Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 14 November 2023
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action
Citizens' Assembly Report on Biodiversity Loss: Discussion (Resumed)
The purpose of today's meeting is for the committee to examine the recommendations contained in the Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss report.
On behalf of the committee, I welcome the following officials from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to the meeting: Dr. Andy Bleasdale, the lead official in the NPWS with responsibility for the co-ordination and agreement of the national biodiversity action plan for Ireland; Mr. Niall Ó Donnchú, director general; Ms Ciara Carberry, head of the nature conservation directorate; and Dr. Deirdre Lynn and Dr. Claire Cooper from the scientific advice and research directorate.
Before we begin, I will read a note on privilege. I remind the witnesses of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person or entity. If witnesses' statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, I will direct them to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I remind members that they are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located in the Leinster House complex. I ask members who are joining us online to confirm prior to making their contributions that they are on the grounds of the Leinster House complex.
I invite Dr. Bleasdale to make his opening statement.
Dr. Andy Bleasdale:
I am the lead official in the NPWS with responsibility for the co-ordination and agreement of the national biodiversity action plan for Ireland as part of an NPWS team, which includes those who are here with me. I am joined by colleagues, Mr. Niall Ó Donnchú, director general of the NPWS; Ms Ciara Carberry, head of the nature conservation directorate of the NPWS; and Dr. Deirdre Lynn and Dr. Claire Cooper from the scientific advice and research directorate of the NPWS. We have prepared a written statement to accompany a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, which will animate some of the points made in the statement. I am not sure if the presentation can be made in the committee but I will continue in any event.
The NPWS is an executive agency of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage tasked with providing scientific advice relating to nature conservation, including undertaking extensive habitat and species surveys; the designation of protected areas; the management of national parks and nature reserves; the implementation of conservation measures; safeguarding biodiversity; the enforcement of biodiversity legislation; and engagement across government, with the European Union, at global level and with wider society on biodiversity. The structure of the NPWS is presented in the slide schematic. Ms Carberry and I are the two NPWS directors for nature conservation and for scientific advice and research, respectively. Can members see the slide?
Dr. Andy Bleasdale:
The slide shows the functions of the other directorates in the NPWS and some of the milestones in the renewal of the organisation achieved in recent years. These include the publication of both an action plan and a strategic plan for the NPWS, which elaborate on the renewal of the organisation.
Where does the obligation for a national biodiversity action plan come from? The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which the European Union and its member states signed up to at COP15 in December 2022, contains goals and targets to protect and restore nature that are expected to guide national biodiversity action plans in each of the member states and across the world. The NPWS leads on the development of the national biodiversity action plan for Ireland. This plan will be an umbrella policy that will also take account of EU and international biodiversity strategies and policies and relevant policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, strategic plan, the climate action plan and the river basin management plan, among others.
This will be Ireland’s fourth plan. It has been the subject of significant effort over the last two years, with the support, advice and input of a cross-departmental biodiversity working group and a biodiversity forum comprising external experts and other stakeholders. The plan will be published in quarter 1 of 2024, so early next year.
This national biodiversity action plan strives for a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach to the governance and conservation of biodiversity. The aim is to ensure that every citizen, community, business, local authority and semi-State and State agency has an awareness of biodiversity and its importance, and of the implications of its loss, while also understanding how it can act to address the biodiversity emergency as part of a renewed national effort to act for nature and to protect it. Protecting nature is the motto of the NPWS.
The national biodiversity action plan will build upon the achievements of the previous plan. It will contain five strategic objectives while addressing new and emerging issues. The objectives are underpinned by 194 actions linked to specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound, SMART, targets and supported by indicators. The plan will be updated in 2027 to reflect progress on the development of a national restoration plan, which is also required under the nature restoration regulation. This may come up in the discussion later.
Each entity responsible for actions within this plan will provide an annual update on progress and contribute to an interim and final review of the plan. A report on progress will be provided annually to the senior officials group on the environment and climate action and, as appropriate, to relevant Cabinet sub-committees. The Minister also will bring a progress report on the national biodiversity action plan, NBAP, to Cabinet at least once a year.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service very much welcomes the recommendations arising from the Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss. The NPWS continues to work with colleagues across government to progress action for biodiversity. This has resulted in many of the Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss recommendations being echoed in the current draft of the fourth NBAP, including such conservation actions and measures as the preparation of a national restoration plan; an action for the NPWS to seek to establish a strategic nature fund to support and escalate the implementation of long-term measures to support biodiversity conservation and restoration; actions to expand the marine protected area network; actions to improve engagement and communication; actions to support local action, including a roll-out of biodiversity officers to all local authorities; actions to support business via the Business for Biodiversity platform; actions that will reduce the use of pesticides, escalate outcome-based agri-environmental schemes and prepare a national invasive alien species management plan; actions to improve monitoring and data collection, including ongoing support for the National Biodiversity Data Centre; and also an action that will put the NBAP on a statutory footing with more transparent reporting and governance structures.
There are some Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss recommendations that are beyond the remit of the NPWS and will need the involvement of other Departments across government and other actors and stakeholders. I have outlined some of them on the slide. They include a review of fiscal policies to ensure we are not subsidising activities that may harm biodiversity. We are also considering innovative ways to finance the restoration agenda, including through tax breaks, green loans, levies and public-private partnerships. We need to seek, collectively, to embed natural capital accounting into national accounts and ensure this is fully considered by the land use review phase 2. We also need further consideration of biodiversity in planning policy, including an exploration of the concept of net gain, that is, not just stopping net loss but working towards a net gain for biodiversity. We need to ensure there are sufficient courses and-or apprenticeships to build a market or ecosystem of ecologists and restoration practitioners. We need national oversight of the implementation of nature-based solutions that would support our climate objectives, which are aligned in many cases with biodiversity objectives, and the creation of ecologist roles in various Departments to recognise the interlinkages between the climate and biodiversity agendas.
We were asked to say a few words about site designation in Ireland and I will give the committee a brief outline in regard to that. Ireland’s natural heritage is an integral part of our national identity. Conserving nature requires the harmonisation and integration of a range of policies, strategies, plans and programmes. Designation and conservation of certain key sites are also required under both European and national laws. To facilitate this, site-specific conservation objectives have been set by the NPWS.
There are a number of different ways in which this protection is achieved. The strongest protections apply at sites which are significant on the European stage, including the special areas of conservation, SACs, and the special protection areas, SPAs, listed on the slide.
There are more than 600 of these in Ireland currently, as members can see, and all are protected under the nature directives. These European sites are found in various parts of the country and in our marine waters, but with a concentration along the western seaboard. These are our SACs or SPAs. There are also important designations for sites that are significant nationally. On land, these are designated as natural heritage areas, NHAs, and protected under our national legislation rather than by European law. A range of other protections exist, such as nature reserves and national parks, and, as committee members will be aware, there are important plans under way to designate marine protected areas under new legislation.
I will now focus on the SAC network. The EU habitats directive is transposed into Irish law by the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011. This directive lists certain habitats and species that must be protected within SACs. The slide that we are viewing shows the area on land that is designated as SAC and the next slide shows the footprint of offshore designations, of which there are currently eight sites. These slides are given to the committee as an aide-mémoireof the meeting. Under the birds directive, SPAs are designated for the protection of listed rare and vulnerable bird species, regularly occurring migratory species and wetlands, especially those hosting birds of international importance. The next slide shows the NHA network, of which there are 155 sites designated to protect raised and blanket bogs.
As I mentioned, certain other types of protection may be afforded to sites, as set out in the documentation provided. The next slide shows our national park network and members will note the recently designated Boyne Valley-Brú na Boinne national park which was announced on 29 September of this year. This completes the network of sites in the north east and across the country, which shows off the jewels in the crown of the national parks in Ireland. The next slide shows our nature reserves, which are areas of importance for wildlife and protected under the Wildlife Acts. In combination, each of these types of sites adds value to the protection of biodiversity under national and EU instruments.
I will now say a few words on the conservation status of habitats and species in Ireland. According to the 2019 Article 17 report on the implementation of the EU habitats directive, 85% of Ireland's habitats are assessed as being in an unfavourable conservation status. Some 46% of habitats are recorded to be in decline, with only 2% of habitats reported as improving. These are ongoing declines that are reported in our grasslands and peatland habitats and in marine environments. Over 70% of habitats are reported to be impacted by pressures related to agricultural activities.
Ireland is not unique in experiencing these types of problems and these assessments reflect similar trends across Europe. Habitats are listed on the directive because they are perceived to be threatened at EU level. Those that are most threatened are the ones we are trying to protect but they are the ones that are most under pressure, so it is no surprise to us that many habitats are in an unfavourable condition.
The bottom two graphs on the next slide are related to species under the habitats directive. Almost 60% of species are listed as having favourable conservation status in Ireland. Therefore, the trend for species is better than the trend for habitats at the moment. Ireland is the stronghold for many of these species and we have healthy populations of many listed mammals and plants.
The next slide focuses on bird species. Some 21% of breeding birds were assessed in our 2019 Article 12 report on the implementation of the EU birds directive as being declining. Approximately 60% of birds commonly occurring in Ireland are now on the red or amber conservation lists, and that includes the corncrake and the hen harrier. A species group that is also under threat is that of breeding waders, which is probably the most threatened group of bird species in Ireland. This would include birds that depend on good management of farmland for their conservation, such as curlew, lapwing, redshank and snipe, all of which species are declining significantly at the moment.
The pressures causing ongoing declines in habitats and birds are being prioritised through the CAP strategic plan, which is a positive and a green light that we would like to see advanced in the years ahead. This addresses pressures in relation to grazing and water pollution and it is applied through a suite of interventions and EU and national funding instruments, including the LIFE programme.
In summary, and without prejudice to the whole-of-government response to the report and recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, the national biodiversity action plan includes many actions that will address the recommendations arising from the assembly. We are encouraged by the level of engagement across government and society to prepare an ambitious national biodiversity action plan.
It represents our collective response to the biodiversity emergency and a national recognition of the importance of nature in our everyday lives. The slide I have shown here shows the full engagement, including over 600 delegates and 90 speakers at our second national biodiversity conference in 2022, so this is a national conversation and not just an internal conversation taking place within the NPWS. It is taking place across Government and with wider society.
