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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C
Alamy Stock Photo Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) adult, standing amongst flowering sea thrift, Great Saltee, Saltee Islands, Ireland.

Opinion A citizen's assembly is one of many steps necessary to preserve Ireland's biodiversity

The Fianna Fáil TD welcomes news this week that Cabinet is to consider a citizen’s assembly on biodiversity.

THIS WEEK THE Taoiseach recommitted to establishing a citizen’s assembly on biodiversity, saying that the assembly could be established as early as April this year.

Biodiversity, nature, and wildlife right across the globe is in peril, and nowhere more so than right here in Ireland.

Distinctive features of Irish culture and natural life are under significant threat. One of the most prominent examples of this is the puffin, one of the most iconic birds we have on this island.

The puffin

It’s a bird that appears in many places in Irish culture due to its distinctive features. However, its numbers are dwindling. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has placed the puffin on its red list of birds of high conservation concern, meaning it’s at risk of becoming extinct.

Much of the cause for this can be associated with climate change but also due to the puffin’s source of food dwindling. Small fish and sand eel are no longer as prevalent in the wild.

There is a significant threat that the puffin could be extinct before the end of this century and there are other birds at risk as well. In fact, Ireland currently has 54 regularly occurring bird species now on the red list. This figure is incredibly alarming.

Other distinctive birds such as the curlew are also in trouble. There are very few breeding pairs are left in the country – only 34 were confirmed in 2021.

However, there are examples of how we can fight back against this loss of biodiversity, and how proactive intervention can make a difference. Actions such as the creation of new habitats as well as engagement with landowners and communities have been proven to reverse these desperate trends.

The corncrake

The corncrake is a great example of where we have slowly been able to stem the tide against what seemed like inevitable extinction at the outset. While there’s still a lot of work to be done, the Corncrake LIFE Project scheme reported that the outlook is good for the corncrake in its core areas of Mayo, Galway and Donegal and that at least 185 calling male corncrakes had been recorded in Ireland up to August last year, an increase from the numbers in 2020.

One of the most important measures we will see for combatting the biodiversity crisis will commence in 2023 with the new agri-environmental scheme. This will come from Pillar II of the Common Agricultural Policy and will provide payments to farmers for their work to restore and preserve habitats on their lands.

At the moment, the system is broken – farmers are penalised for keeping habitats on their land.

There is room for more targeted measures to protect waning bird species and farmland birds in particular such as lapwing, redshank and golden plover. There should be targeted schemes to protect and save them.

During this pandemic, many people became birders or started bird watching for the first time. People bought binoculars and bird feeders. Others kept lists of bird, plant and animal species that they saw on their walks. We started to reconnect with the world outside our door and under our noses. And what many noticed, is that a lot of those species we were so used to seeing, those that we can remember from our childhood days, just weren’t there anymore.


Species of birds like yellow hammer, species of butterfly, species of dragonfly over wetlands. Over the last 50 years, less than a lifetime, wetland species, in particular, have declined by 80 per cent.

A citizen’s assembly will bring this into sharp focus, as will Ireland’s fourth National Biodiversity Action Plan. I firmly believe that there is a window of opportunity available now that has not been there before. Some people criticise the ambition in this area by the government parties, and that’s both understandable and important. We need high standards in this area if we are going to sustain biodiversity in this country.

We have a window of opportunity here. There are more TDs in this Dáil who are passionate about nature. Minister Malcolm Noonan has already done much work to reform and revive the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). Funding for the NPWS this year stands at over €47 million, with staff numbers now bolstered and a wildlife crime investigation unit established. The whole system is being overhauled and that’s been badly needed. The NPWS had been running on a shoestring and it’s crucial that this is now changing.

Supporting communities, landowners and farmers in these endeavours will be crucial. Tangible action is needed to turn the tide of biodiversity loss in Ireland.

A citizen’s assembly on biodiversity is overdue. It should have happened a long time ago. The Taoiseach’s commitment to bringing one to Cabinet shortly and seeing the assembly established by April is welcome and his leadership on this issue will be essential.

Christopher O’Sullivan is a Fianna Fáil TD for Cork South West, former Mayor of County Cork. Birdwatcher & volunteer whale watching guide.


Christopher O'Sullivan
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