Ireland near bottom of EU league for biodiversity lands 

Ireland near bottom of EU league for biodiversity lands 

Ireland has just 14% of land designated as biodiversity protection areas. File picture

Ireland languishes near the bottom in the EU when it comes to the amount of land designated for the preservation of biodiversity.

While the bloc as a whole has more than a quarter of land designated as biodiversity protection areas or 1.1 million sq kms, Ireland has just 14%.

That is according to findings from the European Commission's data analysis wing, Eurostat, which examined protected areas known as Natura 2000.

Natura 2000 consists of around 27,000 land and marine sites which are protected under the EU's Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive, collectively known as the Nature Directives.

Once special areas for conservation are designated under the Habitats Directive, member states are compelled to introduce conservation measures, such as avoiding their deterioration and any significant disturbance to species, according to Ireland's National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

The Birds Directive is one of the oldest pieces of EU legislation, agreed by states in 1979 to maintain populations of all bird species naturally occurring in the wild state. However, environmental campaigners and bird experts say that Ireland has failed in its mission to do so, with a biodiversity crisis now taking place across the land.

According to Eurostat, around 1.1 million sq m is protected, which is some 26% of the total EU land area. 

In 2021, protected areas represented 20% or more of the total land area in 20 of the 27 EU member states, with the highest shares recorded in Luxembourg (52%), Bulgaria and Slovenia (both 41%), Eurostat said.

The lowest shares of protected areas were observed in Finland (13%), and Ireland and Sweden (both 14%), it added.

There are currently around 40 EU cases open against Ireland related to the likes of water quality, biodiversity protection failure, and failures in designating special areas of conservation.

On the EU cases being open against Ireland, Environment Minister Eamon Ryan acknowledged an "ecological crisis" that meant the country having to pay a range of financial penalties for its failures.

"It’s not just the fees we are paying...What Heritage Minister Malcolm Noonan is doing in terms of resourcing the NPWS will be transformative to help us in that. 

It all relates to this issue of water quality and what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is saying about our rivers, particularly in the southeast, saturated in nitrogen. 

"On the positive side, a lot of the solutions in climate will also be good nature-based solutions. For example in climate, restoring peatlands, it will be a very good way for storing carbon but also a very good way of restoring natural systems and biodiversity."

A new €55m package to revamp the NPWS unveiled by Mr Noonan earlier this month was described as "turning the tide" on the biodiversity crisis in Ireland.

The NPWS has long been derided as unfit for purpose, with limited powers, and low staff morale because of a perceived lack of teeth in dealing with biodiversity issues.

That is expected to change, following a review led by Trinity professor Jane Stout and former EPA director Micheál Ó Cinnéide that was scathing in its findings. The €55m will see 60 roles such as rangers and scientists filled quickly, as well as establishing the NPWS as an executive agency. It will also see a full management restructuring.

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