We are also looking forward to a positive and constructive engagement on this very important topic. Gabhaim buíochas leis na baill uilig as a n-aird agus as a bhfoighde inniu.
I thank Dr. Bleasdale for his opening statement and the slide presentation, which was very interesting. There is a lot in there for us to delve into and we will try to do that. I ask members to indicate to ask questions and we will take a list. I point out again the five minutes for questions and answers, but I will be as fair as I can and give latitude where I think it is beneficial.
I have a quick question on the remit of the NPWS and the extent of the national biodiversity action plan that is coming. To what extent is the service looking at biodiversity restoration outside the national parks, SPAs, SACs and the national heritage sites, or is its remit very much to look just at those sites? We saw the maps there with many areas highlighted in red that are very much in the service's jurisdiction but there is a lot of land area that is not indicated in red. We obviously need to protect and enhance biodiversity in these areas but we certainly need to do it outside them as well.
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
I thank the Chair for the question and for the invitation to talk to the committee this morning. The straight answer to his question is we are Ireland's nature agency. We have responsibility for designated areas, namely, national parks and nature reserves, and for nature in the wider countryside.
I welcome the delegation and thank them for the presentation. As always it is thoughtful and helpful. The NPWS has a difficult job but it is a really important one at the moment.
As I see it, part of the service's work is encouraging people along the way and that must be recognised. I will take a couple of examples in County Clare, which is obviously the area I know best in that regard. The service has done really good work in the Burren and in many other areas throughout the county and that is recognised. However, I am concerned the work done by the NPWS does not always feed into where the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is at. I will give two examples. Initially, there were areas designated for the hen harrier in east Clare. Farmers were resistant to the notion of having lands designated because it put a certain burden on them. However, at the time the then Minister put in place a scheme that provided compensation and it was accepted by the farmers. It was not a lot of money, but it allowed them get on with their business, and so they accepted the designation. Unfortunately, that is now gone, so farmers signed up to designation and have lost the support, and that is under the new agri-climate rural environment scheme, ACRES.
There is a similar situation in the Burren, where a really wonderful project was developed in consultation with the farmers. Dr. Brendan Dunford and others put together a marvellous project, that got buy-in from farmers that people would never expected, wherein an appropriate level of farming activity was going to maintain the natural flora and fauna of the region. It is a project highlighted across Europe as best-in-class and best practice. The new ACRES does not benefit, and in fact reduces, the moneys to the farmers in the region and spreads funding more widely and thinly across other areas, which really disincentivises these farmers continuing to do what they are doing.
They can change their practices and they still will not be in breach of any regulations but it will impact the environment negatively. Really, I am asking Dr. Bleasdale for some of their thoughts on those two particular projects. I am not asking him to be critical, but to give his assessment of how important the work that was done had been in getting farmers on board, and how it will now be a disincentive if those supports are not to be maintained. Farmers quite clearly have an expectation based on their projected incomes because they have to live as well. They have to educate their kids and they have to live their lives. It is tight living in some of those areas. There are no big farmers here. They may have a lot of acreage but the capacity to deliver a return is very limited.
Dr. Andy Bleasdale:
I thank the Senator. Those are two very good examples of progress that was made. The challenge is maintaining that progress over time, which is never easy. It is never the case that one just resolves a conservation issue and then walks away, and it is all sorted and done.
First, in the context of the Burren, we were the co-ordinating beneficiary of the BurrenLIFE project, as it was back in the day. There were only 17 farmers involved. We advocated very closely with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to expand that pilot phase into a Burren farming for conservation programme, which was very successful. It factorially increased the uptake of the farmers involved. They were supported for the efforts they invested in the management of those habitats within the Burren within three SACs. That then became the Burren programme. There were three steps in the progress and all was good so far. The final step was the ACRES co-operation project step, which the Senator mentioned. The ambition of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine was to learn from the lessons in the Burren and apply them almost nationwide. Officials sought to do that across eight landscapes, including the Burren and Aran Islands. The difficulty with that step, according to Dr. Brendan Dunford, was that it was actually a step backwards for the Burren, although it might have been a step forward for the rest. We will, therefore, have to work that out. There is no silver bullet here but we have to learn from what was delivered in the Burren across each of those three first steps, which were really positive. If we are now encountering a step backwards, we will have to address that collectively across government, in conversation with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Its officials runs the scheme, so we cannot tell what they must do. However, we must also reflect on successes and failures, if there are failures. There are new data coming to light that show a backward step. Let us deal with that.
It is very clear from my engagement with farmers that they will not continue to be as careful about how they do their business because there is no incentive. They can achieve their new level of payments, which are less than they were getting before, by doing less conservation work. They are trying to survive and this is not helpful.
Dr. Bleasdale might also please reflect on the hen harrier situation.
Dr. Andy Bleasdale:
Sure. Again, we have had some issues with the designation of hen harrier. It was received very negatively by much of the farming community in that it designated vast areas of upland landscape that might have been used for afforestation in times gone by. At that point in time, when that network of sites was designated, we sought to have a National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, farm plan scheme that would support farmers who wanted to farm for nature in those habitats. This was not necessarily to replace the premium they would have gotten for forestry, but to encourage them to farm and be supported for farming for biodiversity. That scheme fell on the rocks when there was no money back in the day during the crash, etc. However, we have worked very hard, again with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to prepare a European innovation partnership, EIP, for hen harrier. That was led by Fergal Monaghan and his team and it was broadly successful and well received by the farming community-----
By way of an example, unfortunately, this is again very considerably reducing the payment to the farmers. They are now being standardised across a wider area. All that will do is have other farmers say that it is not worth their while because these are farmers who bought into it and, quite frankly, the State is turning their backs on them.
Dr. Andy Bleasdale:
These could be growing pains for a new ACRES co-operation project delivery model that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will have to reflect on. Steering groups will be set up to oversee those projects, so I would like to think that knowledge coming from the ground from farmers would inform the next steps of those projects.
Is the situation not pretty bleak? I refer to some of the statistics that were given in the opening statement: 85% of Ireland's habitats are assessed to be in unfavourable conservation status; 46% of habitats are reported to be in decline; and 60% of species listed under the habitats directive are recorded as having favourable conservation status, but that presumably means that 40% have a less than favourable, or an unfavourable, conservation status.
Dr. Bleasdale also mentioned, and this could be taken two ways, that the assessment results are similar to the EU average and are no surprise. People could hear that and think we are no worse than the rest of Europe, but what it is actually telling us is that the biodiversity issue is very deep, very wide and is all across Europe. Is that the case?
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
That was not the intention of the comment at all. In the context of nature, the National Parks and Wildlife Service has no intention of being in the pack. We want to be ahead of the pack. The comment was made by way of international comparator. The statistics we gave, and we will not sugar-coat this, indicate the State has not covered itself in glory in its response to nature. There is no other way to put that. We simply have not. Many factors have contributed to that, not least resource prioritisation. We are now in a situation where resources for the NPWS are being prioritised and are growing and we are trying to address the shortcomings of the past, if I can put it that diplomatically.
We are currently in the middle of an Article 17 process to look again at habitats to see what state they are in. We anticipate that there will be some improvement. I cannot quite put a number on that because the next report is not due until 2025, but we have made very significant interventions across the habitat network in the context of dealing with threatened species, the kind of resources we can put into play, and owning up to the shortcomings of the past. We are looking forward to the 2025 report. I hope we will be back here reporting improvements, certainly network improvements, in some of our habitats. The intention was certainly not to say that being less than middling is good enough. We need to be ahead of the pack.
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
We are here to engage on the national biodiversity action plan and the power of work put in by the citizens' assembly regarding biodiversity. Our staffing has grown by 35% and our funding has doubled since 2020. The NPWS is back to 2008 levels of funding. There are almost two decades of added responsibility. Particularly on the international compliance side, we have a significantly bigger network of designated land to manage. We are in the teeth of a biodiversity crisis. We are the first generation of NPWS officials to know that and we are the last generation that can do anything about it. Those kind of facts bring you to your senses very quickly.
On the kind of growth trajectory we are looking at, the nature restoration regulation is coming at us. It was agreed at trilogue last week. We have been in the vanguard of presenting Ireland's position on that and negotiating the outcomes. This is the Natura directives 2.0. There is no other way to put that. This is a very serious intervention by the EU and member states in the context of addressing the biodiversity crisis. That needs to be resourced. We are engaged with our parent Department and with the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform, and across government on what that means. We have undertaken an international comparators report in the context of the kind of scale of staffing that we need to address our current obligations, the obligations that are coming at us in the context of nature restoration law and the uptick that is needed on how we are doing as regards habitats and species.
I am not in a position to tell the Deputy what those numbers are at present because they are confidential.
Suffice to say, the trajectory of growth in numbers and resources we have seen over the last number of years needs to be maintained over the next ten years if we are to be in a position to respond to those challenges.
Will Mr. Ó Donnchú talk to me about wildlife crime, in particular, fires deliberately set by farmers, which have a devastating impact? We are not talking about tens of fires across the country but hundreds of them. Will Mr. Ó Donnchú talk about the scale of the problem, the resources in place to tackle it, the reason there not a specific wildlife crime unit and what penalties exist?
Mr. Ó Donnchú mentioned the new national park, which is obviously very welcome. I presume he is in favour of having more national parks. Does he have a view on the opportunity of taking the Conor Pass, making it a national park and rewilding it?
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
I will start with the Conor Pass and work my way back, if that is okay. Areas of high nature value come on the market quite often. We are always interested in areas of high nature value but we do not do our negotiating in public, no more than we negotiated the purchase of Brú na Bóinne. Suffice to say, we are well aware of the Conor Pass and its nature value. It is designated and we are looking at that, with a number of other opportunities.
Working back through the questions, and the Deputy will stop me if I forget one, I will come back to the first one. Not all fires are set by farmers and not all fires are illegal. There is a burning season and many farmers undertake that burning very responsibly and within the law. The burning season is open right now. There have been pressures in the past to extend that burning season. That has not happened and nor does the NPWS favour any extension of the burning season. We apply a significant amount of resourcing to the monitoring and deterring of illegal fires. This year, for instance, we deployed air cover and drone cover and significant resources on the ground during the orange and red warnings one gets around what is called "wildfire potential". We do not have naturally occurring wildfires but it gets that name. I believe that was a significant deterrent this year, with the eyes in the sky and patrols on the ground, who came upon a number of fires that were being illegally started. There will be prosecutions ensuing from that. I cannot go any further on that because there are active files in that respect.
