisition, we will be returning the area to a natural wilderness state.
My Department, in conjunction with Fáilte Ireland, launched a strategic partnership in 2017 with a view to growing tourism revenues in the rural areas where the parks are located and increasing Ireland’s appeal as a recreation destination. One of the outputs from the partnership with Fáilte was “Experiencing the Wild Heart of Ireland ” – an interpretative masterplan for the development of our National Parks and Reserves, which was published last year and sets out a road map for investment at these important nature conservation, public amenity and tourism sites and underpins the objectives of Project 2040 as well as Heritage 2030.
The investment in our National Parks will create memorable and meaningful experiences of Ireland’s landscapes, wildlife and culture. This will be done though sensitive design and the development of authentic experiences, providing better access to nature and an increased understanding of society’s conservation responsibilities, as well as supporting significant investment in recreational facilities, including upgrading and development of the trails network, increased visitor facilities and improved signage and branding. These will be designed and delivered with a strong emphasis on conservation and allow us to protect and preserve our most fragile environments and, by investing in our culture, language and heritage, provide a well-being benefit for all. In this regard, a provision of some €5million in funding, for 32 individual projects across the network of NPWS sites, was announced earlier this year as part of the Rural Regeneration Development Fund.
A whole host of proposals are currently under consideration for Heritage 2030, including increased investment in our heritage, improved access, and better quality of information, guidance and advice as a resource for stakeholders, visitors, researchers and general public. As a result, in the context of protecting marine biodiversity, we will certainly keep under consideration further maritime designations.