Thursday, 19 May 2022
National Parks and Wildlife Service Strategic Plan: Statements (Resumed)
It is fitting, on National Biodiversity Week, an initiative run by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, that we are having these important statements on the new strategic action plan.
Like other speakers, I want to start by not just commending the Minister of State for the action plan itself, but by making a very clear statement that if it was not for the Minister of State's personal efforts since taking up the role that he has, I do not believe that we would have the plan that is in front of us or that we would be having this debate. I say that with all sincerity. As the Minister of State knows, too often when we face one another across the Chamber, we are disagreeing, whether it is on housing, planning or other policies. I think that it is important that on the issues where there is strong cross-party support, we are big enough to acknowledge very good work and the provision of additional funding, as the last speaker mentioned, the provision of additional park rangers and the progress that has been made to date. I also want to acknowledge the Minister of State's openness to engaging with the Opposition on this matter. We met last year with the Minister of State's officials. He gave us a commitment that he would involve the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage in the consultation, which he did. I certainly think those of us who participated in that meeting with the review group will be more than pleased with the outcome at this stage.
Our position from the outset was that we wanted a strong, fully resourced and independent parks and wildlife service. I think the actions that are outlined from 2022 to 2024 put us well on the way to achieving that. For those of us who do not have a background in the area, and who in the previous Oireachtas were more likely to be dealing with concrete and bricks in the old Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government than natural heritage and wildlife, when those functions were moved into the Department it took us a lot of catching up to do to understand their importance not just in rural Ireland, but in many respects and more urgently in urban Ireland, because of the scale of biodiversity loss in those areas where emissions are having a much more dramatic impact on our natural environment. Therefore, there has been a very steep learning curve for many of us. We are pleased to continue to work with the Minister of State on the issue. I made the point at the time that there are a number of agencies that we are very used to working with and that we would like to see the NPWS evolve into the same role. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is one that clearly, over a period of years, went from being a weak function of a Government Department to a fully independent service with very significant powers and a significant budget. I think it has a huge impact on its areas of responsibility. In the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage we have a long history of working with it in that respect. Likewise, for example, the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, is another body that has evolved since the original Residential Tenancies Act. I am only citing those two agencies because I am hoping, and I am sure I am echoing the Minister of State's own thoughts, that beyond the actions in this plan, there is a bigger and stronger future for the NPWS.
One point that I wish to make strongly to the Minister of State is that the appointment, and the process for the appointment, of the CEO is going to be key in this enhanced NPWS. I strongly recommend that there is an open competition for the role and that the Public Appointments Service is used in some form or other. I think it would be a mistake to appoint a senior official directly from any Government Department to the role. That is no disrespect to any senior official. Given the scale of change that the Minister of State is aiming for, I think it would send a really powerful signal if there was an independent, publically-appointed CEO to drive the change agenda that the Minister of State has put in front of us. I am hoping that is something that the Minister of State or his colleagues can speak to at the end of the debate. I also urge the Minister of State to continue to work both with the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Joint Committee on Climate Action. I note that there are members of that committee here. It is an issue that cuts across the different agendas of different Departments. There is different expertise among the members of both of those committees. I think the more of that collaboration, the better for all of us.
It is also fitting that we have this debate today because yesterday we saw the publication of the World Meteorological Organization's State of Global Climate 2021 report. It is the third in a series of reports, including from our own Climate Advisory Committee and the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, IPCC, that are increasingly sounding the alarm bells for both the climate catastrophe and also the enormous biodiversity loss that we have experienced and are currently experiencing. I thought it was very interesting that RTÉ made it the main news item agenda last night. That is a significant development. However, for me, what is probably more significant is that the Irish Independent, a newspaper that has been regularly criticised by many climate activists for promoting or facilitating a level of climate change denial, today published one of the most powerful editorials I have seen to date. I do not know if the Minister of State read it this morning. I think it is important to put that editorial on the record, only because of the publication in which it is contained, and the fact that it is the largest selling newspaper on the island. The editorial opened with a quotation from the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres: "A dismal litany of human failures", which was his response to the report from the WMO. The General Secretary of the WMO, Professor Petteri Taalas, warned that "Our climate is changing before our eyes". The Minister of State knows this. It has been his position that that is the case, as it is for many of the subsequent speakers in the debate, for a long time. For that editorial to be the lead story of the Irish Independent is genuinely remarkable. It shows that these arguments are breaking into the mainstream. The editorial went on to state clearly:
The harm has reached record levels in the past year, with some indicators suggesting we have hit the point of no return. The consequences of a warmer planet, with ocean temperatures rising alarmingly, are stark. Acidification of the ocean has intensified, making conditions inhospitable for many marine organisms.
Last night, we saw on television the underwater images of the mass destruction of that marine biodiversity. We look forward to working with the Minister of State on the legislation on marine protected areas when it comes before our committee, hopefully at the latter end of this year. The editorial went on to state that:
Sea-level rise accelerated due to faster melting of glaciers and ice sheets, reaching an average increase of 4.5mm per year from 2013 to 2021 or more than double the rate recorded ten years earlier. By now there can be no confusion that this is all about abstract changes in the weather. It demands immediate changes in the way we live our lives. As temperatures rise, people and animals are forced to move or change habits.
The editorial continued:
We have seen how displaced people can be thrown into conflict, being forced to compete for scant resources. We have also seen how in the Horn of Africa millions are threatened with hunger due to drought. In other parts of the continent, extreme rainfall is causing flooding. The tragedy is, there is no known way to reverse the damage. 'The heat trapped by human-induced greenhouse gases will warm the planet for many generations to come,' Professor Taalas said.
It did not mention animals and wildlife, but the point could easily be inserted there. For me, the most powerful thing, at the end of the editorial, was that it was very clear. We know what the solutions are. We have the technology. The big challenge is whether there is the political will to accelerate those changes across every area of human life, social and economic, to ensure that at a minimum, we meet our Paris Agreement targets by 2030 and 2050. I believe that the work the Minister of State is doing, both in the NPWS reform and with marine protected areas, is going to be key to that.
To conclude, I welcome this strategic plan. I hope the Minister of State takes on board constructive suggestions I have made with respect to the appointment of the CEO. We want to continue to be an ally of the Minister of State in this, both as a party and as a committee, in the time ahead. We hope the Minister of State continues with his very open engagement with us to ensure what I think we all want, which is not only the protection of the biodiversity that we have but the restoration of so much of the biodiversity loss that we have seen to date, can be achieved. If we are partners in that, we can do an enormous amount in the time ahead.
I too thank the Minister of State. We are in the middle of National Heritage Week. I wish to commend the work of Kildare County Council's heritage officer, Ms Bridget Loughlin, and her colleagues, who have organised some great events not just this week but throughout the year. Ms Loughlin is celebrating 20 years in the job this year. Her dedication and enthusiasm is as apparent now as it was from day one.
I welcome the publication of the Strategic Action Plan for the Renewal of the NPWS. Investment in the service is long overdue. The service was established in 2003 with the demise of Dúchas. It suffered greatly during the austerity years and only recently returned to pre-recession budget allocation. As part of the new strategic action plan, there will be a full restructuring of the NPWS as an executive agency, along with the recruitment of 60 key staff to support biodiversity. That is very welcome. However, we need to see similar investment in our local authority staff, who are struggling to provide basic services.
They are at the coalface of heritage protection and are best placed to notice the need for action as they work on the ground. Objectives to be completed over the next two and a half years include 15 strategic actions that I hope will ensure that the National Parks and Wildlife Service is resourced and equipped and has a robust organisational structure. The new focus of this service, its key strategic actions, new resources and additional staff should better equip the organisation’s capacity to meet core objectives and to protect Ireland’s natural heritage.
We heard this week from the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss session that Ireland risks turning into a ghost land for nature if abuse of land, habitats and species continues. The assembly's conclusions will be presented in a report with recommendations to the Government as to what actions should be taken to protect what is left of the country’s natural habitat. Experts outlining the work of the assembly told the group that nature had already been pushed into a corner in Ireland. Almost 65% of our land is agricultural land and approximately 10% of it is plantation forestry. Approximately 75% of the Irish landscape, therefore, is relatively intensely managed and most of our biodiversity is in the other 25%.
The swift, that is, the migrant bird that used to be the sound of summer all over Ireland, has lost 40% of its population in just 15 years, which is very frightening. Some species are able to adapt, like the sand martins I saw nesting on a raised bog bank at Umeras in south Kildare, with which the Minister of State is familiar. Others like the curlew, which I heard for the first time in many years recently while canvassing in Mallusk, County Antrim, has not fared so well.
We need to support our farmers in the conservation work that they do and to find the right balance between food production and habitat protection. Our farmers get little thanks for the work they do. We need to listen to them about how best they can be supported. We need a proper plan in place to address invasive species such as rhododendron and Japanese knotweed. We also need to review the list to see if species like cherry laurel need to be added to this and probably to have its sale controlled. We also need proper regulation and checks to ensure that these species are not available for open sale.
