Seanad debates

Friday, 12 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Natural Heritage Areas

10:30 am

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Acting Chairperson and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for being here to discuss the Curragh of Kildare, which is a unique and special place, both to those of us from Kildare who live close to the Curragh and people throughout the country. Many people pass it on a daily and a weekly basis and have the opportunity to see our lovely lands.

The Curragh needs very little introduction because it is very much part of our Irish psyche and is featured prominently in our history and culture. There are many aspects to the Curragh, including its distinct ecological habitat with the flora and the fauna. I have been privileged to go on many walks around the Curragh with experts such as Gay Brabazon and Karen Tyrell, who taught me a great deal about what I need to value in my own area. There is a very strong military history. We have a wonderful museum thanks to Mario Corrigan and James Durney.I invite the Minister of State and anybody who is interested to come and see it when the Covid-19 pandemic is over. Of course there is the connection with St. Brigid, which I spoke about in the House last week, and there is a very important equestrian element in the area, with the Curragh racecourse and all the trainers and breeders located close to the Curragh. We should not forget about the sheep or the film "Braveheart", which was filmed there.

There are two aspects of the Curragh I will mention. One relates to the Department. Currently, we have a proposed natural heritage area for habitat and species. The site code is 000392. It is very important so when will we have the news that this will be announced as a natural heritage area? The Curragh is such an important site that we really should be aiming to having UNESCO protection for it. This is just one step we need to take. At present, the Curragh does not have the adequate or appropriate protection that it needs.

The other question relates to the management of the Curragh. There is quite a large movement of people around the Curragh at any given time with the equestrian, military and the very well-known golf club activities, as well as the movement of sheep. The Curragh has been a boon during Covid-19. It is wonderful to see so many people out enjoying the Curragh and its environs. However, this raises again issues that have always been there. There is no adequate parking, for example. Currently, there are problems arising from where cars are being parked and grass needs to be reseeded. There should be appropriate parking and signage in a discrete way. There is so much to learn about the Curragh.

I introduced a Curragh of Kildare Bill when I was in the Dáil relating to illegal encampment and dumping. The problem is that currently there are two caravans and one tent there. We are going from the military management to Kildare County Council to the Garda and each of them is passing the buck. We absolutely need to have strong management, which is not happening. We cannot have illegal encampments and illegal disposal of waste on the Curragh. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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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.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I am glad to hear that there is a little bit of lily white in the Minister of State. I look forward to bringing him down and giving him a full tour of the Curragh when the Covid pandemic is over. I had thought that the Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW would be here today, but I accept that this matter crosses over between the Minister of State's Department, the OPW and the Department of Defence. It is disappointing that the Curragh is not being considered at this point for NHA designation. Given the fact that there are over 600 proposed NHAs, surely there should be a graduated process in respect of those that are more significant than others. I ask the Minister of State to look into that. There must be a qualitative vision in place for the future of the Curragh, yet there is not. The Curragh must be given appropriate adequate protection. This is not happening currently.

The current management of the site is of huge concern to me. As I mentioned, it is absolutely falling down. There are many problems. There is an opportunity here to really look at the Curragh and see how we can protect and preserve our natural and built heritage, as the Minister of State said, and also to ensure that it is there for people to use, both as a place of historical interest and also as a leisure and amenity facility. I note what the Minister of State said regarding the county development plan, which has just commenced. An issues paper has been drafted. I will certainly ensure that adequate recognition is given to it during that process.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. I am happy to work with the Senator and Kildare County Council to try and pursue our common set of objectives. The development plan process is a most important one. I have spoken to the heritage officer in Kildare County Council about this matter. While the Curragh has not progressed to legal designation, there is a proposed review of NHA networks. Within that, we could find some common ground, if one excuses the pun, in trying to pursue an objective that takes in the complex needs of the Curragh, given the interrelated elements of the usage of what, in my view, is a nationally important site. I thank the Senator for raising this issue. Our Department will be happy to work with all partners to try and pursue a broad vision statement for the Curragh Camp.