Habitat protection will dictate policy

HARD times will make for hard choices in the coming years.

We’re sure to hear more about a certain Habitats Directive, which could be described as an EU bible/rule book for protecting the environment.

Scarcely a week passes without politicians, or a government agency, or a county council, coming into conflict with the said directive. Like it or not, we are largely governed by Brussels when it comes to things as basic as water and air quality and the safeguarding of wild places and wild animals: for looking after the natural world.

Remember all the ballyhoo about the hen harrier? Well, there’s a lot more of the same that we won’t hear about from Brussels until certain issues arise, often on the doorstep.

County councillors can get excited about rare snails holding up road developments, or about building roosts for bats, but the fact is that our government can face heavy fines if it is found by Brussels bureaucrats to be in breach of EU laws.

That point was made very clearly by senior management at a recent meeting of Kerry County Council, which heard that a survey of bats would have to be carried out before repair work could be done on old bridges.

Councillors thought such a survey was a waste of money, and felt every scarce cent should now be spent on road works, rather than on saving wildlife.

But the council, which got its knuckles rapped by Brussels a few years ago for daring to plan a road that would run through wet woodlands, near Tralee, is obliged to get on with the bat survey.

The first such comprehensive report on the status of habitats, animals, and plants in Ireland that have protected status under national and EU law, makes for interesting reading.

Habitats include bogs, rivers, marine bays, deep sea reefs, sand dunes, to name just a few. Many of the habitats are scarce, or absent, elsewhere in Europe, which increases the pressure. Species vary from whales and otters to mosses and snails.

Assessments were carried out by expert ecologists, and then screened by scientists in the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The report found that only 7% of the habitats examined were in good shape, with 46% inadequate and 47% bad.

Of particular concern is the status of the midland’s raised bogs. Less than 1% remains of the living, growing bog and this is rapidly being lost.

Another habitat in serious peril is lowland hay meadow, important for birds, such as the corncrake, and plants, such as cornflower. The meadows have disappeared as agriculture has modernised.

Many habitats associated with water were considered to be in bad condition. Even moderate declines in water quality make rivers and lakes unsuitable for many fish and invertebrate species.

Coastal habitats were found to have declined in quality, often as a result of recreation and development pressure over the past 20 years.

We’ve had the recent example of the sea breaching the Rossbeigh sand spit, on the Ring of Kerry, and creating a new island in the area.

The report paints a more encouraging picture of Ireland’s animals and plants. Roughly 50% of the species examined are in a good state, while 10% are considered bad.

Species such as bat, seals, dolphins and whales are considered to be in good condition. However, there is a real fear that the freshwater pearl mussel, which can live to an age of 130 years, is on the brink of extinction in Ireland.

The Natterjack toad is another species considered to be in danger, but already a programme is in place to expand on the pond habitat it needs.

Dooks Golf Club, in Co Kerry, is one of the few places where the toad survives, and the club is engaged in ongoing conservation programmes on its links, near Killorglin.

Main threats and pressures to habitats include large-scale turf cutting, drainage and infilling, building and road making, reclamation of wetlands such as bogs and fens; removal of sand and gravel, overgrazing, pollution and invasive alien species.

The bad and poor ratings for habitats reflect the impact of 35 years of intensive agriculture and a period of unrivalled economic growth in Ireland, according to the authors of the report.

Dr Ciaran O’Keeffe, of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, said that the bad rating for habitats was not surprising, as the report covered habitats across the entire country — not just in Special Areas of Conservation (SACs).

Undoubtedly, the report sets us many tough challenges. The critical issue in the next five years, and beyond, will be to maintain and restore habitats, particularly in SACs.

Action will also be needed across a wide range of policy areas, including planning and infrastructure investment.

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