Beekeeping is becoming an increasingly popular hobby which is great to see but we must control the importation of bees from abroad which threaten our native species.
I cannot allow this debate to pass without mentioning the Curragh of Kildare. It needs to be made a national park and rescued from the indifference of the Department of Defence which presided over the disgraceful dumping of God knows what during the filling of a hollow next to Donnelly’s Hollow. The Minister of State is aware that I spoken about this in the past. It has not gone away and neither have I. This issue needs to be addressed. The toleration also of illegal encampments and the neglectful approach that the Department brings to this issue may not be done on purpose but it also needs to be addressed. The Curragh is the heart of Kildare and it needs to be protected. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach.
I am very pleased to speak on behalf of the Labour Party in this very important debate here today. In the first instance, real credit is owed to the Minister of State for delivering this plan. It is a very good one and has great potential. I also sincerely say that this is a great credit to the Green Party for ensuring that this particular initiative made it into the programme for Government. Great credit is also owed to the Minister of State personally because we are now at the point where we have at the very least a two-year strategic plan for the renewal and redevelopment of the NPWS. It can be a source of great pride for him also that, after many years, we are seeing a significant increase in the resources available to the NPWS from a current expenditure point of view but also from a staffing one. That is something that the Labour Party has sought as the country’s economic fortunes improved. It is very welcome indeed.
It is incredible to think that the vast spectrum of work which the Minister of State outlined earlier on which is undertaken by the NPWS has been carried out by approximately 400 staff over the past number of years and I acknowledge that additional staff are on the way. We must see everything we do, not just in the context of the work of Minister of State’s own Department, through the prism and lens of biodiversity and climate action. That is not just a matter for the Minister of State's own Department or for the NPWS. It is not just a matter for every Department and Government agency but is one for everybody across society. We need to take this issue much more seriously than we have done to date.
I also hope that Deputies who claim to almost exclusively and uniquely represent rural Ireland are as concerned about this as are the Minister of State and the rest of us and that they support the work of the NPWS in the way that they should. It is unfortunate that there are some who claim to uniquely speak for rural Ireland but who are not here this afternoon and are not participating in this debate, at least not at this point in time.
There are certain elements of the plan which I wish to bring to the attention of the Minister of State, if I may, in the limited time that I have available to me. I note on page 7 of the summary document that the “Government may also wish to consider the wider issue of the roles and functions of public bodies in relation [to] biodiversity and nature at this juncture”. I would like to see the Minister of State and his colleagues go further than merely considering this. As I said earlier, this is a matter for every Department, every agency and every local authority, as well as for everybody across society. This is everybody’s responsibility and is a cross-society endeavour.
I welcome the fact that we will have an executive agency running the NPWS. That will give a degree of autonomy and independence to the service and will give it more heft and influence across Government, Departments and agencies. I am also glad that there is also a commitment on the appropriate grading of staff, which is very important. It is important that the Minister of State brings staff with him on that journey and I am sure that the Minister of State, the Department and the NPWS are corporately committed to engaging with the relevant trade unions to ensure that this process is robust, that there is significant consultation, and that this is done in a transparent way.
I trust that the Minister of State will forgive me for raising what may be considered to be a narrowly parochial matter. I do so in the context of the plan more generally and the Minister of State’s commitment to biodiversity, to wildlife preservation and conservation, and to its care. The Minister of State is familiar with the work of Wildlife Rehabilitation Ireland, WRI, and I believe he visited its former facility outside Navan in the past. It has now moved its service to an interim site in Mornington just outside of Drogheda, beside the Boyne Estuary. I attended a public meeting with that organisation last Monday and I visited the site which it currently occupies on Tuesday.
The Minister of State is aware how dedicated it is and that there is not a stand-alone State-funded organisation dedicated to the rescue, care, rehabilitation and return to the wild of orphaned and injured wildlife. He knows exactly what it does. I was not certain exactly what it did until I had the briefing on Monday and the visit on Tuesday and nor had I knowledge of the amount of educational and awareness-raising work it does with veterinary professionals and nurses, as well as with the wider community. It intends to develop the site on an interim basis and I understand that an application is going to Meath County Council very shortly. I am also told that we could have a best-in-class, state-of-the-art wildlife hospital and education centre for as little as a €2 million capital investment from the State. I am unaware if the NPWS has a capital line of funding available to it or if there is such a line of funding available from the Department to develop facilities such as this but this is something that should be looked at.
The Minister of State is very much committed to addressing the phenomenon of wildlife crime. It is an insidious matter and the NPWS and the Garda work closely together on those matters. More work needs to be done. WRI is dealing with the manifestation of wildlife crime and injuries to animals and we really should have a zero-tolerance approach to wildlife crime. I ask that the Minister of State might take a personal interest in the work of WRI, to monitor this closely, and to work with me and other interested parties to try to develop that service as best we can. When I read about this earlier this year, the wildlife crime unit only had one official on its books. Can the Minister confirm if that position has changed in recent months? We cannot have an effective wildlife crime unit with simply one staff member.
I hope that within the additional quantum of staff allocated to the NPWS, there will be significant investment in the wildlife crime unit and that staff will continue to work with An Garda Síochána and, indeed, the wider community.
The work the NPWS does with local organisations is really important. I am aware of that work in my community and constituency, such as the little terns project in the Boyne Estuary. The professionalism of the NPWS and the advice it provides are really valued. We value the organisation and want to see it develop. I thank the Minister of State for his commitment to ensuring that happens. This is a good day.
I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, on progressing this hugely important piece of work, which was a key commitment for the Green Party in the programme for Government. Our biodiversity and natural world have not been valued and protected in Ireland in the way they should have been in the past. The Government has changed that and the renewal of the NPWS is a big part of that change.
The natural world is under increasing pressure across Ireland. The NPWS has particular responsibility to alleviate that pressure and to protect our national heritage areas, special areas of conservation, special protection areas, national parks and reserves. Reform of the NPWS will give us the opportunity to resource fully the proper protection of these particularly precious areas. There is a very important special area of conservation in north county Dublin along the Broadmeadow Estuary, which is an area rich in biodiversity but that has been under increasing pressure for some years from littering, fly tipping and pollution. This is symptomatic of the disconnection we have seen between previous commitments and plans in this regard and the reality in local areas. The missing piece is clarity of accountability and also resourcing. These plans for the NPWS will significantly improve that situation.
As Minister of State at the Department of Rural and Community Development, it is important for me to acknowledge that rural areas hold much of Ireland's natural resources and biodiversity. The work of the NPWS makes an important contribution to conserving our biodiversity and helping to sustain the attractiveness and fabric of our rural communities. The Government is committed to ensuring the effective implementation of its statutory and other responsibilities towards the environment and biodiversity and to achieving a climate-neutral future. The Department's ongoing partnership and dialogue with rural communities across a wide range of policy and programme areas is a key part of realising this commitment to our shared environment.
The NPWS has a very important role to play in regard to recreational access to our national parks and nature reserves. My Department has a strong working relationship with the service, through Comhairle na Tuaithe, and we will continue to build on this. The development of the national outdoor recreation strategy has benefited greatly from the involvement of the NPWS among its stakeholders and as a member of the strategy working group, particularly in bringing a focus onto environmental issues and the importance of our natural environment, as recognised in the Our Rural Future policy document. The strategy places a strong emphasis on reducing impact and protecting our rich biodiversity while making the outdoors accessible for all. This includes actions on dispersal of visitors from sensitive areas and the creation of guidance for outdoor events. The strategy also aims to create a communications plan to promote awareness of the environment and responsible enjoyment of the outdoors. The review and restructuring of NPWS is particularly welcome in light of the new national outdoor recreation strategy and the recognition of the importance afforded to our natural environment in Our Rural Future.
This week is National Volunteering Week, which affords us a dedicated opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge the contribution of volunteers to society and to the environment. I give specific thanks and acknowledgement to the volunteers who protect and nurture biodiversity across the land. In particular, I pay tribute to the thousands of foot soldiers for biodiversity who are our Tidy Towns Awards volunteers. That initiative is directly supported by my Department. Biodiversity is an increasingly key component of the competition and one of the categories is solely devoted to it. In fact, demonstration of a commitment to "nature and biodiversity in your locality" carries 55 marks for participants. The competition has a series of special awards that add a new dimension to the initiative. One of these, the all-Ireland pollinator award, is sponsored by the heritage offices and biodiversity offices of local authorities across the country, in partnership with the National Biodiversity Data Centre.
