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Wildlife Conservation

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 3 November 2020

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Questions (566, 568)

Bernard Durkan

Question:

566. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the extent to which various native bird species including songbirds are extinct or are threatened with extinction; the extent to which conservation measures are in place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33804/20]

View answer

Bernard Durkan

Question:

568. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the number of predatory birds here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33806/20]

View answer

Written answers (Question to Housing)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 566 and 568 together.

My Department is responsible for the implementation of the Wildlife Acts and the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011, both of which underpin the legislative and policy framework for the protection and conservation of our natural heritage. In particular, the 2011 Regulations transpose two key pieces of EU nature legislation: the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive.

Under Article 12 of the Birds Directive, Member States are required to report to the EU Commission on the implementation of national provisions taken under this Directive. In 2019, as part of this reporting obligation, Ireland submitted 209 season specific assessments, including assessments for all of Ireland’s regularly occurring breeding species and a large proportion of those species’ populations that occur here during the non-breeding period.

The 209 ‘species-seasons’ are comprised of:

- 142 assessments of breeding birds (including a short report on one species, Corn Bunting, that went extinct after the Birds Directive came into force);

- 63 wintering accounts with the vast majority related to wintering waterbird populations; and

- 4 accounts of birds using Ireland’s coastlines or offshore waters on passage (i.e. three tern species and one shearwater).

Of these 142 breeding birds, 11 species belong to a cohort known as birds of prey which includes owls, hawks, eagles and falcons.

Table 1 lists these predatory birds and their current estimated population sizes.

Species

Estimated population size

Kestrel

13,500 breeding pairs T

Sparrowhawk

11,859 breeding pairs ?

Long-eared Owl

1,484 – 2,703 breeding pairs

Common Buzzard

1,938 breeding pairs*

Barn Owl

400 – 500 breeding pairs

Peregrine Falcon

425 breeding pairs*

Merlin

200 – 400 breeding pairs

Hen Harrier

108-157 breeding pairs Ø

Red Kite

63 breeding pairs

White-tailed Eagle

12 breeding pairs

Golden Eagle

5 breeding pairs

Notes: * minimum estimate; Ø 108 confirmed pairs and 49 possible pairs; T 9,918 - 17,393 pairs 95% CI; and ? 8,476 – 14,252 pairs 95% CI.

Due to human persecution and other drivers, including land-use and habitat changes (e.g. loss of native forest cover and wetland drainage), a number of raptor species became extinct as a breeding species in Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These include the Golden Eagle (in 1912), the White-tailed Eagle (early 20th C.) and the Red Kite became extinct as breeding species in Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From the early 21st century, these species have been subject to re-introduction programmes which have seen the species re-establish a foothold once again. Current population estimates (based on numbers of breeding pairs) are detailed in Table.

The Hen Harrier population has been monitored in recent decades through national surveys with the fourth and most recent survey completed in 2015. The short-term trend 2005-2015, indicates a decline of 9.7% in the national population. Changes in land-use caused by the intensification of agriculture and afforestation are considered to be the most important drivers among others of this population.

Farmers in Hen Harrier areas (SPAs and areas identified in the national 2015 survey) are eligible for the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine's agri-environmental schemes known as GLAS and GLAS+. DAFM has estimated that more than €23m per annum is available for Hen Harrier actions alone in GLAS and GLAS+. As of August 2019, some 2,617 farmers had taken up these measures in GLAS and 1,506 in GLAS+.

Since 2017, the Hen Harrier Project supported by DAFM under the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) measure of the RDP was launched with a budget of €25 million. Its main objectives include the sustainable management of farmland in the Hen Harrier SPAs, with a strong socio-economic focus in these marginal agricultural areas, and fostering good relations through locally-led solutions between farmers, state bodies and other stakeholders. The project incentivises farmers to manage their land in ways that will improve habitat condition for the benefit of Hen Harrier.

Approximately 30% of Ireland’s breeding bird species assessed are estimated to have remained stable or increased in abundance over the long-term. This cohort includes those relatively recent colonists with strong population growth including Little Egret, Great Skua, Mediterranean Gull, Little Ringed Plover, Bearded Tit and Great Spotted Woodpecker. However these recent additions to Ireland’s breeding bird community need to be viewed in the context that almost 20% of Ireland’s breeding bird species, for which we have data, are considered to be in long term decline.

Some of our breeding farmland songbirds have been flagged in recent decades as being particularly vulnerable to the modernisation and intensification of agricultural practices. This ongoing change in agricultural practices has led to the extinction of Corn Bunting as a breeding bird in Ireland and has been a primary driver of long term declines in species such as Corncrake, Yellowhammer, Whinchat and Twite for example. The latter two species’ estimated populations are now considered to be both less than 100 pairs.

