We all know we rely on nature. Let’s not throw away what’s left of it

The list of habitats to be protected gets longer, but few are being looked after properly

Exploring, once, the origins of the EU’s ecological shopping list for the habitats directive, I came upon a memoir by someone who took part in marathon drafting sessions in Brussels in the early 1990s. He recalled one meeting in which “a Danish pipe-smoking lawyer did all he could to placate the pragmatic but ardent Irishman – a great otter hunter – aghast at the Swiss representative, who was justifying the inclusion of this proud carnivore in appendix II [for] strict protection”.

A couple of decades on, the survival of the Irish otter is among the good news in the latest six-yearly report to the EU by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, on the state of our protected habitats, with their animals, birds and plants. But of 58 habitats asssessed only five emerged as in favourable condition.

Conservation of the rest – mainly on bogs and seminatural grassland, and in our more vulnerable rivers – remains inadequate or bad. A separate report, under the birds directive, finds that the native curlews of the uplands are down to the last 98 breeding pairs, and native dunlin – little waders of the seashore – to 150 pairs.

The really wild places on the island of Ireland can just about be imagined: the seashore between tides, perhaps, if one ignores the swirl of polluting inshore chemicals and plastic; mountain screes too shaky for sheep, if one discounts the wind-blown dust of their nitrogenous droppings. Everywhere else shows the more obvious mark of humankind.

The list of Ireland’s habitats that warrant conservation might seem intricately defined: eight sorts of sand dune, five kinds of lake, special stretches of coastal mud, beach drift lines, vegetated cliffs and so on. But they still leave unexamined the huge area of farm and forest habitats that cover some 70 per cent of the land. The ocean, too, is the new priority for conservation.

Conserving what’s left of “nature”, even in terrestrial Europe, has become a vast enterprise. By 2007 the list of habitats had gone through three versions and was finding new ones as the EU spread. The accession of Bulgaria and Romania, for example, added “Pannonian” to the existing Continental, Mediterranean, Alpine, Atlantic, Macaronesian and Boreal regions, and also such novelties as “Moesian silver lime woods”, “Iberian gypsum steppes and “Baltic esker islands”.

Technical teams in Paris, at the European Topic Centre on Biological Diversity, now turn to defining habitats for the EU’s marine-strategy framework directive. Ireland, having claimed a slice of the Atlantic 10 times its land area, faces a mammoth task, most of it falling to the Marine Institute. Its first assessment sounds familiar worries about trawler damage, both to mud and sandy bottoms and the reefs built by marine organisms. With research data on some 250 species of fish, the institute finds “tentative evidence to suggest an improving picture for marine commercial fish species”. Megrim, at least – the poor man’s sole – is actually doing quite well.

The new reports to the EU on the Republic’s habitats and species are backed up by other thick documents, full of scientific monitoring data and long lists of plant species in Latin, produced from research by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and its outside ecological consultants. The marine assessment is extra. How is the relatively new Minister, Heather Humphreys, to get a handle on this vital third of her job, with or without Latin?

There is, as it happens, yet another thick report, published by her department in October, that I think she might take home to Aghabog, Co Monaghan, for reading after Christmas. With considerable scope and lucidity, Ireland's 5th National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity covers both land and sea and proceeds by a series of questions.

The first, “Why is biodiversity important for Ireland?”, finds that nature is worth about €2.6 billion a year in “ecosystem services”. But also that “90 per cent of 1,000 people surveyed in 2013 stated that halting biodiversity loss was a moral obligation and that our well-being and quality of life” are based on nature and biodiversity. Equipped with these basics, Humphreys may have enough to proceed.

Books on wildlife

Meanwhile, for family enjoyment, My First Book of Irish Animals (Browne Books, €13.99), by the zoologist Juanita Browne, is a splendid children's introduction to our wildlife, superbly illustrated by Aoife Quinn – her animals sparkle with life.

Nearly half of Ireland's mammals live in the sea, and an excellent handbook for identifying them is the updated Whales and Dolphins of Ireland, by Jim Wilson and Simon Berrow, available for €12.50 at the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group website (iwdg.ie).

Walking on Ripples: The Angling Life (Liffey Press, €11.95) is an idiosyncratic memoir, "a fusion of fact and fiction", by David Murphy.