In my role in the Department of Social Protection, I oversee community employment schemes, Tús and the rural social scheme, RSS. There are numerous examples of community employment, RSS and Tús projects and participants working to promote biodiversity, undertake locally adapted conservation projects and tackle invasive species, such as Japanese knotweed and rhododendron. These projects are operating throughout the country. In addition, projects on greenways, maintaining and enhancing waymarked ways, agreed walks and bog roads, energy conservation work, village and countryside enhancement projects, bog and wetlands projects, and restoring ecosystems are all currently in place under the community employment scheme. Earlier this year, I visited one such project with the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, which is a community-led project in the Bundorragha river catchment in south-west Mayo. Its aim is to develop and test best-practice methods in eradicating the invasive rhododendron species. It is supported by many partners, including the NPWS, and, crucially, the small farmers who are RSS participants and are central to this important environmental project.
Another example is Clonakilty area sports club community scheme, participants in which planted, landscaped and maintain Bennett's Mill Field in Clonakilty town, including work on the pond and wildflower meadow. IRD Duhallow, a key development company in Cork, was one of the first organisations to include and build RSS and Tús participation into its LIFE biodiversity work. For example, all 36 primary schools and four secondary schools in the area have been visited and programmes on biodiversity have been delivered by one of the Tús supervisors. The latter led a full scheme of participants to support the LIFE programme, including work on the importance of water quality. Community employment scheme participants employed by Athlone Community Services are placed to work with Athlone Canal Heritage Group on improving the biodiversity and water quality of a 2.6 km stretch of the Athlone Canal.
One of my main responsibilities as Minister of State is overseeing the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, which funds more than 600 community workers across the country in areas of disadvantage. An increasing number of projects are being led and developed by communities that interweave social inclusion and biodiversity protection. Under just one of SICAP's key goals, for instance, it is currently supporting 37 community gardens, eight environmental groups, 20 local community groups with agriculture and fishing as their focus and 21 social enterprises in the environment health and food sector. There are a number of projects I would like to namecheck, namely, the Inishturk organic community garden, Biodiversity Kerry and Galway City Partnership's Let's Get Galway Growing programme.
The publication of this strategic action plan for the NPWS will help to build a more resilient, better resourced and ultimately stronger service with the ability to better protect our natural environment and heritage. It is a significant milestone. When taken in conjunction with other initiatives, only some of which I have had time to mention today, it is clear that our whole-of-government approach recognises that biodiversity is more important now than ever.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, for delivering this action plan. I know an incredible amount of work went into it. I am delighted to see the work that has been done on heritage, including natural heritage, and the move by the NPWS back to Custom House. Today shows the wisdom of that move, which was decided upon when the Government was being formed. I want to put on record the huge credit that is due to the Minister of State's adviser, Hannah Hamilton, and to Ciara Carberry for the work they did on the plan. A huge amount of work has gone into it over the past year or so. It is a fantastic result for nature. Above all, I play credit to the NPWS staff up and down the country, who are passionate about their work but have struggled for years with funding and resource cuts. That has been very difficult for them and I am glad to see it being turned around.
I am lucky to live in County Wicklow, where we have a fine national park. I have seen at first hand the work done by the rangers there, led by Wesley Atkinson, Enda Mullen and others. I thank them for the way they engage with the community, local representatives and community groups and the work they do to protect and enhance our natural landscapes, biodoversity and nature in general. They are a real credit to County Wicklow and I am delighted to work with them and to see them being recognised and rewarded in this way. Over the past decade, it has been extremely difficult for them to provide the service to which they are dedicated. They are passionate about this issue and have studied it and worked in this area all their lives. The service suffered huge funding cuts over the decades and the staff have been moved from pillar to post in terms of departmental oversight. That has had a real impact on morale and has been very frustrating for them. Today, we see that being turned around as we look to the future.
NPWS staff do vital work to protect nature, help us to understand the importance of our environment and how it impacts on us health-wise, including our mental health, and educate us on all the benefits of living in a clean and healthy environment. What has happened to Knocksink Wood Education Centre in Enniskerry is symbolic of the neglect of and decline in our environment.
The education centre is located in Knocksink Wood, which is a special area of conservation. It is overgrown and the building is in a state of decay. I remember when the education centre was thriving. It was full of children, school tours, researchers and academics. I did some work up there over the years. I have hope for that centre again. It symbolises that there has been decades of neglect but that we are going turn it around now. I hope to see the centre up and running and thriving again, and children doing their kick samples in the river, looking at insects and learning all about the importance and range of nature and biodiversity we have right outside our door. Sometimes we do not realise it.
I also want to salute the great work done by and perseverance of Professor Jane Stout, Dr. Micheál Ó Cinnéide and Mr. Gerry Kearney. We were delighted to invite them to a meeting of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I can say, without exception, there was absolute cross-party support and praise for the NPWS. Members wanted to see further investment and expansion and acknowledged the important work the service does. There was cross-party support for that. Too often in politics, we hear kind words and support and people saying that they support you and want to do more for you. Often, words are not followed up with actions. Not this time, however. As a Green Party Deputy, I am especially happy to see what the Minister of State has brought to the floor of the Oireachtas.
I say to people who care deeply about the environment and who demand action to halt the losses, help nature and address the impact of pollution and pesticides, the loss and fragmentation of habitats, the affect of invasive species, the need for climate action and everything that has an impact on our natural environment and to those who call on us to inform, educate and help people to understand the complex intricacies of nature and how we are all part of it, rather than separate from it, that this is where we delivered on those promises. This is the point at which we turned and faced the problem. This is where we provided a fit-for-purpose NPWS for those staff who have struggled over the years. I thank those people who pushed us to do it. I thank the environmental NGOs who pushed us to do it. I acknowledge their praise of this. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for never giving up on this green priority.
The plans the Minister of State has announced in the strategic plan for the NPWS are to be welcomed insofar as they constitute a commitment to expanding funding and service as the need for an agency that is fit to play its part in our collective response to the biodiversity emergency, as the Minister of State has put it. The establishment of the new directorates within the NPWS is welcome because we need less of a fragmented approach to biodiversity in order that the different sectors have a focus that is dedicated to them. This structure needs to ensure that the wider sectorial commitments we have made as a country can be more seamlessly be monitored and implemented in a manner that takes into account our core priorities and the needs of those who face the challenges of implementing actions that cut across all State sectors.
Recommendation 11 refers to ensuring that there is clarity regarding where responsibilities lie, whether there is ambiguity, duplication or overlap and, most importantly, where gaps exist in order that they are addressed coherently. I want to focus on this for a moment because during my time on the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, I have noticed that multiple agencies are involved. Mixed messages can be coming from each one on a common matter. This level of disconnect between State agencies can have an adverse effect on the implementation of the policy in question.
It can cause or add discontent among those who are effected by these policies or responsible for implementing them in the course of their daily work. If the biodiversity and climate crises are to be effectively addressed, then those on whom the workload will ultimately fall will have to be informed properly. They will need to be listened to properly and the manner in which the mitigation measures are rolled out must be thought out properly. We and our environment cannot afford constant uncertainty which leads to wasted time and a poor response to the message. I welcome recommendation 11 and I hope it will be acted upon, not just by NPWS but also by the various Departments.
I also note the reference to ending the use of temporary contracts over long periods. Full appreciation and use of people with desirable skill sets are a key component of a properly functioning service that makes full use of the knowledge that comes with these dedicated people. We see in the health sector how services can get disrupted because professionals who have worked and studied hard to get their qualifications and then asked to work for returns that take no account of their value or the knowledge they have gained.
I will speak in general about our carbon sequestration targets. Nobody will be surprised to hear that we have a forestry sector that has been left to wither over the years. There is still considerable dissatisfaction out there in terms of the licensing process and the various schemes. This has led to the sector to consider itself virtually disregarded and, yet, it is the very sector that has a considerable role to play in absorbing and storing carbon. The target for the afforestation of more than 8,000 ha right now is mere ambition. It does not become reality because the sector has been ignored for so long.
When we consider the values of the NPWS, we also need to think of our foresters who watch the deliberations of the various focus groups that have been giving consideration to their future. However, the reality of the situation for them has not changed. There are planning issues, of which the Minister of State must be aware, which are slowing down the progress the sector could be making. I am aware of a plantation in County Tipperary which is ravaged by ash dieback. The application for a reconstitution and under-planting scheme to assist foresters to deal with infected plantations was subject to the usual considerable delays. It then had to apply to the local authority for planning permission to replant with conifers. This forester faces years of work and investment being wiped out.
That operator was confronted with a challenge that was not just a disease. It was in dealing with the forestry service, the Department and the requirements of the local authority. The process is onerous and off-putting. It delays our 8,000 ha afforestation target and the carbon that would be absorbed if the structures were working right. If people who are working in areas of the economy that have a great contribution to make to biodiversity are faced with a slow, complicated and demanding bureaucracy, our chances of success in terms of all the targets are reduced. I thank the Minister of State for his time today and for listening. I hope some of the aspirations expressed for the NPWS are replicated in all sectors.
