Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan TD, statement to the Dáil on the Loss of Biodiversity and the Extinction of Species
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A Cheann Comhairle,
We are losing biodiversity around the globe at a rate unprecedented in human history.
The number of plants, insects, mammals and birds that are threatened or endangered is growing every year. The land, ocean, and atmosphere are being altered to an unparalleled degree.
A few weeks ago, the UN’s Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services published its Global Assessment Report and advised that unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss, there will be a further acceleration in the global rate of species extinction, which is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years.
And it’s not just “over there” in the Amazon Basin or Borneo. While we cut down our forests centuries ago, biodiversity in Ireland is still demonstrating worrying and ongoing declines.
There are five main drivers of biodiversity loss in Ireland include:
- Intensive agricultural and forestry practices
- invasive species
- changes in land use
- over-exploitation of resources such as peatland.
My Department reports every 6 years to the EU on the status of habitats and species protected by the EU Habitats Directive. We have recently submitted the draft report for the past 6 years and it shows that Irish habitats remain under enormous pressure, in particular our peatlands, grasslands, and some of the marine habitats.
I am also concerned about the decline of certain species. Certain birds like the Curlew that used to breed in thousands across the bogs and wet grasslands of Ireland but is now reduced to perhaps 150 pairs.
I have also seen the reports that insects are declining on a massive scale across Europe. Insects are the most abundant terrestrial organisms on the planet and of paramount importance to the “ecosystem services” that sustain life on earth, services like pollination, natural pest control, nutrient recycling and decomposition services. And, of course, insects are the main food for many fish, birds and mammals.
The occurrence and spread of invasive and non-native species in Ireland is also increasing for all environments.
All of this makes for very sobering and worrying reading.
To arrest this decline though we will need to significantly increase our efforts at all levels of society. This is all the more pressing in the face of climate change. A healthy, resilient environment is necessary to help us mitigate, and adapt to, its effects.
There are many positives however and the national efforts, that this Government has led, to conserve biodiversity are bearing fruit.
The Government is responding to the biodiversity emergency and the drivers of its loss and is making progress. My Department is working hard and achieving real results on a number of fronts, with the National Parks and Wildlife Service leading this work.
First of all we have committed in Project Ireland 2040 to investing €60m to protect Ireland’s natural heritage and biodiversity.
We are now on our third National Biodiversity Action Plan. This speaks to the long-running commitment that this Government attaches to this issue.
The current plan runs from 2017 to 2021 and is the key national overarching policy for our work. It sets out actions that a range of government, civil and private sectors will undertake to achieve Ireland’s Vision for Biodiversity; that is, that “biodiversity and ecosystems in Ireland are conserved and restored, delivering benefits essential for all sectors of society and that Ireland contributes to efforts to halt the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems in the EU and globally”.
My Department has also initiated a round of consultations with all relevant Government Departments, agencies and state owned companies, as well as farmers, landowners, other sectors and NGOs, to set out our priorities for action in 2021-2027. We will be focussing on the habitats and species protected under EU Directives, and in the Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and the Special Protection Areas (SPAs) designated under those Directives.
My Department is also engaged in a very wide public consultation process on Heritage 2030, the strategy for all strands of heritage in the coming 10 years.
We have also undertaken a comprehensive range of meaningful and productive actions in recent years. These actions are resulting in real progress to protect and restore our country’s biodiversity:
- Approximately 17% of the terrestrial area of Ireland now lies within the Protected Area network. We have accelerated the designation process.
- We have invested a significant €50m since 2011 on a major restoration effort on our raised bogs.
- The National Parks and Wildlife Service’s Farm Plan Scheme has already contributed to the conservation of protected species on agricultural land e.g. for Chough, Corncrake, Hen Harrier, breeding/wintering geese and waders, and the Natterjack Toad.
- We established the National Curlew Task Force and an NPWS Curlew Conservation Programme.
- We are again recruiting specialist ecology staff and rangers for our parks and reserves.
- The EU LIFE Programme has been a major source of support that Ireland has accessed for the conservation, management and restoration of habitats. These habitats in turn support threatened and protected species. There are too many such projects to list them all here but I will mention a few:
- KerryLIFE is conserving the critically endangered Freshwater Pearl Mussel through catchment-scale measures.
- AranLIFE, which has just concluded, working closely with the farming community of the Aran Islands to improve the conservation status of over 1,000 hectares of farmland, comprising limestone pavement, orchid rich grasslands and machair.
