We’re all lost without a national landscape map of Ireland

The lack of such a map is to the detriment of good planning and landscape policy

Doo Lough Pass. Illustration: Michael Viney

There seemed a chance, in early planning of the Wild Atlantic Way, that Doo Lough Pass, the majestic valley just over the mountain from me, would be left off its map. The road-space for camper vans and tourist coaches does, indeed, shrink to a twisting thread of highway between mountain and lake, which is why the locals try not to go near it for the summer.

It was finally included as “a hidden gem” on the tourist route. But its scenic attractions do not figure on any national landscape map of Ireland, because there isn’t one.

There are, rather, a multitude of maps of all sorts, physical and administrative. Maps of contours, roads and waterways, public services and utilities, maps for agriculture, forestry, inland fisheries communications, biodiversity, conservation and more – all in separate computers and often using different data models. Somewhere among proposals on the desk of the new government, a new mapping programme would integrate them all.

There was a time in Ireland when landscape was simply scenery, like the Wild Atlantic Way. But signing up in 2000 to the European Landscape Convention brought new meaning to scenery of all kinds, rural and urban, attractive and degraded, with multiple values for care and improvement.


Information needed for planning is, often regrettably, aloof from aesthetic taste. That was clear in 2000 in government guidelines to local authorities for preparing Landscape Character Assessments. The guidelines urged a methodology that “moves away from concepts such as sublime, beautiful, outstanding, etc, as criteria or as a means of categorisation. These are the very categories which gave rise to a view of the landscape which was unnecessarily restrictive, protectionist and conservationist.”

What was wanted, the guidelines continued, was something more factual, “which will essentially describe the distinctness of one landscape type from another and which will avoid an evaluation which tends to rank one landscape as better than another”. The new approach would assess the landscape’s geology and land cover: vegetation, settlements, water and so on – and then overlay its local “values”: historical, cultural, religious and “other understandings of the landscape”, whatever they proved to be.

More than a score of counties completed Landscape Character Assessments of some sort, most using landscape consultants. Few of them thought much of the department’s guidelines and no one in Ireland could offer them any special training regarding the assessments. The Heritage Council was highly critical of progress, quality and use of these guidelines – this at the height of the development boom.

No landscape strategy

With the fastest rate of urbanisation in Europe, Ireland remained the only country without a national landscape strategy. This emerged in 2014, still with Landscape Character Assessments as a goal. What was still missing was a national landscape map that brought all the data together and served new planning demands such as those of the EU Water Framework Directive and the research of the Environment Protection Agency.

This impelled the EPA, with other State bodies and departments, such as the Ordnance Survey, Teagasc and National Parks and Wildlife, to sponsor the National Landcover and Habitat Mapping Programme for Ireland. It is published by the Heritage Council, which commissioned the research from consultants, led by Dr Michael Brennan and Mary Tubridy.

Without a national landscape map, planners of all kinds have been trying to work with Corine, a pan-European data system. Using satellites and national data, it tracks changing land use and natural and built environments.

Ireland contributes more than €17 million to the Earth observations of the European Space Agency. But Corine’s land-cover categories and mapping tools are too coarse and inclusive for the detail of the Irish landscape, missing hedgerows, streams, small copses of trees, several kinds of bog, turloughs, marshy grassland and scrub – all vital to conserving habitats and their biodiversity, along with flood control.

The report of the mapping programme studies the mismatch between Corine-inspired maps of different Irish landscapes, rural and urban, and the realities on the ground. The high accuracy and shared knowledge from the mapping programme it proposes would serve myriad planners and decision-makers but also NGOs and community initiatives.

An example is the dynamic civic community of Abbeyleix, Co Laois. Next Thursday and Friday it holds a National Landscape Forum, organised together with Landscape Alliance, the NGO led by veteran activist Terry O'Regan. This will hear from local planners, farmers and wildlife experts, with field trips to the local bog and other centres of conservation activity in the town and its hinterland (details at lai-ireland.com).

The Heritage Council and Landscape Alliance have been pressing for a national landscape policy for more than 20 years, and the new national map would be, at last, a sophisticated tool for implementation. We have got as far as a National Landscape Strategy published in 2011 and promptly criticised for vagueness and rhetoric. But it agreed that, whatever of grand government designs, much of the real spirit must be led by local people.