I welcome the opportunity to talk about the NPWS and the wider issue of biodiversity, especially as this is National Biodiversity Week. I acknowledge all the work that is being done throughout our country by individuals, community groups, tidy towns and local authorities when it comes to education around biodiversity and the on-the-ground work that they are conducting in this regard. Every week should be biodiversity week. We should always put that level of appreciation into our natural world. I hope someday that we will achieve that in that biodiversity becomes so integral to who we are that we are constantly appreciating it to that level.
I also want to acknowledge and thank the Minister of State for the work that he has done on the NPWS. It was clear that significant reforms of the NPWS have been needed for many years. Successive Governments have not only failed to give the NPWS resources and financing, they have failed to give it the focus it warranted and deserved. The service has reflected that neglect. I appreciate the efforts that the Minister of State has put in to attempting to address that and to reform the service in order that it can provide the incredibly important function that we need it to do. I also acknowledge all the work of the staff at the NPWS because they are incredibly passionate about our environment but have not been given the support over many years to do that work.
Over the past 25 years, the NPWS has been moved across six Departments. Despite the Minister of State securing additional funding in the past couple of budgets, funding for the NPWS is still around the 2008 mark. Even then, it was a low base. A considerable amount still needs to be done with regard to this service. The structural changes and recommendations that have been made by Professor Stout and Dr. Ó Cinnéide will go a very long way to creating a top-class service that we really need.
One of the things that struck me about this, which I was very pleased to see, was the emphasis on our national parks. We talk about our national parks as being iconic. We use them to represent wildlife and our biodiversity and their potential but, unfortunately, to date we have not given them the emphasis that they need. We have not placed wildlife or biodiversity at the heart of what the NPWS does.
It is inconceivable that none currently has management plans in place. When the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, puts those management plans in place, I hope nature will be the key priority for those areas and that they are given the resources to function as such. They are important areas for tourism and recreation, but we need to get the balance right and to make sure that we have core areas within our country that are dedicated to nature which are highly protected. Areas are open to recreation, but that needs to be a key focus for what happens.
Since being elected, I have focused on biodiversity and climate, which are so interlinked that we cannot separate them. We often talk about the principle of just transition with regard to climate. We need to start talking about it with regard to biodiversity too. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan spoke about new career choices. When people go to a guidance counsellor and mention they want to be an ecologist, they should not be thrown out the door. When I went in and said that many years ago, it really was not seen as a viable job option. We need not only to identify it as a viable job option, but to look at how we can bring those jobs to rural Ireland as part of a just transition so that we are not only enhancing our biodiversity, but also our local communities and local economies. I would like to see that idea of a just transition being applied to biodiversity.
It has been a pleasure to listen to the debates today. Even over the last couple of years, one can see the emphasis that each individual party and politician gives to biodiversity has increased. We should continue with that. The Minister of State said that not only the Greens can be interested in biodiversity. I want to assuage any of his concerns that that is the case. The Social Democrats and I are passionate about this area. I look forward to working with the Minister of State, the Government and Opposition parties to ensure that we give it the emphasis and protection that it needs.
I would like to raise a few issues. One is the sense of urgency relating to biodiversity. We declared a crisis three years ago. Our bureaucratic processes are slow to catch up with the crisis that we are facing and the speed of decimation of the natural environment. We need to bring a sense of urgency. I also raise the wildlife crime unit. When I asked a parliamentary question about it, only one person was allocated to it. I would like to see that increase. I introduced the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, relating to basking sharks, last year. It went to Second Stage last week. The Minister is introducing statutory regulations to deal with that. I would be interested to know where those are. Time is moving on and we are going through another season. We need to focus on that. I thank the Minister of State and the Government for getting the national parks review to this point. I look forward to seeing it progress.
I am apt to quoting song lyrics in this house. Today, an obvious one leaps out as a good fit, which is Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi". It goes, "Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone." We cannot continue to make these lyrics true. We cannot allow or precipitate the collapse of the biosphere that has sustained, shaped and nurtured us as a species and pave paradise to put up a parking lot. We need to normalise the protection of our natural world. We cannot look back and lament what we have lost. Our natural capital underpins our social and economic capital. It is essential to our very existence. For all that I love that Joni Mitchell song, my favourite song is that of the curlew, a song that is disappearing from our landscape, which I hope my children and their children will live to enjoy.
I have spoken several times in this House about the imminent EU nature restoration law. It must be ambitious, but it will be enormously challenging. The EU law will have to dovetail with our climate action plan and the biodiversity action plan and must be met by similar ambition in the new Common Agricultural Policy. This new strategic action plan will enable the National Parks and Wildlife Service to meet its current obligations. With increased resources and its establishment as an executive agency, it should be in a far stronger position to support the necessary ambition to protect and restore biodiversity. We need to begin to plan for the departmental capacity and resources needed to take on this challenge, restoring habitats at scale and addressing land use, land use change and forestry emissions. Our land is our greatest resource for carbon sink and carbon sequestration potential.
Fast-tracking the recruitment of 60 additional staff into the NPWS is welcome. As in so many other sectors, as we begin to face up to climate change and biodiversity loss with sincerity, we need to ensure that we have a qualified workforce to meet the employment opportunities created. We must ensure that our schools and universities are delivering quality programmes of study and research and developing flexible career pathways in biodiversity and nature. That means more ecologists, botanists and more environmental scientists throughout national and local government structures, throughout business and across society. It means better-paid jobs for them to go into. Entry level salaries for ecology, for example, are woefully inadequate. We need to attract the best and brightest into this sector.
The programme for Government commits us to appointing education liaison officers in each of our national parks to work with schools across the country, to promote the importance of biodiversity and the natural world and to involve pupils in the work that goes on in our national parks, which is clearly an area of interest to me as a primary school teacher. This will provide immense potential and opportunity for our children to engage in a practical way with nature.
The full organisation restructuring in the new strategic action plan is particularly welcome. The NPWS will be more resilient, better resourced and better equipped to play its part in Ireland's response to the biodiversity emergency and deliver on its mandate to protect our natural heritage. Just as with the climate action plan, our response to the emergency that is biodiversity loss needs an all-of-Government approach. Resourcing the NPWS alone will not do the job. We must look at all Departments, public bodies, semi-states and indeed civil society and consider how they function in respect of biodiversity and nature. In the longer term, I believe we should look to examples such as in Wales, where consideration of wellbeing and the wellbeing of future generations has, by statute, to be considered in the decision-making framework of these organisations, but that is extraneous to today's debate.
However, one matter relevant today is a key action in the new strategic action plan for the NPWS, which provides the opportunity for Government to consider the wider issue of the roles and functions of public bodies in relation to biodiversity and nature. This is a vitally important action with the potential to be far-reaching and systemic, which is needed to address fully the biodiversity emergency. As the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, said in his opening statement, the loss of nature is an issue that extends far beyond the NPWS. This action stems from recommendation 11 in Gerry Kearney's report on the renew phase of this process, which states:
Consider a wider examination of the remits of the broader constellation of State actors with significant responsibilities in relation to Biodiversity and Climate action.
This would establish clarity as to where responsibilities lie; whether there is ambiguity, duplication or overlap, and most importantly where gaps exist that they are addressed coherently so that the State’s response in relation to Biodiversity and Climate action can be delivered coherently and effectively.
All Departments, agencies and local authorities must meet their responsibilities, not least their statutory ones, related to nature and biodiversity. I warmly welcome this new strategic plan and commend the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Malcolm Noonan. I commend the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the independent authors of the review and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, for his significant support and obvious personal interest in achieving this milestone strategic action plan.
More than 3,000 submissions were made by members of the public in the initial phase of this process, which has informed this strategic action plan. Our natural world fascinates and resonates with us. The sounds and smells of our natural world can transport us to places far away and across time. We are in danger of losing it all and in danger of undermining the ecosystems that have helped to sustain us as a species.
I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, on the funding secured and on the implementation plan relating to this report. The report is a credit to them, their advisers and the Department. Yesterday, I was struck by Deputy Whitmore's comment to the effect that the NPWS has moved around seven different locations. At least it now has a permanent home and can lay down roots.
The original report should be required reading for everyone, not just in the context of the NPWS. It highlighted dysfunction within that service, but it should be applied to every organisation. Every State body could do with a similar report. We had the pleasure of having the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, with us in County Mayo last Friday. He launched National Biodiversity Week at Enniscoe House just outside Crossmolina. We got to see the NPWS staff in County Mayo in action there. They do superb work. They are absolutely dedicated to their work and are pragmatic in dealing with the challenges. The Minister of State got to see all that first-hand.
I will put on record once again my concerns around the naming issue at Wild Nephin National Park. Ballycroy should be part of the name. For example, it could be Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park. That is a local demand. The NPWS has chosen to ignore it. That is not the way to build up alliances. It may seem small but this is a national park where, as in most cases, the land was given by local landowners in view of the challenge that is faced and in view of the principles of nature. There should be a much better system. National parks are referred to in the report. Nearly 14% of our national territory is designated for nature conservation and 90% of that is privately owned. That points to a need for better communication and co-operation with landowners and farm organisations. I do not think it is particularly well dealt with in the report.