Countryside Bird Survey data for two ground nesting songbird species which are still relatively abundant and widespread, namely Meadow Pipit and Skylark, were used for this reporting round. Their preferred breeding habitats include peatlands and unimproved grasslands, and both populations are in decline with the estimated short term abundance of Meadow Pipit declining by over 12% and for Skylark by almost 11%. Over the last 40 years or so the estimated breeding range of the latter has decreased by almost one quarter. Such estimated declines are of particular concern as both Meadow Pipit and Skylark make up significant proportions of the prey base of some of Ireland’s raptors of conservation concern including Merlin, Kestrel and Hen Harrier. The short term declines for the latter two raptors are estimated to be circa 28% and 10% respectively.

Breeding waders as a group continue to suffer significant declines in both population and breeding range, in both the short- and long-term. Species such as Curlew, Lapwing, Redshank and Dunlin, all of which nest on the ground, have declined by 93% or more in the long term. Certain breeding duck populations are also of concern with numbers of breeding Common Scoter continuing to decline to critically low levels. While this species’ range is stable, the population has declined 21-54% in the short-term and 61% in the long-term. The latest assessment of breeding Red-breasted Merganser (which was reproduced from the 2008-2012 reporting period due to a lack of contemporary data) estimates that this breeding population has declined 62% in the short-term.

The majority of Ireland’s breeding seabird species’ long term population trends are now reckoned to be either stable or increasing. It is possible that the increased level of breeding seabird survey effort undertaken by my department over recent year may be partially responsible for some of these recorded gains. Kittiwake stands out among the seabird cohort where there is now a strong evidence base to conclude that the population is under a sustained and significant decline. Further work on understanding the drivers of this decline is required but indications that a lack of available forage fish may play a role.

Of particular note are the very strong population increases with several of our breeding tern species (e.g. Roseate Tern, Sandwich Tern, Little Tern and Common Tern). At the site level it is evident that targeted conservation measures in the form of wardened tern colonies is resulting in direct and effective conservation positives. However several of these particular species’ estimated long-term breeding range trends are in decline or stagnant which not only reinforces the need for such conservation management interventions but also clearly sets out the on-going obligation that such conservation initiatives are to be maintained or where necessary improved.

Robust and contemporary population estimates have been produced for approximately 85% of our breeding seabird species. Work is on-going in my Department with further surveys targeting seabirds such as Puffin, Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrel. These species whose colonies are located on offshore islands are particularly vulnerable to invasive mammals. Such survey work is needed to provide context and further targeting of the on-going bio-security conservation measures currently being carried out by my Department.

The vast majority of those wintering populations assessed as part of the Article 12 Reporting process relate to wintering waterbirds. This group includes ducks, geese, swans and waders among others. Due to its geographical location, climate and wetland habitats, Ireland is an important host for hundreds of thousands of visiting waterbirds during the non-breeding/wintering seasons. Due to the relative sizes of their respective biogeographic populations, Ireland is of international importance for several waterbird species including Whooper Swan, Greenland White-fronted Goose, Brent Goose, and Black-tailed Godwit among others. The population trends for wintering birds varies by group and species. Wintering wader populations, for example, are largely showing continued population declines. While the trends for geese vary, with Greenland White-fronted Geese showing a continued recent decline, and others such as the Barnacle goose showing a positive long term trend.

A range of conservation measures have been put in place in an attempt to halt and reverse population declines for those most threatened bird species. The following examples are targeted at particular bird species but are likely have positive benefits for other species and habitats.

A new project, "Crex LIFE" has been established that will aim to reverse the declines in Corncrake populations, following on from the NPWS Corncrake scheme. The NPWS Curlew Conservation Programme continues to bolster conservation efforts for threatened breeding Curlew, with teams undertaking habitat management and community engagement in core areas. Further innovations for Curlew conservation are being developed by the DAFM-funded Curlew EIP.

The NPWS farm plans put in place conservation measures on priority farmland areas to benefit breeding waders, Chough, threatened passerines such as Whinchat, and various wintering geese and swans. NPWS also liaise with DAFM for the design and targeting of more widespread national agri-environment measures on farmland, which includes measures for: Curlew; breeding waders more generally; wintering geese and swans; threatened passerines such as Twite; Grey Partridge; Hen Harrier; and Twite. NPWS also run a Grey Partridge conservation programme based primarily at Boora, Co. Offaly, which also delivers benefits for breeding Lapwing and other ground-nesting birds such as Skylark. NPWS also implements measures for the rare breeding species Red-throated Diver.

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