If I can come back to the wildlife crime unit, everybody in the National Parks and Wildlife Service, from me right across the organisation, is responsible for addressing wildlife crime, in the same way as everybody in An Garda Síochána is. I will not have time here to go into the anatomy of a crime but I would be very happy, on another occasion, to describe how NPWS responds to a report of a wildlife crime, whether it is illegal burning, hedge cutting or hedge destruction out of season, badger baiting or whatever else. We have protocols in place for how the organisation reacts to those reports.
Looking at the metrics this year, we have had a very successful year in terms of the number of prosecutions. However, the number of successful prosecutions is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the activities within NPWS to address wildlife crime. Not all cases come to court. Some are dealt with on the ground, on the spot, by the intervention of our rangers, district conservation staff and so forth. I could give some examples of those. Looking at the hard metrics, we would have a couple of hundred active wildlife crime cases of varying degrees under review at any point in time. Members may have picked up in the media recently that we had some headline wins in the courts.
The courts now recognise that wildlife crime is a crime and needs to be treated and addressed accordingly. That is not me making a statement I should not make about the courts system. It has been a learning process for everyone around the destruction of nature and its wider societal impact, no matter how local it is. We have had 55 successful prosecutions so far this year. Another four are due in court next week. Beneath all of that there are a couple of hundred active files, some of which are dealt with by intervention locally. The intervention is that where something has been destroyed or damaged, the person responsible needs to restore it. That is often a swifter, more exacting response than working through the courts system. We have quite a number of those. I believe I have answered most of the questions.
I thank the witnesses for a really good presentation. I do not believe anyone in the committee would fail to be impressed by the statement that this is the first generation to know and the last generation that can do anything about it. Looking back at the last national biodiversity plan, it sounds like we are trying to turn an oil tanker, which is not a great metaphor in a fossil fuel crisis. Can Mr. Ó Donnchú give us some insight into what failed in that plan? What were the shortcomings of the last plan that might give us lessons for the next one? It certainly seems, as was shown on the screen, that there were no geographic targets. That sounds like an extraordinary omission. It does not chime with the citizens' advisory group that talked about targets and timeliness being at the heart of any successor plan. We would like to hear a bit more about that because the plan presumably is going to be the linchpin around which we will try to get change. Maybe the witnesses could send us some details on the enforcement activity and the impact and so on because we had the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, in last week and it pointed the finger at local authorities. This week it is pointing the finger at particular local authorities that have failed. It named four today in the media, so there is a bit of name and shame in that regard. Certainly, the view of the citizens' assembly was that enforcement has lacked teeth, that the responsibilities must be clear, bodies must be held accountable for performance and there should be a review of enforcement and so on. It was critical of enforcement generally. I know part of that is about more staff and so on but are there other barriers to being successful?
The issue we keep coming back to is, as Mr. Ó Donnchú himself said, 70% of the impact is coming from agriculture, broadly speaking. Can he paint a vision for agriculture in ten years' time which will be prosperous but will be aligned with the regeneration of nature? I believe that is where a lot falls down. Senator Dooley mentioned how people who stepped up now feel disappointed. However, there does not seem to be an income stream or something that gives people confidence for the future, if they shift the way they manage. Who is going to generate that? The agriculture sector was warning us that you cannot be too confident in saying carbon farming will generate resources. We are told that on rewetting bogs we cannot be confident that farmers can generate income for an individual hectare of land. There seems to be that gulf between the 70% of key agents and the climate. Lastly, the assembly was very much saying there needs to be a higher authority to bang heads, essentially saying that other Departments are not aligned with what the witnesses are trying to achieve. Perhaps they do not want to comment on that but has that arisen in consideration of the national biodiversity plan, for example, who would bang heads?
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
I thank the Deputy. I will take some of the questions. Dr. Deirdre Lynn will take the others.
I will start with the farming community. The first responders to nature are the farmers. We believe in partnerships with the farming community. The reason the Burren project was so successful is that it was farmer-led, even if there was a degree of persuasion around it initially. It is really important to be in the business of persuading and understanding as distinct from being solely in the business of prosecution. To us, farmers are a key community and a key partner. They are the custodians of nature and the first responders to nature. Like any other business, farming has to respond to economic signals. The Deputy has hit the nail on the head. Where is the compensation, the reward and the economic return for the farmer? We believe that there is an economic return in nature because there are nature services that farming a different way for nature will yield. I am not just referring to carbon sequestration and carbon storage, but to clean water, better air quality, flood attenuation and so on. My colleagues are in a better position to talk about that.
On the higher authority issue, in the past number of years we have seen a step-up, if I can call it that, in the engagement across government with nature. That is not in any way to criticise previous Governments and so on. There were other priorities that perhaps pushed nature somewhat down the agenda. Certainly, in the past number of years the engagement with colleagues from the Department of Enterprise and Employment across to the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Environment, Climate and Communications has been incredibly positive. We see that, in particular, in the outcome of the draft national biodiversity action plan, which will be published in the next number of weeks. The engagement looks and feels different because it is different. Nature is firmly embedded across government thinking. As Mr. Bleadsdale said at the outset, there has to be a whole-of-government and a whole-of-society approach. For there to be a whole-of-society approach, there has to be a whole-of-government approach first. In the context of our day-to-day dealings, we can very much see and sense that reality now. I might refer to Dr. Lynn to speak to the specifics of where the most recent national biodiversity plan might have fallen short.
Dr. Deirdre Lynn:
The third national biodiversity action plan covered the period 2017 to 2021. What is very interesting is that something happened in 2019 on the back of the global assessment that was produced by the intergovernmental panel for biodiversity and ecosystem services. Nationally, we also produced our assessment reports from which Mr. Bleadsdale showed some of the results. A lot of it started to seep into the consciousness of people. Nature started to be talked about more and we started to get more concerned about.
On the governance of the third plan, we had a biodiversity working group, which was an interdepartmental working group made up of officials across various Departments. The reporting structure was such that they were reporting progress updates to the NPWS and we were not really going any higher than that to report back on progress. We are strengthening the governance in the next plan. There will be a new and expanded biodiversity working group that is going to include more members, for example, from the Department of Finance, which has committed to looking at fiscal policymaking in respect of the new biodiversity action plan. The plan will be on a statutory footing, so there will also be a requirement for public bodies to report on their progress on the plan. As Mr. Bleadsdale said, we will report the-----
Dr. Deirdre Lynn:
We will prioritise in the development of the national restoration plan. A lot of that work will be worked out and thrashed out in the development of that plan that will happen over the next couple of years. Then we will update and refresh the biodiversity action plan in 2027 to reflect the national restoration plan. That will put focus on where our prioritisation needs to happen.
I would just worry that if the NPWS does not get down to a local level, it will not get the leverage and the farmer groups, dairy processors and so on will not see this is coming to their area and it is coming fast.
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
There is a confluence of two issues here. I am sure members are familiar with them. The national biodiversity action plan will be published in the first quarter. That is anticipated to include 100 to 150 of the recommendations of the citizens' assembly. The nature restoration law to which I referred, which was agreed at a trilogue at the European Parliament, obliges Ireland to publish a national restoration plan by 2026. One of the areas to be covered in that national restoration plan, which will probably give the Deputy the kind of metric he is looking for, is the removal of barriers in the river network. That will probably give one of the building blocks.
The Deputy is absolutely right about geography. Implicit in the national biodiversity action plan are our obligations under the Natura directives. Those special areas of conservation are by definition geographically based. Similarly, the SPA network is geographically-based. We are looking at significant expansion of the SPA network as we speak, mainly in the offshore arena. What we do not do, and I do not believe it is feasible for us to do it, is metrics on a county level. However, we can do it at a habitat level. That will come through the work that Ms Carbery is doing on the nature conservation side. I am not sure if that addresses the Deputy's point or if it is helpful.
Dr. Deirdre Lynn:
One area we think we will strengthen in the fourth national biodiversity action plan will be progress on invasive alien species, which was not progressed in the third national biodiversity action plan to the extent it deserved attention. It is mostly the mainstreaming and the socialising of biodiversity across government. Interestingly, the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform will start tagging government expenditure for biodiversity and also looking at expenditure that could be considered harmful for biodiversity. We are making great steps in trying to figure out what we are spending; where are we spending it; and can we be smarter? The role of NPWS is to try to socialise a lot of those different elements and work with our colleagues across government to try and raise the profile and the importance of the biodiversity agenda.
Dr. Andy Bleasdale:
The question of the vision for agriculture is a very well posed and one with which we all grapple. As Dr. Lynn said, this is an umbrella policy. It will not deliver the metrics of action in the Burren, Shannon Callows or any of the sites where action is required but, as he said, the change in attitudes in the past four or five years has been incredible. The question for us is how we harvest that goodwill and positivity and work with the farming community and the farming organisations to deliver the ambition they have to maintain their livelihoods in these environments and also for us, as Mr. Ó Donnchú said, to confer value in well-managed land and how do we do that. It is through projects such as the wild Atlantic nature project that actually worked with the farming community in the north west on blanket bog landscapes whereby, through a simple scoring system – under which there is quite complicated science but the front end is quite simple scoring system from zero to 10 - the higher the score the farmer achieves through his or her management of the land, the better the payment he or she receives. If we can confer that value to the land, these communities will speak for us on our behalf.
They will drive an agenda that may be faster than we can support. Working in partnership with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and working with our regionally-based staff, farming communities and their representative groups, the ambition can be quickly achieved provided we do it in a way that is sustainable over time. The national biodiversity action plan is never going to provide that level of detail but it should provide that vision, which needs to be supported from the bottom up through action led by local communities.
Mr. Ó Donnchú nicely and succinctly defined the National Parks and Wildlife Parks as "Ireland's nature agency". I welcome that short framing of the service.