There is a need for a better sense of understanding and partnership regarding Natura. Some 25 years later, the special areas of conservation and all the regulations relating to them, the designations and the Natura 2000 network continue to be very challenging for local communities. On the ongoing day-to-day management of special areas of conservation and Natura 2000 sites, the 2019 EPA report suggested that 85% of our protected habitats were in unfavourable condition. Considering that the special areas of conservation and Natura legislation has been with us for so many years, we have to look in on what is being done in the day-to-day management of this land. Landowners are making significant sacrifices, particularly small farmers in the hill communities, yet the biodiversity of the land they have sacrificed and that they are not farming commercially is deteriorating. We must look to the ongoing policy of managing the land and how it is being controlled.
I mentioned the area of Wild Nephin National Park at Ballycroy. The NPWS is to be really congratulated on the way it is developing that park out of the box. The Mayo Dark Skies initiative is led by a voluntary committee based out of Newport. The NPWS has developed it in partnership with the local community. The dark skies initiative is gathering great steam and shows to people the value of biodiversity and of protecting our lands. It gives people a very innovative way of accessing and engaging in it. That is what we need to see more of. I join colleagues in commending all the various bodies such as Tidy Towns, Ballina Community Clean-up and other community clean-ups that have put biodiversity back at the heart of community agendas. There is also a role for the NPWS there. It is all very well to put an education officer into each of the national parks. There are only seven of those. We need far greater involvement and far better co-ordination and support for the many volunteer efforts that are around. The NPWS could gain from doing that and, equally, the various communities could gain.
I reiterate my congratulations to the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and the Minister on this work. Money does not answer all the problems, however, particularly when it comes to public service. The outcomes need to be tracked. We have thrown money at many situations and not got the desired outcomes. I urge the Ministers not to let that happen here.
I am sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy. I will begin by acknowledging all the communities out there. There are very many across my own constituency and they are growing daily. They are really engaged and energised in direct action to fight to help repair and preserve the biodiversity in their neighbourhoods. It is great to see it. I want to thank Jane Stout and Micheál Ó Cinnéide for their review and their work. It is an excellent piece of work and highlights well the problems and systemic neglect of our NPWS.
I also think of wider, deeper systemic problems in how we interact with and protect or fail to protect our natural systems and biodiversity. On the action plan, I make the observation that there is a massive disconnect between the scale of the crisis we face, the report of our chief agency with responsibilities in this area, the action plan and its timeframe. For example, on the hiring of an international expert to benchmark the staffing levels, aside from whether we need one or not, when we look at the actions, it promises to appoint an international expert to benchmark staffing levels. Their findings will be reported in December. By June 2023, their plan will be approved and by March 2024 their findings will have started to be implemented. By March 2024, all going well, we may see the beginning of the implementation of recommendations on staffing. To be quite frank, the plan is peppered with that sort of corporate guff. Setting up new directorates is another example, as is the proposal that the NPWS become an executive agency of the Department. I understand that these corporate and structural changes may be needed. When we consider the scale of the crisis and the scale of the failures, however, this does not seem to match what is needed.
The scale of the crisis is something else. The Minister of State is aware of that. One in five of all species assessed in Ireland is threatened with extinction. For bees and fish, the figure stands an alarming 30%. Some 63% of regularly occurring bird species in Ireland are of conservation concern. Those of most concern include the iconic species of the corncrake, the curlew, the lapwing and the barn owl, and now also widespread species like the meadow pipit, the snipe and the kestrel. I was struck some time ago by a statement from an Irish Wildlife Trust representative, Pádraic Fogarty, who told the Dáil committee that: "a cloud of neglect and apathy has smothered the natural world. It is a terrible legacy that we are leaving for the next generation." In light of this, I am not sure that a cross-cutting standing committee with an international benchmarked staffing expert is what we need.
I welcome the recognition of the dedication of the staff of the NPWS. However, I am also struck by the neglect and political apathy that the report records. There has been failure by successive Governments to afford even minimal protection to supposedly protected sites and species, which is really wrong and breathtaking. Although I think proper funding of the agency and enforcement are really required and are a very welcome start, they are not the full story. The biodiversity crisis fundamentally stems from our economic priorities, from an agricultural system driven by profit, big agrifood corporate interests, reliance on monocrops, the use of nitrogen fertilisers and the current cruelty inflicted on animals generally in the interests of feeding not people but profit margins. This is intrinsically linked with the climate crisis and both require a radical break from the economic system that is driving the loss of plants and animal species and throwing even our existence into doubt.
The context of this debate is the sixth mass extinction event, which we are currently living through, with a horrendous, dramatic, marked decline in biodiversity. Some 85% of Ireland's protected habitats are in an unfavourable condition, 46% are in ongoing decline and 43% of protected species are afforded unfavourable status. This biodiversity crisis is part of the rift opened up between humanity and nature by the economic system of capitalism, the organisation of production and agriculture on the basis of profit as opposed to people's needs and our relationship with nature.
The Stout-Ó Cinnéide report is excellent. It reveals the reality of the crisis we face and the neglect of the NPWS by successive Governments.
The report correctly compliments the staff at the heart of the NPWS, describing them as "dedicated, passionate and knowledgeable", but also makes the point that they "have been neglected for decades, in a political system that did not value nature and biodiversity". The report is absolutely damning.
At the time of the issuing of the report, the NPWS had only 354 staff. That number has now risen to about 400 but that is far short of the 670 in the Danish Nature Agency, for example. Denmark has a similar population but a protected area one sixth the size of ours. It has 2,000 sq. km by comparison with Ireland's 12,000 sq. km. In other words, Denmark is ten times more staff per square kilometre of protected area than Ireland. Going on the estimates in the report, it would cost less than €17 million to bring the staffing level up to the Danish level. This is a fraction of the amount given to the horse and greyhound industries every single year. That the strategic plan does not contemplate even the minimal step on staffing that I propose is very revealing of the State's priorities for nature and animal welfare, even with the Green Party in government.
Another point that jumps out from the report is that 90% of the sites designated for nature production are privately owned and therefore not managed by the NPWS or protected by its rangers. The report states, "Ireland does not have a comprehensive policy or system for management planning and delivery of conservation measures for most of its Natura 2000 sites." That is really shocking. It effectively means nature protection has been privatised to landowners. This has been an unmitigated disaster. Of course, many small farmers pay correct attention to biodiversity and should be paid for this by the State because it is done on behalf of all of society.
It is fantastic to see the publication of the strategic plan of the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for the NPWS and the publication of the independent review that underpins it. I am aware that delivering on this programme for Government commitment has been the Minister of State's top priority since he took office. That the action plan is resourced by the Government, with €55 million over the next three budgets, makes this achievement all the more significant. I commend the Minister of State and his Department on everything they have done to achieve this outcome.
Biodiversity is an issue that goes to the Green Party's very core. Originally the party was called the Ecology Party. As Chairman of the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action, I would like to see biodiversity elevated as an issue across government in the same that climate has been. The climate and biodiversity crises are inextricably linked and our responses must be joined up, but it is also vital that we address biodiversity in and of itself.
Today we are seeing the impact of the many years of underfunding of the NPWS and the lack of focus on biodiversity more generally emerging as a potential risk to climate action. The Minister of State is keenly aware of this and is moving fast and doing all he can to address the issue. Substantially increased NPWS budgets and addressing staffing challenges are paramount. The additional resources provided for in the action plan will foster greater confidence in climate-critical areas, such as the designation of offshore protected areas and the protection and restoration of our upland habitats and the species they are home to.
Increased investment in NPWS staffing and the restructuring of the organisation along functional lines will also help restore nature in agricultural landscapes through highly effective programmes such as the NPWS farm plan scheme. I realise numbers are currently small for this project; however, in the context of the EU nature restoration law and our objectives around species and habitat conservation, it is exactly these kinds of bespoke farm-level initiatives that will work to deliver mutually beneficial outcomes for biodiversity and for rural communities.
On this note, last week's announcement of the €20 million LIFE IP Wild Atlantic Nature project to restore blanket bog in the agricultural landscapes of rural north-west Ireland is designed to put communities at its heart. Co-ordinated by the NPWS's scientific unit, it utilises results-based payment schemes to pay farmers for the quality of the habitats they create. The average annual payment for the farmers involved to date is €3,200. This is real money, delivering a real impact for nature, water, the climate and people. It is clear that a comparatively small investment in the NPWS can have enormous benefits for the country. I hope the investment in the NPWS teams that co-ordinate and lead on projects like this will be part of the action plan.
