Ireland’s first ever biodiversity report highlights concerns both old and new

The report by the governmental Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies modern agricultural practices, pollution of rivers and lakes, mechanised peat extraction, urban development and road building, as well as the potential effects of climate change, such as the drying out of peatlands, as the main threats to biodiversity in Ireland.

Biodiversity in Ireland – A Review of Habitats and Species says that the most potent transforming force in rural landscapes in the past 30 years has been agricultural intensification which has led to a loss of both plant and animal diversity. The effects of overgrazing have been most obvious along the western seaboard and agricultural practices account for the most significant impacts to coastal protected areas. However, it is not all bad news as farmers participating in a protection scheme have helped bring the corncrake back from the brink of extinction and its numbers have stabilised. Another biodiversity success story has been the preservation of important peatlands.

Nature conservation in Ireland has, in the past, received a low profile for a variety of reasons including the fact that the landscape was largely unspoilt up to some 25 years ago. Since that time substantial loss and degradation has occurred due mainly to the large-scale intensification of agriculture under the EU Common Agricultural Policy. For example, the river system of Ireland has seen a decline in unpolluted status of some 20% with a similar degradation of lake quality (see related story). Land clearance and reclamation for agricultural purposes are becoming increasingly widespread and resulting in loss of habitat. The change from hay to silage making has also been dramatic, with total silage increasing from one-third of a tonne in 1960 to more than 20 million tonnes by 1990.

Overgrazing, caused by the gross overstocking of sheep, has been identified as one of the biggest threats to biodiversity in Ireland, with the problem arising as a direct result of EU-funded livestock headage payments. Sheep numbers almost trebled from 3.3 million in 1980 to 8.9 million in 1992. The effects of overgrazing have been most marked along the western seaboard, particularly in the uplands, peatlands, heaths and coastal habitats of Counties Donegal, Mayo, Galway and Kerry.

There are also concerns over forestry. Although 9% of Ireland is covered by forests and the Government plans to increase coverage to 17% by 2035, non-native coniferous trees constitute 78% of forests. These plantations have given rise to concerns about impacts on landscapes and water quality. Conifers are essential for the survival of certain fauna but single-species plantations are generally antagonistic to biological diversity. The clear-felling of the mature trees is aesthetically displeasing and severely disturbs wildlife while fertiliser and pesticide application can also cause further damage to biodiversity.

While the commercial forests expand, the bogs are diminishing. Active raised bogs, once common in the midlands, are now relatively rare habitats, the report says. Blanket bogs have undergone deleterious changes caused by a range of impacts from grazing and trampling by excessive sheep stocking, to peat extraction, afforestation and agricultural reclamation.

On the other hand, aspects of Ireland’s natural heritage have probably been rescued from substantial decline by our commitments to habitat conservation, as a member of the European Union, the report says. There have been biodiversity success stories in the last decade such as the preservation of important peatlands. Compensation payments to farmers to delay the mowing of meadows until after nesting, was successful in bringing the corncrake back from the brink of extinction and stabilising its numbers. One of the Government’s Millennium projects involved the planting of a million oak trees throughout the country.

Lack of resources, particularly inadequate staff numbers, has traditionally been a major problem in most Irish public institutions and nature conservation has in the past been under-funded. The protection of the natural heritage and biodiversity in Ireland has been slow to progress and in some cases under pressure from the European Commission. While progress has been slow, protection, up until recently, has been achieved with considerably fewer resources than most other countries have. Further progress should be expected from the increase in spending, from less than IR £7 million (£5.5 million) in 1993 to IR £25 million (£19.5 million) in 1998.

Finally, the report says that it has not been possible to assess Ireland’s biodiversity in a comprehensive way due to the lack of a Biological Records Centre for Ireland. There is a need for a properly resourced, centralised Biological Records Centre, with databases for all plant and animal groups, if the diversity of these groups is to be adequately assessed and monitored, the report says.

Biodiversity in Ireland – A Review of Habitats and Species is available from the EPA at a price of € 10/ IR£ 7.87 by telephoning 00 353 (0)1 667 4474 or faxing 00 353 (0)1 660 5848.

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