When people hear the words "national parks" they think of areas that are managed for nature. They think of large swathes of protected lands where nature and biodiversity are managed, prioritised and protected. That is not the case. In Ireland, the term "national parks" covers a wide range of areas, from tourism and recreation to geographical structures. How are national parks defined in Ireland and are they protected by legislation?
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
National parks in Ireland are open to the public. In our national parks we are in the business of presentation as well as preservation and conservation. Each of the eight national parks is quite different in terms of habitats, landscape and relative attraction to the public and tourists. The interventions we make at some of the parks are very different from those we make at others. There is a commonality of challenges. Certainly where there are visitors, one of those challenges is to find the right balance between visitor management and the public's enjoyment of these public assets and our conservation and nature obligations. Dr. Bleasdale referred to a restive space. This is an ongoing piece of work. The popularity of our national parks has grown immeasurably in referring to national parks.
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
I do not want to mislead the Deputy. National parks would, by and large, be either designated as SACs, SPAs or a combination of both. I cannot say offhand if it is 100% coverage in terms of that protection. By and large, it is a working assumption that we make because we are quite inquisitive. We have increased the area of the national parks by about 20% in the last seven years or so. Generally, what we are adding to the national network is of high nature value, some of which would be designated already and some of which needs designation. The working assumption is that they map over to be fully protected.
In fact, there are no management plans for any of the national parks. Is that correct? None of them operates a management plan. Nature is not the key priority for them. They are very much a much broader entity.
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
Yes. The priority with national parks is nature. The national parks are hugely popular so there is a significant visitor component. We host over 6 million visitors per annum. When one is in the business of presentation and persuasion, the persuasion piece is that people see nature in action and see these beautiful areas. They are also hugely valuable as a economic driver locally so we cannot be blind to that.
In the context of farming, we would have statistics around whether the national parks are farmed or not. There is an element of farming for native species, in Connemara and in Killarney. There is an element of grazing rights, for instance, in parts of Wicklow and Dublin mountains national park. That grazing is managed very carefully in the context of protecting nature.
There are management plans that we operate to. They are not published formally in the context of what a management plan means in the Natura directives, but let me give Deputy Whitmore two examples. We are often criticised for not addressing the rhododendron problem, for instance, in Killarney. That criticism is absolutely misplaced. Our teams in Killarney have cleared over 2,000 ha of rhododendron this year alone. That is another restive space. One can never stop because the bloody thing tends to grow back. Like many invasive species, it is resilient. That is a constant job. In Donegal, in Glenveagh National Park, we have cleared entire mountainsides. When my teams sit down annually to prepare their capital investment and current investment plans for the year, protecting nature, working to enhance that nature, working to document that nature and ensuring that we are adhering to the Natura directives is top of their list but they have got to align that with the management of the visitors.
I suppose the question is whether there is space to have an overlap of 6 million visitors a year and protect nature. I am of the belief that there needs to be areas that are no-go areas where nature is allowed be. That is where Europe and the nature restoration was going as well. They were talking about highly protected areas. That language might have fallen out of the legislation. Is that where Mr. Ó Donnchú wants to go with our national parks to have some space in there that is only for nature? Even in the Wicklow national park, there was a review and a big public consultation on the national park but it was a car-parking plan. That, ultimately, was what it was. It was about how we can get tourists in. I accept tourism is a huge component of it but there should be space in our national parks for nature and biodiversity. If the National Parks and Wildlife Service was to do a review of monitoring national parks, how much more biodiverse are they than their neighbouring countryside? Can Mr. Ó Donnchú point to a national park where biodiversity objectives and ecological objectives have been met and where he could say that if one walks into that national park, one will see A, B and C, and that it is such a biodiverse area? I do not know whether there are any national parks which one can say that of.
I understand that the National Parks and Wildlife Service has been under-resourced. It is great that there is more of a focus from Government on this and it is really important, but there needs to be core areas in our countryside that are absolutely protected and there needs to be corridors between all those core areas so that we can have this ecological communication between the areas. That is where we need to be going and I would like to think that is also the National Parks and Wildlife Service's objective. Six million visitors is a lot. It is great that people are out in nature but we need to have protections for nature that too.
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
Dr. Andy Bleasdale will come in on some of this, but I want to address a couple of points there.
There are 87,000 ha covered by the national park and nature reserve network. By definition, significant parts of that national park network are not accessible to the public, nor will they be. We make decisions all the time about extending trail networks, etc. We have made them in Killarney, for instance. We are making them right now in Wild Nephin. There will be areas that the public will not be able to access.
We have no evidence that public access is damaging biodiversity necessarily at any of our national parks. We do not have that evidence.
As an ecologist, I would say that the likelihood is that if there is large footfall, if people are bringing their dogs in, if people are riding their horses through and if we are not managing deer, the reality, from a scientific perspective, is that any footfall will impact on it.
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
Only on leads. They are open to the public and will remain so. There is a honey-potting effect. You get it significantly in Wicklow Mountains national park because of its proximity to Dublin and all of that, where the public is a problem and fires are lit and so on. We had a major campaign last year to stop that activity because fires were getting out of control during peak visitor seasons. Wicklow is hugely challenged because of its proximately to Dublin. The endeavour, which is multi-agency and which the Deputy talked about, was not about the carpark per sebut rather an integrated transport plan involving public transport as well. That is absolutely essential because we want to make these national parks and the visitor component as sustainable as possible. However, this is an ongoing challenge.
We are working on some trails through Wild Nephin, but significant parts of that Irish tundra landscape will not be accessible. Right now, there is much restoration work that needs to be undertaken there and that restoration work is ongoing across the network of national parks. It can be seen every day in Wicklow with the amount of felling of commercial conifers that is going on and their replacement with native species, just to give an example.
I will go back briefly to Brú na Bóinne National Park. Parts of that national park are designated as SPA and SAC. A significant amount of it is designated. Mr. Bleasdale will come in on the farming piece but that is a lighthouse farm. They are farming there for nature. We have a significant agri-economy unit. This gives us the opportunity to get up close and personal with how they are farming for nature with the results in the multispecies swards, the reduction in the use of inorganic fertilisers and so on. This is hugely valuable to us in terms of what we are doing in respect of our farm plan scheme and our engagement with the farming community.
On the SACs, I know there was a court decision from Europe that there were not legal protections for 217 out of the 423 SACs we have. I think we are now probably up to 406. Can Mr. Ó Donnchú give us the latest figure on that? How many of the 423 SACs that came in under that court judgment are now covered by legal protections?
Ms Ciara Carberry:
As of this week, I think 416 was the number of SACs with statutory instruments. There will be, I expect, another five before the end of the year. To some extent, our total number of SACs is changing under our feet - we are at 441 now. The total number of SACs that are now covered by statutory instruments is 416 and we expect it will be 421 by the end of this year.
Ms Ciara Carberry:
There will be a few bits and pieces and they will be done, I think, in the early weeks of next year.
We were referencing targets and so on earlier. With that designation piece comes a legal requirement, as the Deputy probably knows, to set site-specific conservation objectives. In the same case, the second pillar was in relation to site-specific conservation objectives. Just for the Deputy’s information, there is complete coverage now on site-specific conservation objectives.
Dr. Andy Bleasdale:
I thank the Deputy for the well-posed question. It is a challenge. How does one manage our national parks? As I said, they are jewels in the crown, but they are all different from one another. They all have different starting points and perhaps end points as well. The Brú na Bóinne, or Boyne Valley, park is different from the others in many senses. I would not want to assume that we want to close the door on those sites and stop them being managed or even farmed. Farming actually supports the habitats for which they are selected. That is an important point as well. If we close the door on farming or stop management, they will revert to something else that they are not protected for legally under the habitats or birds directive. We need to ensure the site-specific conservation objectives that Ms Carberry mentioned are delivered, and that is the retention, through grazing in many cases, of some of these upland habitats.
Some parts of the Nephin landscape mentioned by the Deputy will be wilderness and do not need any intervention while other parts need ongoing management, be that drain blocking, rhododendron clearance, removal of conifers or the management of grazing.
While much of the discussion is focused on where we can go from here and what is happening out there, geography and geology have a major part to play in all of this. In the part of the world I come from, farming is much less intensive and there are a lot of mountains, bogs and forestry. Much of this forestry has historically been Sitka spruce and issues around this have caused serious problems. People hear about fires and think they are all bad, which is not necessarily the case. There can be instances where burning is needed.
When many farmers hear about re-wetting, they think of flooding. It is the same when we talk about people being radical. People think they are reckless. The word does not mean that but when farmers hear about rewetting, they think ,"They're going to flood my land." This is the immediate jump people go to. There needs to be a greater degree of understanding as to what exactly is meant by that and how it can work because in some instances, drainage is what is required to assist situations. I spoke recently to farmers in the area of the Shannon basin that is quite shallow through the midlands. They were getting assistance from the Department involving ground-nesting birds that were nearly extinct and needed to be looked after. They did a lot of great work on that and then the summer floods arrived and washed the nests down the river and farmers saw the birds flying overhead squawking as three years of work were washed away. People will say drainage cannot be brought in so clearly there has to be a balance here. This is the issue I will come to.
An awful lot of this is about how we bring in technologies and a lower level of production. We need to see more biodiversity and less intensiveness but there has to be a payoff. Farmers have to see that this will be worthwhile. Will there be State intervention to pay farmers to farm like this so that it will be worthwhile for them? The farming sectors that are least profitable such as sheep farming, beef farming to some extent and certainly the suckler cow farmers in my part of the world have no problem embracing all the various schemes that have been introduced such as rural environment protection scheme or the agri-environment options scheme because they see them as money they can get because they are not making an awful lot of money out of farming. However, when you move to dairy or marginal areas or more extensive or intensive farming, they are not inclined to go take any of these routes. What can be done to ensure this can happen? What role can the Department play in bringing about that change?
Dr. Andy Bleasdale:
This is the nut that must be cracked. How do you bring the farming community with you because certainly if it owns the land, we cannot manage the land without its involvement? The challenge then is how we confer value on the land, have the right supports through advisers, incentivise and pay. I would stop short of saying the word "compensation". I do not think the Deputy said it either. It is about rewarding farmers for the delivery of ecosystem goods and services that the State wants to see achieved be it through the delivery of the conservation objectives, lighter-touch grazing or slightly elevating water levels. This does have an impact on production. Production must become less intensive if that is the objective that needs to be delivered on that parcel of land in the Shannon Callows, the Burren or anywhere else we might have mentioned. It concerns the instrument to achieve that change and the communication of that change without it being seen as a stick being wielded by the State to stop farming. If that narrative gets out there, we have lost the argument and the likes of the national biodiversity action plan cannot be delivered. We need to work with people.