I spoke last week about some of the lost opportunities in the CAP strategic plan to address biodiversity. While we know the CAP cannot do everything, it can definitely do more than is currently provided for. I hope there will be some improvement in the eco-schemes, in particular, before the final version is signed off, especially for farmers in designated areas. There is a huge missed opportunity in the CAP to make sure resources are used to support farmers to protect, conserve and restore nature and deliver on the Government's prioritised action framework for the Natura network of special areas of conservation and special protection areas. By resourcing the NPWS, I hope there will be more capacity within the organisation to engage at all levels in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to influence and support nature-positive action in the next CAP and help the Department to ensure it delivers on Ireland's biodiversity obligations.
Bog rehabilitation is now ongoing, which is very welcome. From the perspective of the regulator for the Bord na Móna restoration and rehabilitation programme, it is hoped that the investment in the NPWS will support more and faster rewetting of peatlands, not just on State land but also across other parts of Ireland. It would be great to see strategic alignment with the private sector, as we have seen in other countries. A peatland code for Ireland could unlock substantial finance for investment in rural communities, supporting biodiversity and climate action at the same time. We have already seen Intel piloting support for blanket-bog restoration in Wicklow Mountains National Park. All these opportunities exist, and I hope the new NPWS will be configured in such a way as to seize them.
It is reassuring to see that addressing wildlife crime has also been elevated in recent times. It is great to see that there are more cases being brought by the NPWS and more successful convictions, in addition to more awareness of the issue. The co-ordination of efforts on wildlife crime among NPWS staff across the country is delivering genuine results. The recent memorandum of understanding involving An Garda Síochána will also help ensure better outcomes for nature.
It is a failure of enforcement that so many wildlife crimes have been committed in recent years. Additional resources in this area will go a long way to reducing the number of these crimes. Some 110 staff, including district conservation officers and conservation rangers, are working across the country to address wildlife crime. Since December 2020, conservation ranger numbers have increased by 18%. There are currently 86 conservation rangers stationed around the country to enforce wildlife laws, and they are supported by district conservation officers, regional managers and divisional managers. I understand the Minister intends to further increase ranger numbers up to 120, which is a welcome development.
It is reassuring that fines are increasing, more commensurate with the seriousness of the crimes committed, and receiving media coverage, again raising awareness of the law in this area. In addition to fines, however, we need habitat reinstatement. It is not enough just to pay fines; habitats must be restored as best as possible so that it never pays to commit a wildlife crime.
I hosted the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, in Limerick in 2020. It was his first trip as a Minister of State. I have seen his commitment and dedication and know how enthusiastic he is about natural and built heritage. It is a credit to him that this strategic action plan has been delivered to such enthusiastic support from across all sectors, not least the NGOs and the wider environmental movement. I commend him and the departmental officials on their hard work.
I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, his departmental officials and the independent contributors on the work done on this review, which has identified several serious issues within the NPWS. I hope these will be addressed by the steps taken. It is great to see and very good news that a significant capital budget, of approximately €55 million, is being allocated over three separate cycles, in addition to what has already been put in place.
I am delighted to hear about some of the work, outlined in the report, on the hiring of additional staff. That is very welcome. I am conscious that I am here as a Deputy from Cork East, a section of the country that is not lucky enough to have its own national park. There are only six in the country. As a young person in the Chamber, I would like to see further investment and an effort made so that the south east, which is away from the west coast, where the majority of major national parks in the country are located, will have one of its own. I am referring to the eastern side of Ireland, south of Wicklow, and the southern part. There are many locations that I believe would benefit.
I am thinking of the Galtee Mountains and the Knockmealdowns, or the Comeraghs near the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach's constituency. The Government could work with the NPWS in the long run to see if that is a possibility. Our national parks are extraordinarily important not only to the environment and from the perspective of promoting biodiversity and other environmental protection methods on protected lands, but also because of the benefit to the local economy and recreation. I am fortunate to enjoy many local amenities under the umbrella of many State agencies, but not the NPWS. That area, with a bit of work between the local authorities and the NPWS, as outlined in the strategic report, is quite exciting and much positive work could quite easily be done on it.
This report will do a number of good things if the implementation is carried through on, including tidying up management, which is important, giving the NPWS a good platform to grow and, particularly, looking at new locations for national parks. I reiterate the call, as a Cork Deputy and looking at neighbouring constituencies, to address the imbalance. It is a long way to the west of Ireland or to Wicklow for many of us in my region. I would like to see us working on that and procuring the additional budget. I commend the work done by the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, in that regard.
It is important to note that much important work goes into an area of conservation . I am conscious of that as somebody from a farming community. It is not often heard about in here. We heard the latest round of attacks on farming in Ireland from city dwellers in the Chamber a few minutes ago but we are conscious of the environment. It is important that that is said. We could put a strategy in place in conjunction with the NPWS to look at lands that become available neighbouring existing areas of special conservation. For example, in Youghal on the bog next to our beach, a significant amount of ground has become available. Much of it is marsh and there is much wildlife activity in the area. We could work with the NPWS and Cork County Council to secure that land for the use of the State, for protection and for the promotion of tourism in east Cork, as well as the environmental issues. It is right and proper that we look at opportunities to expand on existing assets of the State when it comes to the work the NPWS does.
It would be lovely to get a few extra national parks, though they are expensive and require years of planning. Will the Minister of State take that message back to the Department?
It is long past time that we had an organisational overhaul of our approach to national parks and the wildlife of the State. The natural beauty of this landscape is not being protected and has not been historically. What could have been a great ecological and economic resource has lacked the care and maintenance it desperately needs. The health of our biodiversity is the key to our well-being. It is a symbiotic relationship on this planet. The health of the natural world and of society are tied together in a three-legged race. For decades, they have not been in sync. More than 40% of insect species are declining and one third are endangered internationally. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by 2.5% each year, according to available data. That is an incredible collapse of significant elements of the biodiversity of this State. We need, as a country, to tackle that problem head-on.
The first thing to remember is that we need partnership on this. If we do not do it in partnership, it will create significant resistance. The people who are first and foremost in that partnership are farmers and communities in rural Ireland. If farmers are not treated as partners in this area, it will create resistance and opposition. For farmers to be treated as partners, it is important that they can make a living and are able to fund raising a family. If this is not the case and farmers are hammered economically, there will be a major difficulty in the area.
I will give a couple of examples of the manner in which not to proceed. The Government's policy for sustainable energy historically has been to outsource large industrial-scale wind farms to national companies, which have come into local communities without leaving any benefit to them and built these industrial-scale wind turbines right up against people homes. That has created massive resistance. Instead, the Government could have followed the German model which allowed for communities to get the funding to build wind turbines of their own design in their own areas, get profit from those turbines and benefit from them.
The Government's response to turf is another example of building resistance in communities. Instead of working with families on retrofitting houses that are dependent on turf fires, the Government went in with the ban straight away. I appeal to the Green Party to understand the sensitivities and needs of rural Ireland in terms of being able to make a living and raise a family. It is extremely important. If it goes wrong, it will create further resistance. The NPWS has not been funded or staffed properly and its structures have held it back in the past. The NPWS has not worked with farming communities in the manner it should have and that needs to change.
We in Ireland see the country as having a green and wild landscape but that is a significant distance from reality. We have only six national parks in the country. Connemara, Killarney, Glenveagh, Wicklow and the Burren are some of those. We have no protected landscapes. Germany has 400 protected landscapes. We compare very unfavourably to other European countries. We should be more ambitious in terms of biodiversity. We should be increasing the allocation of land to those parks and looking at the whole area of rewilding. Rewilding has unquantifiable benefits for biodiversity and our habitats and counteracts significantly the emissions created by society.
The Knepp Castle Estate in England is an example of what can be done. This large estate was an industrial-type and intensive farm until 2001. It was not making a profit because the land was in a bad state. It decided to revolutionise, change direction and devote itself to rewilding. It did so in an incredible manner. At very little cost, it allowed hedges, shrubs, trees and bushes to grow of their own volition. It stopped using pesticides and other elements on the land and allowed cattle, ponies, pigs and deer to roam freely. They drove the regeneration of the land and created a mosaic of habitats from grasslands to scrub, open-grown trees and wood pasture. As a result, there has been an extraordinary increase in wildlife. Species such as turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons and purple emperor butterflies are breeding there. Populations of other common species are also rocketing. That revolution cost little, was highly effective and produced profitable results for this failing landscape. They are producing high quality meat that achieves a better price at market and are allowing for camping, glamping, safaris and other business rentals. Surrounding pubs, shops and bed and breakfasts have benefitted from the economic spin-off from that.
This is not a project for every farm but in relation to diversification, which is important in agriculture at the moment, it is an option that should be supported more by the State. I am thinking of the Dunsany estate that operates in my great county of Meath and the work Randal Plunkett has done there. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to visit Randall and see the rewilding of the estate a number of times in recent years. The level of biodiversity that has returned to the hundreds of acres that Randal is rewilding is incredible. It has increased significantly the level of interest in his farm.
