Written Answers. - Special Areas of Conservation.
414 Mr. J. O'Keeffe asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage Gaeltacht and the Islands the reason the Government was brought before the European Court of Justice in relation to the special areas of conservation; the effect of the judgment of 11 September 2001; and the course of action proposed to comply with the EU Habitats Directive agreed nine years ago. [27778/01]
The European Commission took cases against Ireland, France and Germany because the full national list of candidate special areas of conservation, SACs, had not been submitted. The court found against all three countries in these separate cases at the same time.
It is important to place the court finding in context. The judgment of the European Court of Justice essentially reflects the legal position prevailing in February 1998 concerning the transmission of candidate special areas of conservation to the European Commission. The court, in delivering its judgment, was precluded from considering progress made by Ireland in the intervening three years with regard to transmission of candidate SACs.
In February 1998, I informed the Commission that the delay in formally transmitting a list of candidate SACs was necessitated by the wider consultation process which I instigated in Ireland. My position was, and still is, that the only long-term practical way of ensuring the conservation of these important wildlife areas is to do so with the co-operation of landowners and land users. To this end I have insisted that consultation take place with those whose lands or land rights are affected, prior to formal transmission of the sites.
The EU Commission agrees with my view that the success of the Natura 2000 Network is dependent on the co-operation of landowners and land users whose lands are included in the sites. All those whose lands are proposed for SAC designation should be given an opportunity to pursue any objections they may have to proposed designations. To this end, I arranged for appeals to be examined informally by Dúchas, the heritage service of my Department. I also established an SAC Appeals Advisory Board, chaired by Mr. Michael Mills, the former ombudsman, with equal representation from the landowners and the conservation organisations, to assess appeals independently and to advise me on these matters.
The effect of the judgment of 11 September is very limited because Ireland has made considerable progress since 1998 in relation to the transmission of candidate special areas of conservation to the Commission. On taking office in 1997, I found that no sites had been transmitted to the Commission. Since then, I have overseen the formal transmission of 363 sites, which cover some 9,907 square kilometres. Having regard to the number and extent of SACs that I have now proposed I anticipate that Ireland's proposals will be found sufficient for most habitats and species at the second Atlantic Region Biogeographical Seminar which is to be held early next year.
I have decided in principle to propose new or extended SACs for the protection of salmon but these cannot be formally proposed until surveys to define their boundaries have been completed. This work is now well under way. Although it is difficult to estimate an exact time frame for completion of the survey work necessary to progress designation of salmon sites, I would expect the final batch of candidate SAC sites should be advertised and transmitted to the European Commission in 2002.
Ireland has fully implemented the Habitats Directive in law. The 1997 regulations which transposed the directive into Irish law provided for the sites to be protected from the time they are first proposed and these provisions have been reinforced by section 75 of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act, 2000.