My Department submitted Ireland’s 3rd assessment on the status of EU-protected habitats and species to the European Commission in April 2019. A summary report has just been published which provides an overview of the assessment methodologies and the main findings of the assessments (see www.npws.ie/sites/default/files/publications/pdf/NPWS_2019_Vol1_Summary_Article17.pdf. These very thorough assessments were undertaken by the National Parks and Wildlife Service of this Department, Inland Fisheries Ireland and external experts.
The main aim of the EU Habitats Directive is to achieve the conservation of biodiversity by requiring Member States to take measures to maintain or restore natural habitats and species listed on the Directive at a favourable conservation status. The habitats and species have been listed because they are considered vulnerable at a European level. Ireland has 59 habitats and 68 species listed on the Directive.
The conclusion of the report that most Irish habitats listed on the Habitats Directive are in Unfavourable status and almost half are demonstrating ongoing declines. The majority of species listed on the Habitats Directive are, however, in Favourable status in Ireland, and stable, although a small number are considered to be in Bad status and continue to require concerted efforts to protect and restore them.
The habitats were listed on the Directive because they are threatened; but the ongoing declines are of particular concern, particularly in our peatland, grassland, woodland and marine habitats, and concerted action is required.
The most frequent pressures recorded in habitats relate to the agriculture category. Over 70% of habitats were impacted by pressures relating to agricultural practices, and the pressure was ranked as High importance in more than 50% of habitats. The most prevalent sub-category of agricultural pressures was “Intensive grazing or overgrazing by livestock”, which was recorded in 55% of habitats in which agricultural impacts were noted (39% of habitats overall), the next most frequent agricultural pressure being “Extensive grazing or undergrazing”, which was noted at 21% of habitats impacted by agriculture (15% of habitats overall). Inappropriate grazing (either too much or too little) was recorded in 62% of all habitats where agricultural impacts were reported, and in 44% of habitats overall. “Abandonment of grassland management (e.g. cessation of grazing or mowing)” and “Agricultural activities generating diffuse pollution to surface or ground waters” were the next most frequent agricultural impacts, each affecting 19% of habitats where agricultural impacts were noted, or 14% of habitats overall. All eight of the habitats affected by diffuse pollution were either lake or groundwater-dependent habitats. Analysis of the proportion of habitat exceeding Nitrogen deposition thresholds arising from “Agricultural activities generating air pollution” has highlighted Blanket bog, Alpine heath and Wet heath, Juniper and Limestone pavement as particularly vulnerable to this type of pollution. The impacts of “Agricultural activities generating marine pollution” are reported at High importance in three of the marine habitats.
My Department is engaging proactively with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to assess the potential for interventions under the CAP post 2020 and to inform their SWOT analysis and needs assessment. My Department is working on a Prioritised Action Framework for the Special Areas of Conservation and we are working to improve our capacity to put measures in place to achieve improvements in the status of habitats.
It should be noted that there are many positive actions are ongoing across Ireland, for example:
- There are 23 European Innovation Partnerships (EIPs) on-going, many of which are focussed on ‘restoring, preserving and enhancing biodiversity’; these have the potential to positively impact on habitats and species listed on the Habitats Directive.
- A catchment approach has been adopted under the EU Water Framework Directive to ensure consideration of both water and flooding issues within land use planning and a total of 726 waterbodies have been identified within 190 Priority Areas for Action. This will ensure improved targeting of measures for freshwater and transitional waters including lagoons, for example through advice to farmers and through financial support for urban wastewater treatment and for improved domestic treatment systems.
- There are EU LIFE and other projects (e.g. the Burren Programme) that focus specifically and proactively on the interface between farming and biodiversity.
- There is an increasing awareness through initiatives such as Farming for Nature that agriculture and biodiversity can be better integrated.