He allows academics and students from universities to come to study the results of that rewilding. I do not believe any Minister has visited that rewilding project even though it is the biggest one in the State at the moment. I encourage the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, who is present, to do so if he has a chance.
Obviously, such projects are not for every farm across the country, but I believe we can consider smaller farms too. We can incentivise farmers to increase the biohabitats that exist on their farms. For far too long, the European Union and the State incentivised the damaging of biohabitats. Farmers were told to get rid of scrub, wetland and non-productive land but we should actually be encouraging them to keep such land. We should be paying for farmers to do that.
A policy that we in Aontú have held for several years relates to changing the sward. I am delighted the Government has taken that policy on board. We have depended on ryegrass, which needs significant industrial fertilisers to keep it going, for so long instead of allowing clover and other plants to flourish within the sward, which results in nitrogen being taken from the air and put into the ground.
I urge the Government to consider riverine parks. When cities grow in Canada, urban development is prohibited for 500 m on both sides of rivers so that those rivers remain as parks in the middle of large urban areas that can be enjoyed by families.
Cuireann sé áthas orm go bhfuil deis ann cúpla focal a rá i dtaobh an ábhair seo. I am among the lucky ones as I have a national park in my area. There is no doubt that Connemara National Park has made a significant contribution to Connemara since it was purchased in the late 1970s. It is simplistic, however, to think that we need national parks all over the place. Obviously, Irish land history is very different from most European land history. As a result of the land wars of the 19th century and early 20th century, most of the land went back to smaller farmers rather than going to big ranch-type farmers or, for example, what happened in Scotland with the clearances. That always has to be taken into account.
There has been another and much cheaper way for the State to protect biodiversity, however, one for which it may not have paid enough, and that is by designation. We should stand back for a minute and consider what designation means. It means that the State comes in and, although it recognises that the land belongs to the landowner, it gives a big list of activities that cannot be carried out there without its permission. Obviously, that has significant implications on other things such as physical planning permissions and so on. In that way, the State controls the activities on a vast amount of land that far exceeds the size of the national parks. In the case of Connemara west of the Corrib, for example, the reality is that 80% of that area is designated as either a special area of conservation, a special protection area or a natural heritage area. The areas that are not designated are the green bits that people have been farming more intensively than ever. None of it is wild. All of it was farmed; every bit of it.
It is interesting to pay attention to the pattern of where people live. It always strikes me when I see houses in odd or isolated locations that the pressure to survive was so great that every bit of green land was inhabited. There were people living on the butts of mountains and so on. There is history involved in all of this. Comparing that with the settlement pattern in other places, if one tries to impose their way of doing it, that will immediately create friction.
I hear about crime, including environmental crime. It is happening. There are people across society who carry out environmental crime. My experience, however, is that the vast majority of people, particularly landholders, care for the land and biodiversity. I often sat down with older farmers through the years and discussed their natural and indigenous methods of farming, many of which were supplanted by previous Government schemes involving land reclamation, mechanisation and so on. The diversity they had on small farms was incredible.
I refer to their knowledge when it comes to protecting wildlife. I remember being on a deserted island where there was a project going on to bring back the corncrake. The woman who owned the house grew up on the island with her father. She explained to me that when they were mowing the field, her father would never have gone near a corncrake nest and that, at the time, there were about 100 pairs of corncrakes on that very small island off Clifden. Thankfully, some of them have come back. Strangely, one of the things they needed was interaction with humans. If the place is allowed to go wild, as had happened on that island for the previous 30 years, that actually causes the demise of the corncrake. In some cases, a carefully managed countryside is what is needed, rather than the dream that some people have of letting it all go wild.
In the context of society in general, surely on this island we have learned that policing only works when it is with the consent and support of those being policed. If one has to watch out for everybody in one's community, there will never be enough rangers, conservation officers or ordinary members of An Garda Síochána. What makes it work in most of society, including the area in which I work, which is very lightly policed, is that the vast majority of the people there want the law to be kept, keep the law themselves and do not want law-breakers in their midst. Similarly, I have found a lot of the people who have worked for the NPWS to be absolutely superb because they live and work in the communities, understand the people and work with them. In that way, everybody goes forward together. The reality, however, is that if one tries to come in with a heavy hand, one will not get half as much conservation as one will by working with people, particularly landholders, who have a significant stored knowledge of what is there.
There are challenges. On the other hand, if I leave my house and walk up what we call the seanbóthar - it is a walking route we built that goes on for four or five miles - I can see we still have a fair bit of biodiversity. There is great nature. Who are the ones who appreciate it most? The local people. I will hand over to my colleague, Deputy Devlin.
I welcome the opportunity to examine the Government’s strategic plan for the renewal of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The plan sets out an ambitious timeline for a full organisational restructuring of the NPWS that I believe is much needed and long overdue. It provides a substantial €55 million additional investment in the organisation that will allow for the recruitment of 60 key new staff to critically important roles. The strategic action plan aims to deliver an NPWS that is more resilient, better resourced, and better equipped to play its part in Ireland’s response to the biodiversity emergency on the national and international stages. The plan will equip the NPWS with the organisational capability and supporting structures to enable it to deliver on its mandate in protecting our natural heritage. It is important to note that the plan fulfils a crucial commitment in the programme for Government, providing for a significant investment in and renewal of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. I thank the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, and his colleague the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and their officials for preparing the plan and securing the necessary resources.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, who is present, for his attendance. I will turn to our constituency of Dún Laoghaire for a moment.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service, as the Minister of State would be aware, works closely with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council to protect biodiversity at important sites such as Dalkey Island, where there is a significant Arctic tern colony as well as goats and all sorts of other wildlife that is all protected. Work is ongoing with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the local council.
The NPWS also supported efforts at Killiney Hill to expand the red squirrel population. Back in 2012, for example,15 red squirrels from the Raven Nature Reserve in County Wexford were released into the area to supplement the local population. This project has involved schoolchildren, which has helped promote awareness of the need for conservation and biodiversity locally.
The additional funding being provided to the National Parks and Wildlife Service is very welcome. Hopefully, this will allow a greater focus on sites like the proposed natural heritage area at Loughlinstown Forest. This is an almost 20-acre forest and an important outpost of native broadleaf woodland in an increasingly urban area, but it has been largely overlooked for many years. The National Parks and Wildlife Service needs to not only work with local councils on issues such as forests, but also in relation to biodiversity corridors. Hopefully, with the additional resources it has been given, it will be able to work closely with those local authorities.
Finally, as the citizens' assembly gathers to discuss biodiversity, it will make recommendations in due course, but in the meantime we need to take action and this national strategy is a very positive first step.
Perhaps I could have a certain leniency.
I welcome the opportunity to speak and pay tribute to the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, on this review and on his dedication, hard work and commitment. The programme for Government promised the review, and we have it. What is under discussion today is the strategic plan, which is based and arises from a report on the National Parks and Wildlife Service carried out by Professor Stout and Dr. Ó Cinnéide. I am not sure why it was necessary but that was followed by Reflect and Renew - A Review of the National Parks and Wildlife Service but, in any event, we have the three documents now. I found it difficult not to be depressed in reading the review. I looked for hope and the hope is that the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has put in plan before us. The emphasis will have to be on implementation.
I will quote a tiny bit from this. I read every single word of it and so has my staff. Let me just try to put it into context. It states, "Our overall conclusion, based on the weight of evidence, is that is time for change ... Ireland’s natural environment, including its biodiversity, is in trouble. It is time for fundamental reform." It also states, "We are in the midst of a global crisis. Nature is our life-support system..." This is here for everybody to read but the statistics of loss are shocking. It states that 75% of the land of the earth is very significantly altered by human activity, 66% of the world’s oceans are experiencing increasing cumulative impacts and so on. It states also that today human population and livestock comprise 96% of global mammal biomass and that 70% of birds alive in the world are poultry, mostly chickens, which is an extraordinary statistic, and that the risk of continued damage to global biodiversity is the collapse of ecosystems, including those agricultural systems that produce food; the lack of capacity to buffer and reverse climate change; and the increased global health risks, including further pandemics. I suggest that everybody reads this. The three reports have finally been produced following decades and decades of neglect.
Let us look at the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which was set up in 1991, more than 30 years ago. If any organisation was set up to fail, this one was. I want to pay public tribute to the 400 staff throughout the country in 32 locations in 19 counties. I do not know how they have continued with years of neglect and underfunding. None of these are my words. These are the words of Micheál Ó Cinnéide. I would not think he was a radical, nor Professor Stout. Micheál Ó Cinnéide has been long part of the establishment and a respected individual. What he said here is absolutely damning. We ignore it at our peril.
Let me read what they said on funding, and this is directly from the report. There is chronic underinvestment. It stated, "The NPWS is inadequately resourced to function to deliver its remit." It was particularly hit by the 2008 financial crisis, after which there was a 70% reduction in funding. This underfunding persisted, unchanged, until 2020. Even the turf compensation fund, which was very welcome, had to come out of the National Parks and Wildlife Service budget, without any additional funding. In addition, over the years, while under-resourcing and underfunding it, we increased its remit, giving it an absolutely impossible job.
