Issues concerning the designation of Special Protection Areas (or SPAs) and the setting of conservation objectives are a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I understand that Minister Madigan provided the Deputy with a response on the issue the subject of this question on the 8 May 2018.
As previously outlined by Minister Madigan, the issue of afforestation within SPAs important to breeding hen harrier is an ongoing issue, and a previous protocol on the issue was discontinued as the European Commission considered it non-compliant with the EU Birds Directive.
The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has prepared a draft Hen Harrier Threat Response Plan in cooperation with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, and with my own Department. The draft Threat Response Plan was discussed on the 8th May 2018 at a meeting of the Consultative Committee, established as part of the process to represent the agriculture, forestry, wind farm and NGO sectors. Committee members will be reviewing the draft and inputting feedback over the coming weeks. Subsequently, the draft Threat Response Plan must also undergo public consultation.
The Deputy will be aware that as regards the issuing of afforestation licences, under the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011, any Minister considering a plan or project in a Special Protection Area (SPA) shall give consent for such a plan or project only after having determined that the plan or project shall not adversely affect the integrity of a European site. A series of judgements issued by the Court of Justice of the EU have stressed that there must be no doubt about possible adverse impacts in such decisions. In addition, under the European Union guidelines for State aid in the agricultural and forestry sectors and in rural areas, within Natura sites (i.e. SPAs and Special Areas of Conservation, or SACs), only afforestation consistent with the management objectives of the sites concerned, and agreed with the Member State’s authority in charge of implementing Natura 2000 (in Ireland’s case, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht), shall be allowed.