BirdWatch Ireland Statement at the Nature Bilaterals

April 1, 2021

On March 9th 2021 representatives of the European Commission and the Department of Heritage hosted a Nature Bilateral with stakeholders on the topic of better implementation of the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. Below is the statement from BirdWatch Ireland’s Head of Advocacy, Oonagh Duggan at this event. Other stakeholders included farmers, fishers, hunters, renewable energy representatives, environmental NGOs and more. Additional pertinent points were covered by other NGOs by agreement in advance.

“There is growing recognition of the scale of the biodiversity crisis here in Ireland among the general public with a growing number of community groups, specialised groups, citizen scientists, school children and more who are involved in protecting local biodiversity. During this pandemic nature provided respite for people which we hope can be shaped into a long-term positive relationship with the ecosystems, habitats and wildlife that sustain us.

The Birds and Habitats Directives are the most important legal tools we have to protect our biodiversity in Natura sites and in the wider countryside but the tool box needs a suite of measures, actions and research findings. Let’s start with a look at the stats on biodiversity here in Ireland. 85% of EU protected habitats have poor status, two-thirds of our wild bird species are in trouble and marine wildlife and ecosystems are in poor condition. The pressure on habitats and species is coming from all sectors. Each sector represented in the earlier interventions talks about their own area but birds can be negatively impacted by the cumulative effects of all sectors. Populations of a high number of wild bird species are declining and being left with fragments of normal ranges. Habitats are being so degraded that they are not functioning as they should. This will also impact our ability to mitigate and adapt to climate breakdown.

There have been several actions in recent years that have been meaningful and important to address issues. In relation to agriculture, the results-based approach required in several of the biodiversity focused European Innovation partnerships are very promising. The Department of Agriculture was brave to go down this road. We hope that they will be brave again in the CAP Strategic Plan. The government’s support for the EU-wide ban on lead shot will help support healthier wetlands and waterbirds. The peatland restoration projects that have been resourced are much needed and provide inspiration.

Now for the areas that need work:

  1. Historic undervaluing of our biodiversity and Natura sites by decision makers has resulted in failure to provide adequate investment in these the jewels of the crown. This coupled with a lack of institutional coordination to protect and restore biodiversity means that there is zero communication on the value these sites, those who farm them, the ecosystem services they provide and species they support as well as a lack of adequate funding for farmers in particular who are critical to their conservation. There’s a widespread feeling that Natura sites, and protected species, are a hindrance instead of critical parts of our heritage. The hands-on work of the EIPs and LIFE projects have helped but we need an attitude shift in government and effective communications on why these sites and species are important. This is critical as we look to further designation in the future or they will not succeed.
  2. We still have issues with basic transposition of EU law into national law. Currently several sections of the Wildlife Act are not in line with the articles of the Birds Directive. These failures must be addressed urgently.
  3. Policy conflict. As outlined recently by the National Biodiversity Forum, the taxpayer is not getting value for money on biodiversity policy due to a chronic lack of coordination – and sometimes outright conflict – between biodiversity policy and other national policies. A single overarching policy is needed to protect Ireland’s environment into the future. This must include recovery plans for threatened species. These are needed urgently as they will provide cross cutting actions for all sectors. But there must be resourcing and coordination of same. The recommendations of the Curlew Task Force to save the critically endangered Curlew have been sitting on a shelf for 18 months. There have been some investments in on-the-ground conservation of Curlew, but largely the approach has been partial and incoherent. Likewise the Hen Harrier Threat Response plan to save this species remains in draft form for almost three years. We need overarching recovery plans so that sectors are all working to the same goal.
  4. In relation to conflict between biodiversity and agriculture policy, I have a recent example. Land eligibility rules associated with the CAP mean that farmers are faced with a choice to clear so-called unproductive habitat or lose income. In the last two days we have seen many cases of illegal burning of upland habitats destroying wildlife during the bird breeding period, destroying habitats, threatening homes, people and air quality. These sites are mostly SACs. The Commonage Management Plan (CMP) actions of Pillar 2 in the CAP are prepared by farm advisors for farmers but the plans and actions do not refer to the conservation objectives of Natura sites. They should be so that there is coherence with funding for biodiversity on farmland and objectives for biodiversity. The CMPs came into being as a result of the Red Grouse case but still there is a failure to adequately follow through on compliance with this European Court of Justice case. Also, we don’t have detailed conservation objectives for many sites or management plans any sites. This is a major practical obstacle to the conservation of sites and species and needs to be addressed.
  5. HNV farmers of Natura sites and outside of Natura are not financially supported for the wild birds, bees, butterflies, plants and habitats in their charge. Where the current CAP negotiations fail to support adequate funding for farmers, national funds must step in. And the premia for HNV farmers must match forestry premia. A new delivery model such as the one proposed by the Heritage Council Farming for Nature Technical Group should be supported by government to get us to the next level in conservation. The general agri-environment schemes we have seen in the past have not delivered for biodiversity.
  6. Forestry planting is targeting high nature value farmland important to biodiversity which means the wipe out of these habitats for one that is temporary and much less valuable for biodiversity. We need on-the-ground ecological assessment of each afforestation application to safeguard ground nesting birds and habitats.
  7. Environmental assessment. There are continuing major issues with how competent authorities are implementing Article 6.3 of the Birds and Habitat Directives and the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive. We see poor decisions being made from local authority level up to departmental level and resulting in court cases which are the last resort in a system that is failing our sites and species. Inadequate expertise in Art 6.3, inadequate knowledge of case law and lack of ecological expertise is worsening the outcomes for habitats and species and must be rectified through funding for qualified and competent ecologists. Forestry activities are of particular concern. We could afforest the island of Ireland within 20 years without an Environmental Impact Assessment due to the 50ha threshold. No one would agree that this is appropriate. EIA would allow assessment of climate impacts considering that forestry is still planted on peat soils as well as other wide-ranging impacts. We have raised concerns with the Forest Service and with the Commission on this.
  8. Inadequate investment in survey and monitoring of habitats, species, conservation action plans is hindering and will continue to hinder biodiversity restoration and move to an economy in line with the Paris Agreement.
  9. We cannot create a further biodiversity crisis as we try to address the climate crisis. This relates to where we plant trees, how we farm, what food we produce, where we build houses, greenways and renewables. Strategic planning is needed with the safeguarding and restoration of biodiversity as the framework within which we should operate.
  10. In relation to the deployment of renewables we highlight the following:
    1. BirdWatch Ireland has developed a Bird Wind Sensitivity Mapping Tool for onshore wind and a feasibility study for sensitivity mapping for offshore wind but we could not secure the funding to roll this out further. Funding is required.
    2. There is a requirement for standard survey guidelines for priority species to be published and a database developed of the qualifications and experience of surveyors
    3. Survey data should be collated centrally so that everyone can access it.
    4. Enhanced post construction monitoring is urgently required to inform of the real and actual impacts of wind farms on birds and bats. This is a major gap right now and monitoring reports are difficult to access.
    5. We need several data gaps to be filled before any offshore wind is deployed. Those include data of breeding success so that changes in colony size can be understood; Data on prey species of seabirds; Data on seabird foraging areas to determine how they are using the seas spatially; Data on seabird wintering areas and collated data of the different survey work done by offshore wind farms so that we can assess cumulative impacts.

Thank you for listening”. Please support our advocacy work by becoming a member of BirdWatch Ireland or donating here.