Farmers are people and need to be supported. We need to work with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to provide the right incentives and we need to have a fund that manages and delivers that change over time. It is about a partnership approach that includes people at the front of that discussion. We cannot have a situation where they are excluded and a solution presented to them that they do not believe can be delivered. It must be done in dialogue and partnership with local people on the ground in these important high-nature-value landscapes.
Dr. Andy Bleasdale:
On the flagship sites I have seen work well in the past, be they in the Burren or the Shannon Callows when it was working there, it was only through a co-brokering of a solution involving local people in the delivery of that outcome that one would ever hope to achieve an outcome. I was previously involved in another Department, although I was wearing an NPWS hat, in the destocking days. We were destocking sheep from up on landscapes. That delivered a result by dint of a reduction in sheep numbers but we lost the argument when letters were posted to farmers to state they must destock by 300 sheep. The pressure was taken off and the vegetation came back but it was not a sustainable solution. The destocking was being paid for in perpetuity. I referred to the wild Atlantic nature model. We are giving control back to the farmer to achieve a score. Farmers can be innovative. They know how to deliver a product to the mart. If the ecosystem mart requires improved habitat management, they will deliver that product if they know how to do so. They will work it out themselves. All we need to work out is how to support, give advice and reward farmers to achieve more or choose to achieve more. That will not be everybody.
I accept that. The examples given by Dr. Bleasdale are valid, particularly those in the context of the Burren and all those places where it has worked and continues to work. In the areas where farmers are farming intensively and doing very well, however, it will be difficult to change their practices unless they are given something very big. That is the difficulty. The reality is that as most farmers in the parts of the country to which he referred were not making much money anyway, it was not very difficult to bring them on board. It is about addressing the areas where they are making money. It will be much more difficult to get farmers in the Golden Vale or on the plains of Meath, where they are farming more intensively, on board. What can or will be done in that regard? Is this also going to be about the pricing of goods they produce? Will goods that come from a particular type of farming practice get a premium? What are the views of Dr. Bleasdale in that regard?
Dr. Andy Bleasdale:
I do not want to hog the conversation but from my perspective the national restoration plan will allow us to work out on a national spatial level the areas on which we should focus in terms of production. Production in those areas is fine as is. In other parts of the country, however, production may not be as economic. Farmers there are producing but perhaps not to the same extent as farmers elsewhere. The solution we seek to deliver is for them to tilt their activity more towards a nature focus and be rewarded for that change. The national restoration plan moves the focus away from the NPWS as the sole deliverer of a solution to an all-of-government solution that is badly required and overdue. When we previously engaged with the farming community in designated areas, it was the NPWS imposing these restrictions or burdens, according to the farming community, in the absence of a fund that could deliver that change. Although the nature restoration regulation might be resisted in some quarters, it gives Ireland an opportunity to embrace the challenge of an informed dialogue that will include and support that transition with farmers' goodwill on a voluntary basis. It cannot be forced upon the farming community; rather, it must be with their agreement. There is significant work, dialogue and negotiation to be done in the two years to the end of 2026 to produce that plan.
Absolutely. Dr. Bleasdale referred to protecting species - birds and insects and getting down to the basis of it. I made the point to him previously that farmers currently need to have a certain number of livestock units to get their base payments and if a beehive, for instance, was considered a livestock unit, that could effect change. Not only would farmers have an interest in doing that, they would also have an interest in having a habitat for that species.
A beehive could become a livestock unit. I am not saying an individual bee should be a livestock unit. That would be pushing it. We need to think outside the box. Unless we can get farmers to buy into this and see a role from which they can generate productivity, we will not be able to deliver. That is the reality. I know farmers in many parts of the country who keep a small amount of stock just to get their payments. That could be leveraged for a particular type of stock that would have a biodiversity advantage as well.
It is one of the possibilities that should be examined. I am also aware that invasive species are going to be a big issue. A lot of farmers are getting involved in forestry, particularly native forestry. There are issues and there is fear regarding what happened with ash dieback. There are threats of beetles and various other invasive species from other parts of the world coming in and possibly causing damage. Farmers are very hesitant to go down that road again because of the difficulties they have had in the past.
Dr. Andy Bleasdale:
The solutions we seek to provide are never straightforward. There are complications here. We are working across government with a whole suite of actors and sectors delivering their policies. The bigger question for us all is how do we integrate those. We also need to grab the low-hanging fruit, as was suggested there. Prosecution, enforcement, engagement and outreach are all pillars in our armoury that we would seek to deliver, but there are also the perverse incentives that do not encourage a sensible outcome to be delivered. I am not going to pick up on the example of the bees as being a livestock unit particularly, but if there something that blocks an action by a farmer and if he could get to that point through some change in policy, which would support a change that would favour biodiversity, then the State should embrace that solution ultimately. I would argue that very strongly.
Dr. Andy Bleasdale:
Again, if we are seeking to stop invasive species we have almost lost the argument. The building of a healthy ecosystem actually creates a more resilient ecosystem that staves off the influx of invasive species. We still need arms of the State that will actually act when that happens but it is more about improving habitat health and species health across the country to resist that influx of invasive species.
I thank the NPWS officials for attending today. These are sessions we should have on a more frequent basis. On the whole biodiversity issue, a point that we constantly make here is that it falls between a lot of different Departments. I would love if this committee would have more regular sessions with the NPWS because I find them very helpful and we get a lot of good work done on biodiversity.
Starting on a positive, our guests have touched on the increased resources the NPWS has and the increased staffing. I have said before that I see a positive sea change in terms of the approach of the NPWS in terms of staff morale. I do not mean to be disrespectful to anybody but I feel that years ago, staff sometimes felt frustrated about the resources they had at their disposal and the achievements they could make in respect of wildlife crime or habitat management, surveys or whatever other work might have been involved. I genuinely see a strongly positive change in that regard over the past couple of years. Nobody would have known who the NPWS ranger in a community was, really. They were stretched over a massive geographical area. For example, in west Cork we now have three or four rangers covering distinct areas of west Cork. We all know who they are, we know them by name. They are ecologists, wildlife enthusiasts. I do not think that was always the case but they are now. It is making a massive difference. It is almost like the local community garda on the ground or the parish priest. We know who they are, they are working with communities and getting to know them. It is fantastic and can only benefit us. That is really positive and credit has to be given there.
On the national biodiversity action plan, NBAP, it has to be one of the most ambitious pieces of work we have seen. A lot of time has passed since the last one. This has to be far-reaching and ambitious and must include real change. That is really important. I hope it does reflect a lot of the public submissions that were made in that regard. On areas that are designated for biodiversity or biodiversity management, looking at the presentation - I was able to tune in and hear every word even though I was late for the meeting - there does seem to be a lot of regions left without designation or protected areas. I am looking at the maps here. The officials are familiar with them. For special areas of conservation, there is a lot of concentration down the west coast.
I am being a bit parochial but there seems to be a gap involving the entire south coast, including Waterford. It is the same with the SPAs. Again, there are not that many of them along the south coast. As for national parks, there is no national park in Cork or west Cork. Again, there seems to be a bit of a gap on the south coast in regard to nature reserves. What I am getting at is that I think the nature reserves are the opportunity to address that deficit. I urge the NPWS to take this opportunity given that there is finance and seems to be financial backing to buy up suitable areas of land.
Deputy Paul Murphy mentioned the Conor Pass. I know it is sensitive in terms of discussions and that the NPWS cannot be held to ransom because it is State-backed, but there is a huge opportunity there for the State to buy vast areas of land, regardless of how big or small the parcels of land are, to turn them into nature reserves, manage the biodiversity of the area and the species that use it and perhaps create habitats for species that we may be able to bring back or entice into the area. That is a huge opportunity and I urge the NPWS to follow that course of action. While it cannot jump into deals and pay over-the-top prices, I hope that money would not be a barrier to purchasing many of these sites as they may not be suitable for agriculture. They may be marshland, reed beds, etc. That is a significant opportunity.
My last question relates to the approach involved in the protection of our existing national parks. Deputy Whitmore touched on management plans for national parks. I refer specifically to Killarney National Park, which has some stunning oak woodland but it appears that much of that woodland is deteriorating. The reasons include, as we mentioned, invasive species like rhododendron and laurel. There was no mention of the work that is being done there. I always feel that more can be done. Teams nationally that are perhaps outside the NPWS but that have the skills and expertise to do so should be brought into the fold to ensure we get on top of that. It is almost an impossible task, but we should try.
My next point is perhaps a controversial one but one that should be looked at. It is how we deal with invasive species. It is grand talking about invasive species that none of us likes but then there are the cute, cuddly ones that we do not want to see tackled. Japanese Sika deer is one of those. That species is causing untold disruption to many of our native woodlands, the very little native woodland that remains, because they graze and graze and the undergrowth is destroyed and any new saplings or trees that may potentially grow are eaten up. It is a problem and we cannot ignore it. It may involve a cull. I would like to get the opinion of the witnesses on that. Is it appropriate to look at culling the species?
I will finish on this point. One thing that we can certainly do is put up appropriate fencing to stop grazing animals entering these areas of woodland. We have seen it work in other areas where fencing was introduced to stop grazing animals from getting in. The regeneration, regrowth and abundance of native flora and fauna that thrive within these fenced areas are incredible. We should at least do that. Culling is controversial but we should seriously look at it for Japanese Sika deer. At the very least, we should put up high-quality, effective fencing as we would see major results.
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for his comments in regard to our colleagues in the region. We are acutely aware that where we are based – we are in 49 different locations in probably 80 national parks and nature reserves – we are part of the community and there is no protecting nature without community. The access for local communities to those public assets is essential. They are crucial to us. I do not want to go on for too long but they are crucial to us in the context of what we do, from the presentation piece to persuasion, prosecution and the protection of nature.
