The United Nations InterGovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reports that nature is declining globally at unprecedented levels due to human impacts. Since the publication of its report, Ireland has become the second country in the world to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency.
It's not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now, locally and globally. Ireland's national parks, forests, wetlands, waterways, and oceans are home to a vast array of life that we can observe, support and maintain. In addition, our localities can be greened and developed to continue to support our rich habitats.
The Government supports a number of initiatives to protect our biodiversity and educate and engage communities on how they can get involved.
In simple terms "biodiversity" includes all life on Earth. Biodiversity provides us with clean air, water, food, fuel, medicines, recreation, spiritual enrichment. It supports economic activity, and it protects us from extreme weather. It supports pollination, soil fertility and it helps to regulate our climate. Loss of biodiversity worldwide has led to the wide acceptance of the need to coordinate action on a global scale.
Ireland's natural habitats have evolved over millions of years and support globally important populations of birds, fish, mammals, invertebrates, plants and fungi. The marine habitats surrounding our island are home to whales, dolphins, vast colonies of seabirds, abundant species of fish and cold-water coral reefs; as well as rich algal and invertebrate communities. On land, there is a wealth of species in our mountains, peatlands, turloughs, woodlands, grasslands, lakes, rivers and coastal habitats.
Many of Ireland's economic sectors (particularly tourism and food production) depend on high quality air, soils, water and diverse habitats. However, these industries can only be sustainable if the natural assets on which they are based are protected from the effects of climate change.
There is a broad range of organisations involved in biodiversity conservation, education and public outreach; from central Government departments, State agencies and Local Authorities, to the research community, national and local NGOs, local communities and individuals.
- Since the addition of the biodiversity theme to the Green Schools programme in 2010, over 600 schools have been awarded a biodiversity flag. Green Campus and Neat Streets also work closely with third level and second level establishments.
- The Education Programmes of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) are provided as a means of promoting awareness of our native flora, fauna and their habitats; fostering individual and collective responsibility for the welfare and conservation of our natural heritage and providing information and advice on environmental issues.
- National Biodiversity Week, which takes place in May, offers a range of family-friendly events all over Ireland, focused on celebrating our diverse species and habitats.
- The Heritage Council works with local communities supporting jobs, education and heritage tourism in our local areas. It supports projects such as the Community-Led Village Design Toolkit, the Heritage Officer Programme and a wide range of projects undertaken under The Heritage Management Grants Scheme. The Heritage Council also informs, engages and entertains the public across a wide range of events for National Heritage Week in August.
- Biodiversity in your garden: The National Biodiversity Data Centre has an information resource called 'Be Plant Wise' to provide guidance on gardening and invasive species, runs workshops on wildlife gardening, and has a pollinator-friendly planting code as part of its All-Ireland Pollinator Plan.
- NPWS works with the public and environmental groups to identify and report sightings of declining species, in order to protect identified habitats – you can report sightings of specific species to NPWS via their social media channels.
Ireland has invested nearly €3 billion in the expansion of the forest estate since the late 1980s through successive forestry programmes, with planting targets set out in the Forestry Programme 2014-2020 and restated in the 2016 Programme for Partnership Government. Under the current programme, afforestation rates have been an average of 5,500 ha per year.
The total area under forestry is currently estimated to be 770,020 hectares (or 11% of Ireland's total land area) as a result of successive public policy initiatives; the highest level in over 350 years. Nearly 391,358 hectares, just over half, is in public ownership. Forestry provides verifiable removal and storage of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and forestry already planted will help in meeting our EU commitments over the period 2021-2030. Forestry also provides important resources for the bioenergy supply chain and the wider bioeconomy, as well as timber products for use in the construction and related sectors which can act as a less carbon intensive substitute for other materials.
The Government is committed to increasing afforestation rates beyond existing levels and will aim to achieve 8,000 hectares a year to reach our forestry land cover target of 18% by the second half of this century. This will be achieved through engagement with a range of landowners, from farmers to state bodies and local authorities. An attractive suite of financial incentives have been in place for a number of years to promote increased afforestation rates, sustainable forest management and wood mobilisation. These will be supplemented with knowledge transfer and awareness programmes which will inform people of the benefits of forestry and ecosystem services.
The perception of forest function as primarily timber-production has increasingly shifted to a more multi-functional and balanced view. Other forest functions and services such as recreation, health and wellbeing, biological diversity, maintenance of ecosystem services and the mitigation of climate change are increasingly recognized as integral components of sustainable forest management.
BOGS AND WETLANDS
Our bogs are an important part of our national heritage, not just for us but for wider environmental concerns. Our mild Atlantic climate has resulted in the widespread development of bogs of different types ranging from the blanket bogs of the west and the mountains to the raised bogs of the midlands.
Intact bogs, which are actively forming peat, play an important role in combating climate change by removing excess carbon dioxide from the air and placing it into long term storage for thousands of years. They purify water and reduce flooding by their capacity to absorb, hold and slowly release water. Conserving or restoring bogs is a positive action for climate change mitigation, water quality and flood relief.
