A plan which may allow the Department of Agriculture to approve afforestation projects in Special Protection Areas (SPAs) is being finalised for public consultation — after six years in preparation.
Agriculture Minister Michael Creed told the Dail before Christmas that the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is finalising the draft Threat Response Plan for public consultation.
He said EU regulations stipulate that any Minister shall give consent for a plan or project in a Special Protection Area only after having determined that it shall not adversely affect the integrity of a European Natura site. Judgements 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, EU guidelines for state aid only allow afforestation consistent with management objectives, in Natura sites (SPAs and Special Areas of Conservation), and in agreement with the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
“Until the Threat Response Plan is completed, my Department will not be in a position to approve afforestation projects within the SPAs,” said Minister Creed.
Nationally, SPAs total nearly 418,000 hectares.
Allowing forestry in SPAs could boost the Government’s Forestry Programme, which is a key component of Ireland’s climate change mitigation plan.
The national forest estate stores more than 312 million tonnes of of carbon. Its average removal of 3.8 Mt of carbon dioxide equivalents per year from the atmosphere in the 2007-2016 period was of pivotal significance in Ireland achieving its 2008-2012 Kyoto protocol target.
Removals of greenhouse gases by forests in Ireland cannot contribute to emission reduction targets in the 2014-2020 climate mitigation period. However, under the new Effort Sharing Regulation, this is no longer the case, and Ireland’s existing forest resource is set to play an important part in helping Ireland meet emission targets in the 2021–2030 period.
The Natura site conditions for any future afforestation in SPAs must take into account requirements such as conservation of hen harrier birds.