I will start with the deer and then hand over to colleagues to address designations. Some 14% of the country is designated, as the Deputy would see if we overlaid all of the various designations on one map. My colleague, Ms Carberry, will talk about upcoming designations on the south coast. We hate to ignore Cork. Glengarriff is a fantastic nature reserve.
The Deputy is absolutely right. We have a number of active propositions at the moment throughout the country to become nature reserves and to have that status.
The Deputy referred to the deer issue. We issue around 5,000 deer licences every year. Some 40,000 deer were shot and culled in Wicklow alone last year. When one uses the word "cull" it is very emotive. If I use the words "deer management" it is less emotive. We have active deer management programmes in all of our national parks. We take a significant amount of deer off Killarney, Wicklow Mountains and Glenveagh national parks each year. The Deputy is right that it is challenging. Sika deer are not termed an invasive species. They are not native but they are not termed an invasive species. There are some moves afoot in Europe to do that, however. In the cull in our deer management programmes both Sika and red deer are taken out of the herd. The Deputy is absolutely right that they are destructive to saplings and to native woodlands. We manage that actively. I believe we are now on the third and fourth generation of what kind of fencing and what kinds of exclosures actually work. We have some very successful examples of that throughout the national park network, which we are very happy with. I should have extended an invitation to the committee at the outset to come and see some of this activity on the ground across the network of national parks and the kinds of interventions that are made in very much protecting nature.
Coming back to Deputy Whitmore's point, it is hand to frond combat. It is unremitting. Some of these species are very resilient whether they are four-footed or simply growing there. They are very resilient. I do not know if Deputy O'Sullivan had heard the point I made in relation to Killarney - and I believe that Ms Carberry has the figure for Glenveagh this year. We have cleared entire mountainsides and hillsides of rhododendron in Glenveagh National Park. It is easier to access there. Killarney National Park is tricky. The Killarney park is some 10,000 ha, including the lakes, and we have eliminated rhododendron this year alone from 2,000 ha of that, which is phenomenal.
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
Anybody that can offer help in dealing with rhododendron we will absolutely look at. In Killarney we have a very active meitheal group that works with us. We also tap into Volunteering Ireland in the context of the summer programmes. I qualify that by saying we are working in a very sensitive environment. Groups need to be supervised. You do not want somebody taking out a rhododendron bush and taking out a very important native oak sapling in the process. There are vast areas to be addressed, including in Wild Nephin National Park, where there is a significant rhododendron challenge. We are addressing that. It is ongoing.
I will make one point on the growth of the national park and nature reserve network. In recent years we have added the Featherbeds at Glenasmole which is a very significant acquisition for the Dublin and Wicklow mountains. Not all acquisitions are acquired: with some we negotiate its handing over to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, some of it is acquired and some is bequeathed. The Nephin site was a hugely significant addition to our national park in Mayo. This year alone, we have closed ten different transactions including the acquisition of the Brú na Bóinne national park, which is a mix of something that is farmed for nature and designations. We are always on the lookout for high-nature value areas to add to the network and to afford that full protection to them. I will now hand over to Ms Carberry to answer the queries on the special areas of conservation network and designations.
Ms Ciara Carberry:
I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for the very interesting and broad range of questions. I will speak to the designations piece and the dispersal of the sites around the country. Deputy Kenny also alluded to it earlier. There is a reason that the pieces of wildness left to us in Ireland are in the places of Ireland that are difficult to farm.
Some of those marginal lands where it was not particularly profitable to farm, are the least touched of all of our areas. Wild Nephin National Park is probably the least touched of all, as Mr. Ó Donnchú mentioned. Why is the land designated in those places? Under the nature directives in Europe, in particular, they pick where we have threatened and vulnerable habitats and endangered species. These are places that are already in trouble. As mentioned earlier, they would not have been designated if they were not in difficulty already. The purpose of the designation is to try to bring them back, protect them, stop them getting worse and restore them to good condition.
The dispersal of sites and tourist sites in particular around the country is not even because they tend to be concentrated in the wilder places and in the places that are unique on the European stage. Much of Ireland's Atlantic seaboard comprises landscapes and has species and habitats that are very rare in a European context. The success or failure of the designations and regulations and all the drive of the State to protect and restore these areas will ultimately come down to us being able to make it more valuable for the communities, landowners and farmers in those areas to have the land and those species in good condition than it is for them to make the condition of the habitats and species worse. The whole thing will turn on that in the end. As Mr. Ó Donnchú said, there is no protecting nature without people. There is no wildlife enforcement without the support of communities. It cannot be imposed entirely in a top-down way. In the past, some of the designations and approaches we have done to protect nature have not involved communities very well.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service has changed profoundly over the past couple of years, as I am sure the committee knows. One of the changes is that we used to have four geographical divisions, each one headed by a divisional manager, whereas we now have nine. Mr Philip Buckley is the divisional manager in the Deputy's area. He is an extraordinary person and has given an extraordinary lifetime of work to the service. I think it is fair to say that for the first time now he is able to stretch a little bit to acquire some areas of very special significance. Some of them are like tiny little jewels of land, a little bit of foraging habitat for lesser horseshoe bats, say. They are very special places. We have never been in a position to do that before. We have to build it step by step. We are building our organisation, step by step. Ireland is building its response to the biodiversity crisis step by step and we are doing it in a different way.
Ms. Carberry makes a very good point regarding the areas that were harder to farm. We can see that they kept their wild aspect. As she said, there are little pockets where repetitive attempts have been made to drain them and on the face of it, they may look like they have no biodiversity value. However, if they are taken in hand by the State or the NPWS, great things can be achieved with them. I hope that would be kept in mind when carrying out these exercises.
Ms Ciara Carberry:
It very much is. We are very heartened by the support of the committee and the support we have had from the Government to move forward in those types of spaces.
The Natura network in Ireland is expanding, particularly in the marine area. This is a big area of focus for us at present. We are navigating all the challenges that come with this. We had the largest ever designation of a site for birds this year in the north-west Irish Sea. This covers an area of 220,000 ha. There will be another designation of a similar magnitude before the end of the year. The committee will see it very shortly. Moving around, we have three in the pipeline and hopefully there will be big movement on that next year.
At the moment we are still building our capacity. There is a huge demand for marine ecologists across the entire sector in Ireland and in Europe. Like everybody else who is operating in the sector, we have recruitment challenges. Every large company is trying to upskill in the sector. We are very lucky, in that people want to work for us.
They come to us and they stay, but that does not mean it is easy to recruit or find these people. Other colleagues working in the sector tell us they have to advertise Europe-wide to try to get people. The support we have had is fantastic. The profile we have now is much better. We are a desired employer for people in those areas but we still have huge challenges. We are moving in the right direction but these things are really complex. For the first time ever, in terms of substantial land acquisition and new designations, all the indicators are going the right way but we are far back. Mr. Ó Donnchú mentioned 2008, to where we have finally got ourselves.
I thank the witnesses for their contributions so far and for their presentation. We are here to discuss the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss. One of many substantial proposals focused on structure, governance, individual Departments and a new national independent agency. We heard at previous sessions about the challenge of almost contradictory recommendations, in terms of establishing new silos, while at the same time bringing a whole-of-government focus to the issue of biodiversity. I would be interested to hear the witnesses’s perspective on what a governance structure that delivers a priority focus on biodiversity looks like. Do they believe it needs new agencies or Departments or does it involve greater interdisciplinary and interdepartmental work? What structures give life to that connection? Are they existing structures that need to work better or are they new structures? That is a big question we need to try to get to the bottom of. Dr. Bleasdale spoke about the important two years ahead. Deputy Bruton mentioned the challenge of carbon farming. A number of contributors have spoken about we reorient our land use strategy to incentivise and reward biodiversity and restoring nature. It is not within the gift of this Department, or any individual Department or Minister. How does the business of government work to deliver that? What are the building blocks? How does that type of work unfold at an institutional and departmental level? Do we have the structure and focus to deliver that? If not, what needs to change?
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
I acknowledge the Deputy’s interest in this area and his engagement with us across a number of issues. I will answer his question about the new agency on nature by saying that the National Parks and Wildlife Service is that new national agency - established by Government in May 2022 as an executive agency. We are operating to fulfil the strategic action plan for the renewal of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The question of what is needed is a good one. You can have an agency with responsibility for something, but if the rest of the Government system is not engaging with it, it will fall short in its objectives. The first test of several came for us in the context of drawing up the national biodiversity action plan.
I referred to our experience this time in terms of the engagement with us, as an agency, across government in the context of drawing that up and making it significantly different from and better than previous plans. That is not to criticise those plans. They were of their time and there were certain constraints and so on in the system at the time. When one engages with this, one will see it is a better plan. Everybody is at the table and has contributed. The amending Act that will give a statutory basis to this plan will also be helpful in underpinning the governance, reporting and accountability on delivery for that plan, not just for us as the lead agency but for all State contributors to the plan.
I am conscious not to hog the entire conversation. I know Dr. Bleasdale wishes to come in.
A second test for us, as a new agency, was in our role spearheading the establishment of a national position to respond to the draft nature restoration regulation, which has been given airtime here today. We were resourced to deal with that. We got a small new directorate to lead for Ireland on that, to co-ordinate across government and to present Ireland's position at working group, at Council and so forth. In terms of an acid test of how the system would engage with us, as a new agency, that was incredibly powerful and there was an incredibly positive return. There were difficult conversations - I can say that in here - because this is a challenging regulation. It is challenging for the farming, fishing and urban communities. It challenges the entirety of society. Our job in that context was to spearhead co-ordination, agree the national position across fairly challenging articles - I know members are familiar with that as the committee has engaged on it - and then present the agreed national position.
A further challenge for us, and this is something that keeps me awake at night, will be the agreement of the national restoration plan by 2026, assuming everything goes to schedule. The system is learning to work better with us. We now have a seat at Cabinet sub-committees. Nature did not previously, in its own right, have a seat at the Cabinet sub-committee. We have a system of comitology across the government system that works quite well. We have systems of working groups. The reciprocal for us is that we are also participating across the system where water framework, oceanography, climate action and climate mitigation issues are discussed. We are a key component and element in the public policy response in those spheres, too. I will hand over to Dr. Bleasdale to deal with the other questions.
