My Department is responsible for implementing the Wildlife Acts 1976 to 2018, the primary legislation underpinning the protection of biodiversity and nature in Ireland. The Wildlife Acts afford protection to a range of habitats and species and provide for regulation and control of activities that impinge on biodiversity, such as hunting and trade.
The other main instruments provided for are the designation of Special Protection Areas (SPA) aimed at the protection of threatened species of birds and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) aimed at protecting other animal species and habitats.
My Department is also responsible for developing and publishing Ireland's National Biodiversity Action Plan. The most recent Plan (Ireland's 3rd) was published in October 2017 and includes a number of actions aimed at assisting local authorities throughout the country in their efforts to protect and conserve biodiversity in their areas. Local authorities undertake much valuable work in this sphere and several have produced local Biodiversity Action Plans which are an important element in the overall approach to halting biodiversity loss and protect native species and their habitats.
My Department's National Parks and Wildlife Service will continue to monitor and protect biodiversity through the implementation of the existing legislative framework and in particular will continue to protect and enhance the habitat and species within the designated European Sites. These comprise 439 Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and 154 Special Protection Areas (SPA).
My Department advises on planning, forestry and EPA licence applications nationally. It also engages in wildlife surveys and monitoring, carries out stakeholder liaison and maintains its educational and awareness raising role with respect to vulnerable species and habitats. My Department also has a remit to comment on a variety of licences under the Wildlife Acts with the aim of helping to protect biodiversity.
In support of the work carried out by local authorities, I have made a commitment in the coming years to double the funding my Department makes available for local Heritage and Biodiversity Officers to implement biodiversity actions at local level and to tackle invasive species. A pilot grant scheme was introduced in 2018 to assist local authority led biodiversity projects and I am pleased that we have extended this scheme in 2019.
I look forward to local authorities using the funding available for projects aimed at tackling invasive alien species in their areas. Invasive alien species are a significant threat to our biodiversity and can also have significant adverse effects in terms of the cost involved in implementing eradication or management measures. I want therefore to enable locally led works and also to raise awareness around invasive alien species and biodiversity matters more generally.
My Department is also preparing legislation to implement the EU IAS Regulation and this new legislation will strengthen and update existing legislative provisions around the management and control of invasive alien species in Ireland. This is another important measure to protect native species.
Ireland’s Article 17 Report was submitted by my Department to the European Commission in April 2019.
In Ireland, 85% of habitats are reported as being in Unfavourable status. The main drivers are agricultural practices which negatively impact over 70% of habitats, particularly ecologically unsuitable grazing, abandonment and pollution. The Unfavourable status of many habitats is not surprising as this is the reason they have been listed on the Directive.
My Department is engaged in a range of targeted activities to address these issues at regional, national and EU level, and also liaises with other departments, particularly the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to implement policy and practices which will help tackle the drivers of biodiversity loss.
The status of species is somewhat better: 57% assessed as Favourable and 30% assessed as being in Unfavourable status, with 72% demonstrating stable or improving trends while just 15% demonstrated on-going declining trends. Progress is being made and a number of species such as bats, otter, pine marten and grey seal are doing well.
Recognising the need for a coherent cross-sectoral response to the biodiversity crisis, earlier this year I announced our 'Seeds for Nature’, a range of commitments to be undertaken by public authorities and other stakeholders to drive implementation of actions in the Plan.
Biodiversity underpins all aspects of our lives and society. Halting biodiversity loss is not simply a matter for a single agency or department. However, my Department is the lead for implementation of biodiversity policy in Ireland and takes this responsibility very seriously and will continue to work across a range of areas, engaging across sectors, to tackle biodiversity loss.