I will go back to statistics on the environment globally, followed by statistics on Ireland. As I said, 70% of birds alive are poultry. Can one imagine that? That is what we have come too – mostly chickens. Some 75% of the land of the earth is very significantly altered and, as I said, 66% of the oceans. Specifically on Ireland, about 75% of Ireland’s landscape is intensively managed – 65% agricultural land and 10% forestry. According to Ferdia Marnell of the National Parks and Wildlife Service at the first meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity in May, most of Ireland’s biodiversity in the other 25% is shoved into a corner. Some 85% of Ireland’s protected habitats were in an unfavourable condition and 43% of protected species were in an unfavourable status.
I am running out of time to give all of these statistics, but what really jumps off the page is, notwithstanding that we set it up to fail, that we set it up in complete opposition to the policy of the Government. While the National Parks and Wildlife Service is responsible for delivering on a range of national and international policies and agreements, these are implemented within a national policy context with a strategic focus on increased production and intensification. Therefore, one policy is completely and utterly at odds with the other.
I hope that finally language means something and we are now actually going to do something in respect of this. Different songs were quoted today, and I will quote, "It’s Now or Never". We have no further window of opportunity. We know that from the meteorological organisation and from the ongoing reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We can no longer stand here and stay we did not know. We can longer stand here and leave the National Parks and Wildlife Service to fail. It has taken a biodiversity crisis and a climate change crisis to make us examine the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
I have sat with Deputies where the National Parks and Wildlife Service was denigrated at a time when-----
I am almost finished, in any event.
Certainly, it is now or never. It is time to do something. The Minister of State has my full support on this, but it has to be done, as was said, with the community. Indeed, in Galway, the community has led the way. We need to have the community on board and to recognise that it is the essential ingredient in our role to change what is happening.
I thank Deputy Connolly and all the other Deputies for their contributions on the review and strategic action plan for the National Parks and Wildlife Service. This is a €55 million plan that fulfils an important commitment in the programme for Government and it will be a very positive result for Irish nature.
I want to turn to some of the contributions. Deputy Whitmore’s love of nature and biodiversity shines through in many conversations I have had with her in the House and in committee. She mentioned wildlife crime and is concerned about its staffing in the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
There are 110 staff, including district conservation officers and conservation rangers, who are located across the country and who lead on the enforcement of wildlife laws and on bringing prosecutions. There is also provision for an additional 33 conservation rangers and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, hopes to fill these places as soon as possible. These regional staff are supported by a central team across a regulatory and licensing unit in a hub-and-spoke model. Therefore, one can add another couple of zeros to the one staff member in wildlife crime enforcement who Deputy Whitmore mentioned.
The Deputy also referred to regulations for the protection of the basking shark. On this specific issue, I can confirm that the draft regulations have been submitted to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, OPC, and that the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, is hoping that this process will complete as quickly as possible.
Deputy Tóibín spoke passionately about nature. The Deputy asked that a Minister should visit the rewilding project at Dunsany. In fact, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has already visited Dunsany and had some fascinating conversations about the approach that is being taken there.
The programme for Government committed us to reviewing the remit, status and funding of the NPWS. That independent, multiphase review was completed in February 2022. It culminated in 15 key recommendations to renew the NPWS and make it a more resilient and more effective organisation fit to meet the challenges of this century. The strategic action plan, approved by the Government on Tuesday, 3 May, is designed to deliver on those recommendations and its implementation is a key priority for the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, and all my colleagues across the Government.
I acknowledge the hard work of the independent authors who undertook the research and analysis and made the recommendations that underpin the strategic action plan. Professor Jane Stout chaired the first phase of the review, which comprised a comprehensive consultation with external stakeholders, staff and the public, an examination of the challenges and struggles the organisation is grappling with and an identification of some of the gaps that may be inhibiting the NPWS from delivering effectively on its mandate. The former Secretary General, Mr. Gerry Kearney, conducted the final phases of the review and brought it to completion by drawing all of the information together to make comprehensive and expert recommendations on the appropriate organisational structure for the NPWS and to provide an in-depth analysis of its governance, resourcing, communications and systems. Mr. Kearney's work also reflects the significant resourcing gains and organisational changes in recent years, and sets out a clear pathway to build on these positive developments and ensure the NPWS is fit for purpose and can deliver on its core mandate in the coming years and decades.
In summary, the independent review concludes that a substantial renewal and internal restructuring of the NPWS is required. Fifteen specific recommendations are made, which form the basis for the action plan. The review concludes that a substantial renewal and internal restructuring of the NPWS is now required. I will briefly go through these 15 recommendations, which form the basis of the action plan.
Starting with improving the governance, the review recommends establishing the NPWS as an executive agency within the Government that will secure a dedicated top management team, distinct mission statement, priorities and resources for the NPWS, while maintaining close direct reporting and accountability links to the Department, the Minister and the Government, as well as eliminating duplication by capitalising on efficiencies in terms of access to departmental corporate service, expertise and supports.
The review recommends a restructure of the NPWS. This is a change to the structure in order that its internal structure reflects the functions that it is meant to carry out, and, of course, those have changed over time. The main functions of the restructured NPWS will be conservation and protection; scientific advice and research; parks and reserves; engagement, corporate and specialist supports; and legislation, licensing and regulation.
The review also recommends reconfiguring the top management team within the restructured NPWS and assigning that team to develop, as an urgent and immediate priority, a dedicated organisational strategy statement. In addition, the review recommends establishing permanent standing committees, on a cross-functional basis across the new directorates, to address long-standing, multifaceted, complex matters.
The review also looked at the people who are involved in the NPWS. It recommends a fundamentally overhaul HR capability and practice within the NPWS. The HR function for the NPWS should rest with a dedicated person. Recruitment to NPWS specialist and industrial roles should be overhauled and standardised, the use of temporary contracts over long periods should end and advertised roles should be graded correctly in order that candidates within an appropriate band in terms of skill set and level of experience are encouraged to apply. There also will be appropriate career structures developed for industrial staff.
The review suggests setting up an expert group, drawing on international expertise in organisations with a similar remit to the NPWS, to establish the human resourcing requirements of the NPWS on an international, best-practice basis.
The review advises bringing forward legislation to provide updated and stronger statutory underpinnings for the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
The review addresses the communications. It is important that any organisation can clearly communicate with the public and with the rest of the Government. The review recommends that external communications by the NPWS should be professionalised and should prioritise a vigorous and timely engagement with social and other media.
The review recommends putting in place a new, renewed and improved programme of engagement, awareness and education by the NPWS as part of a wider strategy to present an authoritative, credible and compelling voice for nature in the State.
The information and communications technology, ICT, function has to be reformed. The chief information officer, CIO, office in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has brought forward a four-stage process and pathway to transform ICT within the NPWS over the next three years.
The review also looks at biodiversity and climate agencies and, because there are a number of these, how do they interact with the NPWS. There are recommendations in that regard, and on how the NPWS should engage with other public bodies of a broader nature outside of this sector to help ensure that each is playing its own part and according to its remit and responsibilities.
The review recommends recruiting a number of key posts in the NPWS immediately, additional to the filling of current vacancies, where these are needed to mitigate critical risks in the interests of the State.
The review recommends the grading of technical and regional posts by reference to comparable posts across the Irish public service. Following on the findings of the benchmarking of the staffing of the NPWS by reference to international comparators, the grading of technical and regional posts should be assessed by reference to similar in the Irish public service.
Lastly, the review recommends establishing a new engagement, corporate and specialist supports directorate. This will create a resilient corporate spine for the NPWS, which can efficiently interface with the corporate function of the Department, thereby improving critical internal services in relation to HR, information technology, IT, procurement etc., leading out on better engagement with external stakeholders, as well as equipping the NPWS of the future to cope better with departmental changes.
The NPWS has a proud history and, despite being a relatively small organisation of some 400 people, carries a complex range of responsibilities ranging from significant policy and advisory functions to operational responsibilities in the national parks, conservation, enforcement, licensing, biodiversity and being a statutory consultee on planning.
The organisation has been sustained through many years by a truly dedicated and expert team of people. For them too, the plan will provide the momentum to build on the significant gains we have been able to secure for the organisation in the past two budgets, bringing its funding this year, for the first time since the financial crisis, back to pre-2008 levels.
With the implementation of the strategic action plan, the future of the NPWS now looks bright. Given the times we are in, we will need the NPWS to be strong, resilient, accountable, fit for purpose and able to look forward. The renewal programme in the action plan, the significantly increased investment and the immediate recruitment to critical posts all demonstrate beyond doubt the Government's strong commitment to our natural heritage, to biodiversity, and to the NPWS as an organisation.