Dr. Andy Bleasdale:
Mr. Ó Donnchú has said pretty much everything I was going to say but I will summarise from my perspective, which is the same as his but slightly different, as is always the case. I have been working in this space for almost 30 years. I was in a different part of a Department that has since changed its name but I was still in the NPWS. At that time, we worked very much in isolation because there was no coherence or integration across government. In each of the operating periods since then, through the past 30 years or more, there has been a stepwise improvement in ambition across government and the embedding of that biodiversity ambition in other Departments, to the landing point we are at now in this cycle from 2021 to 2027, whereby the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and the water division of our Department are all equal players that are resourced to deliver our bidoversity ambition. What did not work 30 years ago when the NPWS was a sole trader was the dependence on NPWS to progress the national ambition. That could never work. The siloes that developed have now embedded that ecological expertise in their respective areas and the trick now, under the national restoration plan ambition, is to pull that collective ambition together under one umbrella and work collectively for biodiversity going forward in the next two years. There is real opportunity for that collaborative approach that does not depend on any one sector of the Government but has a collaborative and collective responsibility involving all the relevant players.
I refer to the two-year period to 2026, the piece Mr. Ó Donnchú says might keep him awake at night and the building blocks, data and information in that regard. This was hinted at in terms of the assessment and our land use strategy. Regarding carbon farming, how we might account for it, how we might reward it and how it might be measured, what are the information deficits that need to be filled between now and 2026?
Dr. Claire Cooper:
It is widely acknowledged that there is an information deficit in terms of the formulation of the national plan. There is a lot of work to be done between now and the time when that plan needs to come into force, which is two years after the regulation comes into force or least two years for that plan to be produced. There is a series of actions within the national biodiversity action plan, which will be published in the new year, that will account for that. These are things like lining indicators so we can enable data monitoring to take place, data gathering and working with stakeholders so we can acknowledge that a significant body of work needs to happen in terms of doing that. This is the job that the NPWS will undertake in co-ordination with other actors across Government.
I have three questions. One of them goes back to rhododendrons in Killarney National Park. As somebody who participated in the clearance for years, in respect of the current scheme, is the NPWS working in the areas that ground work had previously maintained clear, which are the most valuable woodlands in the national park? My understanding is that while we were there, we worked in those very inaccessible areas and were not taking jobs from anybody. Contractors were employed to do the roadside or more accessible areas. Is the NPWS going into those areas that had been maintained clear for 20 years by ground work?
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
I will come back to the Senator on that. I thank her for the work she did in Killarney National Park. She will certainly know that rhododendron is quite resilient. I must come back to her with the exact locations because I do not have that information with me. I can come back to the Cathaoirleach or the Senator directly about where clearance is taking place and what is planned for 2024.
Regarding the definition of a national park, I know the NPWS's website states that it uses the International Union for the Conservation of Nature criteria and that those standards have been endorsed and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will abide by them. These criteria state that ecosystems should not be materially altered by human exploitation and occupation. I know some national parks were previously estates. Regarding the new national park in Meath, I agree 100% with Mr. Ó Donnchú that we need agricultural research but I would like to understand the rationale for what is happening in Meath. A private corporation carrying out agricultural research within a national park does not really meet the criteria for a national park. Is this private corporation paying rent to the NPWS to carry out that research on land that is supposed to be within a national park?
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
The private corporation sold us the 520-acre site. The corporation will not be on the site. We will be the outright owners of the site so any activity carried out there will be carried out by the NPWS.
There are several thousand years of archaeological history there as well. There is built heritage and archaeological heritage, so that would be managed by our colleagues in the National Monuments Service and the Office of Public Works. There will be no private involvement in any ongoing research. We have bought the entire site. We have bought the research and the intellectual property around the research. Dr. Bleasdale can speak to the point in terms of any furtherance of that research. Colleagues were incredibly impressed by the results that were achieved there with the approach being taken. The State now owns that research and the intellectual property associated with it.
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
Yes. I do not have the areas in my head. I do not know if Ms Carberry does. There is an SPA designation. There is an SAC designation and there are parklands or farmlands, if one likes. The entire area is not designated. The intention is to carry on that research. One cannot just stop it. Dr. Bleasdale made the point earlier on that if you are farming in a particular way for nature you cannot just stop doing it, you have got to continue doing it. The results that are being yielded in terms of productivity gains, in particular of the sheep that were being farmed on the parts that were being farmed for nature, were stunning. The opportunity that gave the part of the estate that was being farmed to regenerate also hugely impressed our agri-economy team. This is work that we want to build on, not just for the National Parks and Wildlife Service but for the farming community. If we are to engage with farmers around farming in this way for nature, we need first-hand experience of how it actually works. That was one of the attractions here.
The biodiverse nature of the estate was simply stunning. Off the top of my head, there were 57 different species and 14 different habitats. It was absolutely compelling. That is outside the archaeological and built heritage value, which will be united with the rest of the Brú na Bóinne world heritage site. There is already a designation on this, if one likes, given that it is part of the world heritage site.
Okay. That is very good to hear.
The last point I want to raise, which others have also brought up, is about wildlife crime. I want to get some understanding of the process. If somebody comes to the NPWS either to report what he or she believes to be a wildlife crime or the NPWS ranger goes out and investigates, who is responsible for making the decisions on prosecutions? Is it the Minister, the NPWS, or is it done on a regional basis? When somebody brings evidence or has done an investigation in terms of wildlife crime, who gets to decide on it?
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
Again, the anatomy of the wildlife crime would probably dictate that. An authorised officer would make the decision. Sometimes, the crime is a bit more complex and he or she needs to engage further experts across the NPWS system. I guess the straightforward or simple answer is that an authorised officer would make that decision. The more complex one is that it depends on the nature of the crime, as it may involve a number of other specialists within the NPWS. Sometimes, we bring people in from outside where evidence needs to be gathered, evaluated, presented, and so forth.
Okay. We know there have been reports suggesting that morale in the NPWS was previously very low. A lot has been done to improve that situation. Does Mr. Ó Donnchú feel that the NPWS, as it currently stands, has enough autonomy to pursue wildlife prosecutions, in particular those that might involve another State body or local authority?
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
We do. We have never been prevented from taking a prosecution to my knowledge. I do not know if the Senator was here for the earlier part of the meeting. In the context of interventions around wildlife crime, not everything ends up in a prosecution as such. There may be a more expedient way through local engagement to address what was aberrant in the first case. Quite a few interventions are made by our local team to have damaged habitat restored and all of that. It is not just about the number of cases that come through the courts system. It is about the "stitch in time" kind of intervention that either stops something happening or has something reversed. Our colleagues across the NPWS system have the autonomy to make that. I do not wish to mislead the Senator but where there are cases where habitat needs to be restored, a Minister can issue a direction. There is a form of ministerial direction for restoration where habitats have been restored. If memory serves me correctly, we have issued two of those in the past number of weeks. This goes back to my earlier point. It depends on the nature of the wildlife crime, as it were, and no two are similar.
If it was an annex IV species under the habitats directive, which I do not believe has discretion from prosecution and if a recommendation was made by an NPWS ranger that an annex IV species was deliberately interfered with, disturbed or killed, who would make the decision not to act on that ranger's recommendation?
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
All of our interventions are guided. If they are going to court, they are guided by legal advice. We have an in-house legal adviser, we are advised by the Chief State Solicitor's Office and so on. We do not walk into court unguarded or unminded by legal advisers, solicitors and so on.
I thank the Senator. Before we go to the second round, I want to develop on some of the points that were made previously. On this idea that it is the new national agency for protection of nature, it is very good that the officials see themselves as that. Broadly the discussion has been very positive. What we are hearing is that this fundamental change has happened at government level but also at societal level in how we regard nature and its restoration. I am hearing that there is a prioritisation. I suppose it somewhat jars with the purpose of setting up the Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, which was set up because it was recognised that things were in a very bad state. What I am hearing from the officials is that, although things are in a bad state, we are starting to move in the right direction, which is very positive.
I want to talk about the non-designated areas in the context of the NPWS seeing itself as the new national agency for the restoration of nature and its interactions with other agencies of State. In the context of the upcoming publication of the national biodiversity action plan, is it true that NPWS is going to have more teeth when it comes to dealing with the likes of Coillte, Bord na Móna, Inland Fisheries Ireland, ESB, Transport Infrastructure Ireland and the local authorities? These bodies all have a significant part to play in planning and development our country, often in areas that are not necessarily the designated areas but that have significant nature value or have potential for significant nature value in the future if the approach to them is different.
I would be really interested in hearing the witnesses' thoughts. No doubt the NPWS has always worked very well with all the agencies of State. I do not want the witnesses to criticise them. Our priorities are changing - as they should. There is evidence from those agencies I mentioned and others that their thinking is changing as well. What I want to understand is the role of the NPWS as it goes forward with the new national biodiversity action plan. Is it a more all-encompassing role? I presume it is a statutory consultee or that its authority will be higher than that? Is this true? Could the witnesses speak to that and whether it is the case that the NPWS is the gatekeeper for decision-making in the context of development of our areas of high nature value and potential high nature value outside the designated sites?
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
I will call on Dr. Lynn to reply in detail. We welcome the citizens' assembly and the engagement by that community of citizens with the biodiversity sphere. We were delighted that it was prioritised and we welcome the attention it has brought and tried to embrace as many of the recommendations as we could that fall under our remit. Some of the recommendations are broader than that. It was a very welcome and timely intervention and a well thought-out response. Nature protection does not happen without the citizen and that kind of engagement. A young persons' assembly on biodiversity ran almost parallel with the citizens' assembly to assist us in our thinking and in drawing up the national biodiversity action plan.
In the context of additional teeth, I acknowledge the Cathaoirleach's point about State agencies. They are partners in the context of the delivery of our biodiversity targets and obligations but sometimes they are subject to our regulatory overview. I will pass over to Dr. Lynn regarding the teeth that the national biodiversity action plan will have and how the Minister and the NPWS will exercise those statutory teeth.