Raised bogs are among the world's oldest living, near-natural eco-systems. Many of Ireland's great raised bogs date back almost 10,000 years. However, today, less than 1% of that figure remains as active, living bog – bog that can still support life. The Living Bog project, supported by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the EU LIFE programme, aims to restore 12 of Ireland's raised bog sites by 2020.
As outlined in the National Peatlands Strategy (NPWS, 2016), further research will be undertaken to fully assess the potential to capitalise on the sequestration, storage and emissions reductions that might be achieved through the management, restoration and rehabilitation of peatlands.
Wetland habitats can range from the very small (like a freshwater spring) to habitats which dominate the Irish landscape such as lakes, rivers and bogs. They are home to a large diversity of plant and animal species and form an important network of ecological sites for many species on migration. In addition to their biodiversity value, wetlands contribute significantly to our economic wellbeing and quality of life in a number of ways:
- Improvement and maintenance of water quality by removing and sequestering pollutants and sediments.
- Reduction of the effects of storm and flood events by naturally storing water in the landscape, like a sponge, and releasing it slowly.
- Maintenance of water tables and nutrients in floodplains, thereby helping the production of crops and timber.
- Performance of a vital role in mitigating climate change effects by acting as a carbon store. Peatlands in particular store 20–30% of the world's soil carbon (three times more than the amounts stored in tropical rainforests).
- Over two-thirds of the world's fish harvest is linked to the health of coastal and inland wetland areas.
- Wetlands provide an aesthetic component to our lives, a sense of wilderness and open space, and a place for recreation such as hiking, fishing, shooting, boating and birdwatching.
- Wetlands are an intrinsic part of our cultural heritage in Ireland, providing material for traditional buildings, and contributing to place-names and folklore.
Waterways Ireland (WI) has responsibility for approximately 1000km of navigable inland waterways, both North and South. This includes the management, maintenance, development and restoration of the inland navigable waterway system throughout the island, principally for recreational purposes.
There are a number of ways that individuals and communities can get involved in protecting and maintaining our inland waterways:
- WI has a Community Engagement Toolkit available on its website that equips community organisations with the tools and knowledge they require to help care for the natural heritage of their local waterways. This toolkit includes information about the unique habitats that occupy and surround our waterways including treelines, hedgerows, canal verges, towpath mosaics and the canal itself.
- Heritage in the Community grants are available from WI for projects that create a link between the heritage of inland waterways and local communities.
- Water and Communities Award: WI supports a special Tidy Towns award to recognise communities that have undertaken work to raise the profile of their local waterway.
COASTS AND OCEANS
Our ocean is a national asset, supporting a diverse economy, with vast potential to tap into the global marine market for seafood, tourism, energy and new applications for health, medicine and technology. In parallel, our marine resource gives us many non-commercial benefits, for example, amenity, biodiversity and our mild climate.
Ireland's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covers an area in the sea of more than 420,000 square kilometres. Within this vast marine area an extraordinary range of species, habitats and physical features are to be found. The region also supports a thriving maritime economy that has supported communities for centuries.
Now, more than ever, there's a recognition that we need to protect and conserve our rich marine biodiversity and manage the available natural resources in harmony with surrounding ecosystems. Marine industrial activities require careful assessment, management and regulation in order to protect our environment. Projects such as ObSERVE - led by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, in partnership with the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht – aim to inform the sustainable development of marine industries while protecting marine biodiversity.
The Marine Institute is responsible for marine research, technology development and innovation in Ireland. It provides scientific and technical advice to Government to help inform policy and to support the sustainable development of Ireland's marine resource. Through events such as SeaFest, Ireland's national maritime festival and other outreach and educational activities, the Marine Institute works in partnership with Government departments, other agencies and local organisations to promote our ocean wealth and increase ocean literacy among our citizens.
Along our coasts, there are a number of initiatives that support the ongoing environmental protection of our seas and beaches.
The Blue Flag is one of the world's most recognised eco-labels. Beaches and marinas that achieve this accolade must comply with a specific set of criteria relating to water quality, information provision, environmental education, safety and beach management. The Blue Flag is operated in Ireland by An Taisce -The National Trust for Ireland on behalf of the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE).
An Taisce also operates the Green Coast Awards. Supported by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and Fáilte Ireland, the awards recognise beaches of high environmental quality. To achieve the award, beaches must have excellent water quality and have effective and appropriate management to ensure the protection of the natural environment.
At sea, Bord Iascaigh Mhara's 'Fishing for Litter' initiative encourages fishermen to take ashore the litter they encounter at sea while fishing. Ninety vessels and all six fishery harbours run by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine are currently taking part in the initiative.
We can all contribute to the protection of our coasts and oceans by taking simple steps.
- Ensure you take your litter home from the beach, and engage in 2-minute beach cleans to remove any other rubbish.
- Think Before You Flush: An Taisce's public awareness campaign highlights the problem sanitary products and other items can cause in our marine environment and our wastewater systems if they are flushed down the toilet.
- Take part in local beach cleans in your area.
- Manage your household waste and ensure that you are waste compliant in terms of collection services – household waste that is not managed correctly often ends up in rivers that carry it to the sea.
- See it? Say it! Report illegal dumping to the Environmental Protection Agency or your local authority.