Agricultural practices are impacting negatively on 70 per cent of internationally important habitats in Ireland, a report submitted to the EU by the National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) has said.
A summary report published on Wednesday confirms the vast majority of designated habitats – including peatlands, grasslands, woodlands and marine areas – are in poor condition.
The third assessment of EU-listed habitats and species in Ireland finds 85 per cent of habitats are reported as having “unfavourable status” (46 per cent “unfavourable inadequate” and 39 per cent “unfavourable bad”), while 46 per cent are demonstrating “ongoing declines”.
Assessments of Ireland's 59 habitats and 68 species listed on the habitats directive were undertaken by more than 40 scientific experts in the NPWS, Inland Fisheries Ireland and external specialists.
Their full report was submitted to the European Commission earlier this year. The status of EU-listed species is "somewhat better" with 57 per cent assessed as "favourable" and 30 per cent "unfavourable" (ie "inadequate" or "bad") with 72 per cent demonstrating stable or improving trends, while 15 per cent are showing ongoing decline.
Species listed on the directive include all whale and dolphin species; all bat species; other mammals such as otter, hare and pine marten; eight plant species; seven invertebrate species; seven fish species; and three amphibian and reptile species.
Dr Deirdre Lynn of the NPWS said the unfavourable status of many habitats was "regrettably unsurprising" as this was the reason they were listed on the directive. But it was "the ongoing declines that were of concern, particularly in our peatland, grassland, woodland and marine habitats".
“The main drivers of the habitat decline are agricultural practices which are negatively impacting over 70 per cent of habitats, particularly ecologically unsuitable grazing, abandonment and pollution,” she said.
The report outlines positive developments including:
The National Raised Bog Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) Management Plan, which sets out a road map for the restoration and conservation of raised bog SACs, while 12 raised bogs are being restored;
There are 23 European Innovation Partnerships in place, many of which are focused on “restoring, preserving and enhancing biodiversity”, with the potential to impact positively on habitats and species listed in the directive;
The Native Woodland Scheme supports restoration of existing native woodland and the targeted conversion of conifer stands into native woodland;
An EU deep sea trawling ban which applies below 800 metres, protecting deep sea corals. A ban on inshore trawling by large boats is to be put in place to protect nursery grounds; and
A catchment approach has been adopted under the EU Water Framework Directive to address water and flooding issues within land use planning. Some 726 waterbodies have been identified within 190 priority areas for action, notably through advice to farmers and financial support for urban wastewater treatment and improved domestic treatment systems.
Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan said "the report highlights the challenges to conserve biodiversity in Ireland and the need for all sectors of society to work together to address it".
The NPWS had ongoing programmes to maintain or restore natural habitats and wild species considered vulnerable at European level, she added.