Seanad debates

Friday, 12 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Natural Heritage Areas

10:30 am

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. To highlight my Curragh credentials, my mother is a Newbridge woman and she met my dad, who served in the Defence Forces for 37 years, at a dance in Suncroft many moons ago. I have a great affinity for the Curragh.

I will respond to the matter of the natural heritage area first. My Department has no role in the designation of national historic park sites, which are managed by the Office of Public Works, OPW. Any queries in respect to such a designation should be pursued with OPW. However, through its National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, my Department is responsible for natural heritage and designating a range of protected areas relating to conservation of habitats and species. The NPWS manages an extensive conservation and recreational property portfolio of some 87,000 ha, which includes six national parks. Our six existing national parks account for circa 65,000 ha, with another almost 22,000 ha of nature reserves and other heritage sites. The issue of the use of those parks during the Covid-19 pandemic has been mentioned and it is significant.

The existing national parks are managed from a conservation perspective while also providing a public amenity, and they attract in excess of 4 million visitors annually. Given the resources available for capital investment within our national parks and nature reserves, I am mindful of the need to focus on the core responsibilities relating to the management of the existing parks and reserves lands and have no plans at present to increase the number of national parks in the country. However, as part of my Department's continuing commitment and contribution to protecting our heritage and improving our tourism and recreation product, we have been exploring ways to optimise the sustainable potential of heritage sites under our control in a way that is compatible with conservation objectives.

My Department, in conjunction with Fáilte Ireland, launched a strategic partnership in 2017 with a view to increasing tourism revenues in the rural areas in which the parks are located and increasing Ireland's appeal as a recreation destination.One of the outputs from the partnership was "Experiencing the Wild Heart of Ireland", an interpretative masterplan for the development of our national parks and reserves, which sets out a roadmap for investment at these important nature conservation, public amenity and tourism sites and underpins the objectives of Project 2040.

The ongoing investment in our national parks will create memorable and meaningful experiences of Ireland's natural heritage. This will be done through sensitive design and the development of authentic experiences, providing better access to nature and increased understanding of society's conservation responsibilities, as well as supporting significant investment in recreation facilities, including the upgrade and development of the trails network, increasing visitor facilities and improving signage and branding. These will be designed and delivered with strong emphasis on conservation, and will allow us to protect and preserve our most fragile environments.

The basic designation for wildlife under Irish legislation is the natural heritage area, NHA. These areas are considered important for the habitats present or for species of plants or animals whose habitat needs protection. There are currently 148 sites with NHA status - 75 raised bogs covering 23,000 ha, and a further 73 blanket bogs covering 37,000 ha. In addition, there are over 600 proposed NHAs, which were published on a non-statutory basis in 1995.

The Curragh was one of the original proposed NHAs and has fine examples of heathland and grassland habitats. It contains notable species of plant and fungi which depend on low-nutrient grassland, and are thus becoming increasingly rare. I understand the Geological Survey of Ireland also considers the Curragh as one of the best examples of a landscape produced by the retreating ice sheets at the end of the Ice Age.

I wish to note the points made in respect of the Curragh military camp. I have written to the Minister for Defence and the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Mark Mellett, regarding a conservation plan for the Curragh military camp. I do believe that it is a complex of important built conservation and heritage significance.


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