- The Raptor LIFE project is working to connect and restore habitats for Hen Harrier, Merlin, Atlantic Salmon and Brook Lamprey. The great benefit of these LIFE projects are that they provide some space in which to develop and strengthen working relationships with the key stakeholders, the farmers, the local communities, as well as academic or research institutions and other governmental bodies.
- We are currently developing our Biodiversity Sectoral Climate Change Adaptation Plan, placing biodiversity at the heart of climate change solutions.
I am proud to say that my Department recently held Ireland’s first National Biodiversity Conference in February of this year. It is a signifier of our leadership in the protection of biodiversity and collaborative work with the relevant stakeholders.
In the lead-up to the Conference, I encouraged sectors to contribute towards the “Seeds for Nature” campaign in an effort to step up and accelerate progress towards achieving the objectives of the National Biodiversity Action Plan. Over forty Notable advancements that were achieved through this campaign included:
- Coillte and Bord na Móna both made substantial commitments on restoring biodiversity in their land holdings. This will achieve the rehabilitation of 20,000 hectares of cutaway bog and 1,000 hectares of raised bog by 2025 and the restoration of Hazelwood Forest, a 130 ha woodland in a Special Area of Conservation on the banks of Lough Gill.
- I am doubling the funding provided to Local Authorities so that, with local communities, they can take local Biodiversity Action, including clearing invasive species;
- We are establishing a Business and Biodiversity Platform with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and a range of Irish businesses including Gas Networks Ireland, Eirgrid, Kepak, Dawn Meats, Coillte and Bord na Mona;
- The Government is creating a legal onus, or a “biodiversity duty,” on public bodies to have regard to policies, guidelines, and objectives to promote the conservation of biodiversity and the National Biodiversity Action Plan.
- We are funding research into the impact of Climate Change on Biodiversity.
- We are undertaking a Financial Needs Assessment for Biodiversity. This will determine what is needed financially to achieve our biodiversity targets, and to move towards a resource mobilisation strategy for the National Biodiversity Plan.
The Government is taking a co-ordinated approach and working across departments to protect our biodiversity. My colleague the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has achieved much through work in his department:
- Improving habitat management and water quality on lands of conservation value on 50,000 Irish farms through the GLAS scheme.
- Restoring, preserving and enhancing biodiversity through 22 European Innovation Partnerships.
- Restoring native woodland and converting conifers into native woodland through the Native Woodland Scheme.
- Helping the recovery of commercial fish and shellfish stocks in the Celtic Sea. By-catch is being minimised by new landing obligations for some stocks to ensure that all fish caught are counted against quota.
- And helping sealife nursery grounds through a ban on inshore trawling by large boats.
The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, is working through the Observe Programme with my department to improve our knowledge of protected species especially whales, dolphins and seabirds and sensitive habitats.
I will continue to work closely with Minister Bruton as we prepare to implement the All-of-Government Climate Action Plan.
Many of the initiatives that we take around climate change will be of clear long-term benefit to biodiversity and we must take great care to ensure that there are no unintended negative effects on nature in the process.
However, even with all this good work, we will need to raise our game. We need to ensure that we don’t erode our natural capital stock on which both our wellbeing and economy rely.
Some of the actions that need to be considered and resourced includes:
- Management Plans for all protected sites and their habitats and species,
- A conservation programme particularly for grasslands, meadows, and in the uplands, building on the success of the Burren and Aran Programmes,
- New farming models allowing the diversification of agriculture to enable farmers to provide ecosystem services from their lands,
- Restructuring of non-productive, badly-sited conifer plantations, especially on peatlands,
- Expansion of the area of native woodland to ensure functioning natural woodland across the landscape. This will also contribute to our climate mitigation and adaptation targets, as will other conservation and restoration work on peatlands,
- A re-booted programme to remove invasive species, in particular Rhododendron and Laurel to improve the quality of woodland,
- A national native wildflower initiative particularly along transport corridors and in public spaces,
- Finally, a transformational change is required to ensure our consumption patterns are truly sustainable.
Deputies, this Government acknowledges and understands the importance of Ireland’s biodiversity and nature. That is why we have invested significant resources in its protection. That is why we have taken and will continue to take co-ordinated action across departments to care for our habitats and species.
We have made meaningful progress and this needs to be recognised.
I will continue to work hard with my colleagues across government to ensure that the conservation of biodiversity is integral to decision-making across all relevant sectors and to ensure progress is made on the measures referred to in this Statement.