Seanad debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Special Areas of Conservation

10:30 am

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State is having a very busy morning with us. He is going to complete more than a hat-trick. He is here for the final Commencement matter as well.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach's office for choosing this Commencement matter this morning. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, to the Chamber. The Connemara Bog Complex is a very large site of approximately 50,000 ha. It covers the majority of the south Connemara lowlands in County Galway. The site is bounded to the north by the Galway-Clifden road, the N59, and to the south, it stretches as far as the Moycullen-Spiddal road. This is a huge area of land that is protected within the Connemara region. It is predominantly lowland Atlantic blanket bog, with some small areas of old oak woodland with some invasive rhododendrons and, of course, some of the finest rivers are in the area. That is very important as the Atlantic salmon, a species listed under Annex II of the EU Habitats Directive, is found in some of the rivers within this site.

There is a long-running history of the selection of this area as a candidate for a special area of conservation, SAC, going back as far as 1997 when there was a first notification of the site. It was subsequently extended and renotified in 2006. I understand there has been an appeals process and that appeals have been lodged and processed since then. The Department is engaging in the final signing off of the SAC.

I am inquiring in regard to clarification on the appeals. Will there be any future opportunities in regard to appeals? I am not talking about large-scale changes. In some cases, there may be a request for some minor changes to the boundaries of the SAC in the future. It could be to rectify some issues where there may be mistakes on the mapping, for example, or there could be areas which are commercially sensitive to somebody and it may make sense to make a slight change in the boundary and that could be compensated elsewhere with the inclusion of another area.

I am inquiring as to whether the boundaries will be the boundaries forever or whether there could be changes to an SAC in the future. As I said, it is a huge tract of land, some 50,000 ha. I appreciate it is hugely important in terms of biodiversity and our requirements under the Habitats Directive and it is something with which we have to comply. There has been a great deal of discussion, engagement and talk since this was first notified as far back as 1997. We have come a long way in terms of acceptance that SACs are here and are required under European law.There has to be a process and a boundary created to define that special area of conservation. However, as I said, can there be minor, but perhaps important, changes in the future which would benefit society, the economy and local communities, whether it is a requirement to remove a small piece to allow for a piece of amenity or commercial infrastructure? Clarification on the processes into the future is important.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Kyne for raising this very important matter. It is great to see children back into the Visitors Gallery to see the work in the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is very important.

The designation of European sites under the nature directives is a formal, legal process with a number of steps that must be followed for each site. The criteria used to set the boundaries of the sites are purely scientific, as is required under the nature directives. They are designated to protect threatened, rare or endangered species and habitat types, which are listed in the annexes to the directives. The sites chosen are significant not just on a national but on a European stage.

The full process for site designation is set out in SI 477 of 2011, the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011. The first step is the identification of the appropriate geographical area of the site. This is done by scientific analysis. Once draft boundaries are proposed, the Minister notifies landowners and the public of his intention to designate the site and provides an opportunity for objections or appeals on the proposed site boundaries. Advertisements are published in local media and notices are displayed in local government offices, Garda stations and public libraries. Landowners within the proposed site, where their identities are known, are notified directly in writing with detailed information including a map of the site and information about why that site is being proposed for designation and details of compensation that may be available.

Connemara Bog Complex was first publicly notified in 1997 to protect a wide range of habitats and species, including active blanket bog and lagoons. In 2006, the boundaries of the site were amended by agreement between the Government and farming organisations. Public notifications were again issued and a further opportunity offered to appeal the amended designation. In total over the full period, 60 objections, or appeals, were received for Connemara Bog Complex. Of these, nine were successful, 12 were partially successful, 21 were unsuccessful and 18 were deemed invalid.

The appeals process for this site has now concluded and the site has moved on to the final stage of the process which requires the publication of a statutory instrument formally designating the site. The statutory instrument includes a description of the site, a detailed map showing the area, a complete list of habitats and species for which the area was selected and a list of activities which require the consent of the Minister before they can be undertaken in a way that affects the site.

It is important to note that all relevant protections under Irish law apply to the site from the time it is publicly notified as proposed for designation. A full list of all designated sites, the associated maps and statutory instruments is available on the Department's website.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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Before the I bring the Senator in, I would like to add my voice of welcome to the boys, girls and teachers of Glandore National School from west Cork, who are being hosted today by Deputy Christopher O’Sullivan. They have had a very long journey to come up here. I was in Glandore last summer and it is just such a beautiful part of the world. We appreciate that they have taken the time to come and join with their Deputy. I know that the particular topic we are discussing now will of be of particular interest, of course, to their Deputy because his whole portfolio and interest is in the whole area of environmental protection and heritage. We hope that they have a very interesting day today and the opportunity to come back again at a later stage. I thank them for joining us.

I apologise for interrupting the Senator.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Fine Gael)
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No problem. I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply on behalf of the Department. It deals quite clearly with the process to date on where we are. It states that the appeals process is now concluded and the site has moved to the final stages of the process, which requires the publication of the statutory instrument formally designating the site.

There is a certainty and I know all areas got protection once the site got candidate status. However, from reading this, there will be no future opportunities, under what it says here, for any sort of minor appeals or changes to the boundary. It is something that may be relevant not just in the Connemara Bog Complex, but indeed to all special areas of conservation, SACs, around the country. As I stated, people accept that SACs are with us and are required under European law and people are learning to live with them, though they are not always happy and I appreciate that. However, I just would be concerned that this excludes any chance of an appeal into the future. I hope the Department can keep that in mind.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I would like to thank the Senator again for the discussion on this very important topic. Over the years, the steps to designate a site have remained the same, but we have been able to improve and streamline the process. For example, the list of landowners at a site is now provided by the Property Registration Authority of Ireland. However, we still see that not all property is registered with the Property Registration Authority. Therefore, in order to be sure every opportunity is given to appeal, advertisements are placed in national and local newspapers and notices are also placed in local public offices.

The appeals process is comprehensive. If people’s initial appeal is partly unsuccessful or unsuccessful and they are unhappy with the outcome, they can make a further formal appeal to the designated areas appeals advisory board. The board is independent of the Department and it is comprised of a chairperson and equal representation from landowners, user groups and environmental conservationists. This board considers appeals and makes formal recommendations to the Minister on a scientific basis. No further appeals may be lodged after the appeals process has concluded.

All statutory instruments, designated sites and special areas of conservation made to date may be viewed in both the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, and Irish Statue Book websites.

Obviously, the Senator raised a valid point. My knowledge is not very detailed in this area, but in terms of into the future, if there are areas that may not, should not or potentially should not have an SAC designation, I know from the Department it can be raised at a future date as well, outside of the process that is here, once it has concluded.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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That concludes the Commencement matters. I am suspending until 12 noon.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.17 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 12.02 p.m. Sitting suspended at 11.17 a.m. and resumed at 12.02 p.m.