Dr. Deirdre Lynn:
I spoke earlier about the statutory footing of the national biodiversity action plan. It is covered in the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2023. Every public body listed in the Act will be obliged to have regard to the national biodiversity action plan. Every entity responsible for actions within the plan has a biodiversity duty. This means they must update on their progress and contribute to the interim report and the final report of the plan. This report will go to the Minister, who can then respond to this. There will be an annual update to the senior officials group on the environment and climate change and to relevant Cabinet sub-committees. The Minister will report annually to the Cabinet on the progress of the plan.
Bodies such as Coillte and Bord na Móna are coming to us a lot. There is significant engagement and willingness there. We are in an era of a coalition of the willing. They are asking what they can do and where they can prioritise their work and restoration efforts. A significant amount of work on that is ongoing behind the scenes.
This was one of the really refreshing things about being part of the development of this plan compared to earlier plans. People came to us and told us that they wanted to be part of this and offer up actions. It is very comforting for us that we are where we are now and everybody seems to be willing to pull together to deliver action for biodiversity.
Some of the agencies I mentioned along with others have a commercial mandate and operate as semi-State bodies within a commercial system. Their purpose is to make a profit and provide a dividend to the State so there is a conflicting interest in some of these agencies. I am trying to get to a point of balance.
There is often a very legitimate commercial reason, whether it is Coillte providing lumber for construction or Bord na Móna, which is getting big into renewable energy and which is challenging from the perspective of the impact on nature. How does the service approach the challenge of the issue of balance with respect to nature protection and the other objectives of the State?
I would mention the ESB as well. The question of fish migration is very pertinent at the moment; Ms Carberry referred to it earlier. I do not think it is fair to single out Coillte and Bord na Móna. Transport Infrastructure Ireland is doing the greenway, for example.
Ms Ciara Carberry:
Bord na Móna is in my mind at the moment because it is so involved in our peatlands restoration work. A huge amount of work has been done on raised bogs and now there is a big focus on restoring blanket bogs as well, particularly on designated sites. The NPWS has been constrained by being a minnow relative to some of the other bodies in resourcing and our capacity to recruit specialists to talk to us. That atmosphere has shifted now. As Dr. Lynn said, these bodies generally are coming to us and looking to work with us. I do not wish to speak on their behalf at all but it is very clear that they are much more focused on developing their own nature-positive pro-biodiversity plans and strategies. Part of our engagement with them is to try to make sure that those align with the national priorities for nature restoration rather than maybe what an organisation sees as its priority. There is a challenge. It has been very constructive. They seem very genuine in their engagement and willingness to resource-up. Coillte Nature is one example but other organisations are the same. One of our goals was to be a trusted voice for nature and an authoritative voice that people would see as neutral, science-based and trustworthy in that space and we are moving into that space. We have long tail of history behind us and we have a lot of challenges in front of us. The national biodiversity action plan will be testament to that because all those organisations are right there in its pages and have come forward. Apologies for singling out those two. They are just in my head as being the most recent that appeared at a table I happened to be sitting at but there are a huge number of partners. Dr. Cooper might be able to speak to the number in there.
Dr. Claire Cooper:
I reiterate the level of engagement we have had in developing this national biodiversity action plan. It is very encouraging. From a statutory perspective, the bodies the Cathaoirleach mentioned would be listed as a public body under the Wildlife (Amendment) Act and that statutory obligation to report on measures that have been undertaken and implemented does fall within the reporting obligations under that Act.
I was out with a forester in Wicklow recently. He made the point that every forest in the county is moribund. One could not consider it to be growing but rather it is essentially in a state of death because of invasive species and deer. That is the number one challenge there. Obviously we do have some very important sites in Wicklow, including the Glen of the Downs in particular. It is known and recognised as a very important ancient woodland. It is great for the NPWS representatives to talk about their relationships with Coillte and how they are getting much stronger and how there are good working partnerships between them.
Would the NPWS consider a site such as the Glen of the Downs where the forest is managed by Coillte? The forest is primarily used for recreation but it is very close to the Glen of the Downs woodland. Is the NPWS open to working with Coillte on expansion? I want non-native species to be removed from the Coillte site and the site at the Glen of the Downs allowed to regenerate naturally across into the other site. Is the NPWS prepared to talk to Coillte about such a project? I have raised my proposal with Coillte to see if a partnership or strategic plan could be designed because the site presents a real opportunity for doing so.
It would be remiss of me not to talk about hares with the NPWS. I have worked on this since becoming a Deputy. I am concerned about wildlife management because there is an inherent contradiction in the Wildlife Act. On the one hand, a species can be protected while, on the other, the Act allows for the signing of licenses to allow the hunting of that species. When a licence is issued to a hare coursing entity, the licence says that a hare cannot be pregnant and coursed. How does the NPWS identify whether a hare is pregnant? How can a hare coursing entity adhere to the conditions attached to a licence and physically tell that a hare is pregnant?
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
Absolutely is the short answer on the Glen of the Downs. I also thank the Cathaoirleach for the break. Beyond the question, we have significant engagement, as colleagues have said, with our colleagues in Coillte.
On the next question, a vet from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine must be present at each coursing meeting, which we monitor. Our staff, rangers and regional staff monitor as many coursing meetings as they can. Where there are breaches of the coursing licence, there is enforcement and meetings get sanctioned.
How can a vet tell whether a hare is pregnant? I ask because there is no way of doing so up to a certain stage, particularly in the very early stages of pregnancy. I know that because I have spoken to vets about the matter.
-----under whish the service issues a licence. As I have raised with the Minister, if it is technically and medically impossible to tell if a hare is pregnant, there is no way of knowing whether any of the coursing entities can do so. They cannot comply with the conditions as set out in the licence.
A number of contributions concerned Brú na Bóinne national park. It is an incredibly welcome addition to my county and constituency. I have a young family and every weekend we spend time in nature by visiting some of the amenities in my county such as Balrath Woods, Littlewood Forest in Slane or the life project at Girley Bog, which is wonderful. There is also some really positive work happening with the rewilding project at Dunsany Nature Reserve.
A number of contributors have expressed their concern about the model used in terms of the amount of land in pasture and the amount of land that could be in agricultural use. Can the witnesses speak to the priority that will be given to nature in the new national park? The negotiations have been mentioned so please give us a sense of the timeline. I hope, along with my family, friends, neighbours and constituents, to use the national park but nature must be prioritised.
We have a huge job of work to do to restore nature. In the first instance, it should be on State-owned lands as part of that negotiation with nature restoration law and how nature will be prioritised in the national park.
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
I thank the Deputy for welcoming the acquisition. The straight answer to his question is that it has been acquired by the NPWS and our priority is nature. Some of our parks have what might be broadly termed as parkland parts as well, if I can use that term more widely than it is perhaps intended. That is an element of what is here.
There are 5,000 years of history here, however, and 5,000 years of farming history. This has been agrarian for as long as we can see back over the records. There are two designations in there with 14 different habitats and 54 different species. An incredible amount of work was done by the private owners in documenting those species, the farming for nature piece and the records they have been able to hand over to us on the types of habitats and so forth. Our objective is to build on that, but to build on that for the public value as well. That will be challenging.
When I talk about the 5,000 years of history, there are 5,000 years of archaeological and built heritage as well as the farming history. There are some incredible henges. The Deputy will be very familiar with it. There will, therefore, be a certain curtailment of activities around it. Our purpose is to protect nature. An acquisition by the service will be foremost. Right now, we are concluding the purchase of that. Like all land transactions, it is complex. We are working with our colleagues in the National Monuments Service and Office of Public Works on a master plan to bring it to the public, probably in stages, while continuing the important biodiversity work in the context of the management of the SAC, SPA and the farming for nature piece of it. We said on acquisition that we are probably looking at 36 months to get this right. This is not public ready. It just is not.
There is a significant amount of work to be done on public health and safety, access and a traffic management plan. The Deputy will perhaps be familiar with the challenges in Newgrange, Oldbridge and so on. The challenge is to unify the three sites in terms of the public management of those access and transport pieces and ticketing in all of that. We are working closely with our colleagues in those two agencies for a joint approach on transport, accessibility and ticketing.
It is challenging, but it is very exciting to be in this position to bring a national park to the public that is very different, as Mr. Bleadsdale referenced, from what we have. It has elements of each national park but the collective is very different and that 5,000 years of archaeological history is just stunning. What that will yield around the farming component and the cultural and political history for students and the public alike is hugely exciting. The nature piece just bowled us over. It is a really stunning part of the country and I say that as somebody who grew up in Killarney. We were privileged to be part of the acquisition team for this on behalf of the Irish people.
I am sorry to harp on about the acquisitions and the potential of buying new plots of land for nature reserves. I mentioned the education aspect of that, especially where they are located near urban areas. Whatever that may entail, whether it is hides, walkways, etc., there is massive education potential there as well to bring young people, in particular, closer to nature, which is exciting.
To pick up on Mr. Ó Donnchú's offer visit some of the work the NPWS is doing, whether it is fencing or eradication of rhododendron or laurel, as a committee, we should take that up. We will bring our gloves and secateurs and whatever else is needed and maybe a team of us could get rid of a patch of rhododendron and do our little bit for invasive species. That would be incredible. I cannot reiterate the importance of that fencing piece in allowing woodlands to regenerate. I have seen it on the Beara Peninsula. I went to visit Mr. Eoghan Daltun's site with him and it is incredible what some small measures can achieve, mainly just by letting it be. It is extraordinary.
Mr. Niall ? Donnch?:
I would like on behalf of my team to again acknowledge the questions. I hope we did justice with our responses to the public representatives here and on screen. I thank them for giving us the opportunity to come in and talk to them about the work we are doing and thank them above all for their courtesy.
I thank Mr. Ó Donnchú for those words and for coming in with his colleagues in the NPWS We heard something fundamentally positive today in this step change that has been happening in the past number of years, albeit that perhaps the State is coming from a very low base. It has not sufficiently regarded nature and nature restoration. It is really heartening to hear of this change that is happening at the governance level but at the societal level as well. We should be mindful, of course, of the challenges. We heard very clearly that the path ahead is not an easy one but we also heard that it will be a very worthwhile one. Once again, I thank the witnesses for attending. The discussion we have had will really inform our response to the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss report, which is all about achieving a political consensus on how we go about restoring nature. This session will certainly be hugely informative for us in that regard.