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Commission raps Ireland for 'persistently failing' to manage protected nature sites

Just over 60% of our 600-plus legally protected nature areas have conservation objectives.

Image: Niall Sargent

THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION has claimed that Ireland is failing to manage its network of protected nature sites in line with EU law in proceedings lodged before the European Court of Justice (ECJ). 

Last year, the European Commission started infringement procedures against Ireland for failure to fulfil its obligations under EU environmental law to designate 217 ‘Sites of Community Interest’ (SCIs) as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) within a strict six-year time period. 

In records just published, the Commission claims that Ireland “generally and persistently failed to comply with [the Habitats Directive] by establishing conservation measures that are not sufficiently precise and detailed and fail to address all significant pressures and threats”. “Many sites had no conservation measures at all,” argue the Commission.

The nature sites in question form part of the EU Natura 2000 network of nature areas legally protected for certain habitats and species. Currently, just over 9,000km, or 13% of Ireland’s terrestrial area, is included in the Natura 2000 network.

Sites are designated as either a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for habitats and the flora and fauna they support, or as a Special Protection Area (SPA) for vulnerable bird species.

Prior to official designation as an SAC, proposed protected areas are nominated as ‘Sites of Community Interest’ or SCIs. Under the Habitats Directive, member states must then designate the protected areas as SACs under their national law within six years.

A Noteworthy investigation released last month revealed that just over 270 sites are now legally designated as SACs, with over 260 sites waiting between 12 and 22 years to be put on a legal standing in Ireland.  

Source: Noteworthy/Flourish

Lack of conservation measures

In April 2016, the European Commission called on Ireland to accelerate its efforts to designate SACs and a Court of Auditors report in 2017 found that we had only designated five of 424 sites as SACs by January 2016 within the six-year deadline, faring very poorly compared to most EU neighbours.

According to a record filed with the Official Journal of the European Union this morning, the Commission also claims that a large number of sites lack site-specific conservation objectives (SSCOs).

EU states are required to develop conservation objectives specific to each protected site to maximise the conservation of the habitats and species designated for protection. These objectives should then be translated into action through management plans. 

​​Where SSCOs have not yet been developed for the site, a Member State can use generic conservation objectives. This is supposed to be for a short period of time, however, as SSCOs should be established within six years of a site’s designation as a protected area. 

An analysis of State files carried out by Noteworthy last month showed that SSCOs have now been prepared for 327 of 437 SACs in Ireland. However, the analysis also showed that SSCOs were not set within six years in over 350 cases. In over 260 of these cases, it took between 15 and 23 years for the State to set site-specific objectives.

Source: Noteworthy/Flourish

Failure to set conservation objectives

For example, it took over 20 years for the State to set SSCOs for the Killarney National Park, Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and Caragh River Catchment SAC. This extensive protected area takes in over 75,500 hectares (ha) of land, including blanket bog, old sessile oak woods, and wet heaths.

Other large protected sites such as the 49,000ha Connemara Bog Complex SAC, the 25,000ha Lough Corrib SAC and and the 30,000ha Wicklow Mountains SAC also waited in excess of 15 years to receive site-specific conservation objectives. 

The Noteworthy analysis also showed SSCOs have only been set for 33 sites in the SPA network for protected bird species. In many of these cases, the conservation objectives were set well after the six-year deadline, taking between 10 and 20 years to set in 18 cases, and over 20 years in 11 cases. 

A further 128 sites still only have generic conservation objectives in place. Over 110 of these sites were classified as SPAs over a decade ago, including 34 sites waiting over 25 years for site-specific measures to be put in place. 

This includes Puffin Island SPA and Skelligs SPA off the coast of Co Kerry classified in 1985 and 1986 respectively to protect the iconic, and now vulnerable, puffin, as well as other important species such as kittiwake, fulmer and manx shearwater. 

According to the State’s plan for habitat and species protection in Natura 2000 sites for 2021-2027, a programme for setting detailed site-specific conservation objectives for the remaining SPAs will be put in place during this period.

At the end of August, the State issued a tender for a suitable candidate to help develop SSCOs for the remaining sites in Ireland’s SPA network. The contract will run from October to next February.

  • This article was supported by reader contributions to Noteworthy, TheJournal’s community-led investigative platform. If you like this and our other work, consider contributing here.

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