Deenihan signs major updated Nature Protection Legislation

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Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan, TD, announced today (Tuesday 27 September, 2011) that he has signed into law comprehensive regulations which address deficiencies in Irish law implementing the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. The regulations apply to flora, fauna and habitats, with a particular emphasis on strengthening the protection of birds.

“These regulations are an essential response to threats to our wildlife and natural habitats”, said Minister Deenihan. “Together with the changes introduced by my colleague the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in the Planning and Development legislation, they will provide clarity to citizens and to public authorities regarding their responsibilities to protect our wildlife and ecological assets, not only to ensure that we are meeting our obligations under EU law, but because it is in our interests and those of our children to do so.”

The European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011 meet the requirements of rulings of the European Court of Justice against Ireland which found significant fault with Ireland’s previous transposition regulations. They also build on several years’ experience of implementation of the Directives and provide more appropriate and effective tools to protect Ireland’s endangered wildlife and habitats.

The obligations of various public bodies in regard to sites designated for the protection of endangered wildlife have been clarified and strengthened. These sites consist of Special Protection Areas (SPAs), designated for the protection of birds, and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) designated for the protection of other important habitats such as raised bogs, native woodland and sand dune systems etc. Collectively these sites form part of the EU wide Natura Network.

The Regulations complement relevant provisions of the Planning and Development Act, 2010 which were commenced simultaneously by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan. Local authorities and An Bord Pleanála will now have legal responsibilities and powers under the Planning and Development Acts to ensure that the requirements of the Birds and Habitats Directives are adhered to in the adoption of development plans and the granting of development consents. All other statutory authorities must adhere to the provisions of the new Birds and Habitats Regulations in their planning, consent and operational functions.

In addition, general obligations are placed on all public authorities to exercise their functions to secure compliance with the Birds and Habitats Directives and to uphold and enforce the requirements of the Regulations.

The Regulations contain new powers allowing the Minister to identify “activities requiring consent”. These are activities which are likely to harm an SAC or SPA or its species or habitats.  Such an activity cannot proceed without first obtaining the consent of the Minister. This can relate to activities within or outside SACs or SPAs. An example of activity outside a protected habitat could be an upstream activity which might cause pollution or siltation in a protected site.

The Minister will also have power to regulate activities where they could damage breeding birds, fauna and flora or habitats contrary to the requirements of the Birds or Habitats Directives. This Regulation is not primarily directed at landowners but at third parties (e.g. quad users, jet skiers and other inappropriate recreational activities in sensitive areas) whose activities may threaten protected sites or species of wildlife. The Minister may give a licence for the carrying out of such activities where he is satisfied that they will not adversely affect wildlife or habitats.

The Regulations contain important new provisions to address the problem of invasive species, generally non-native species that can take over or destroy the habitats of native species. Examples are the grey squirrel, which in many places has displaced the native red squirrel, and the African pondweed, which has become a serious problem in many areas of Lough Corrib. Such species have been identified as a major threat to native wildlife. A black list of unwanted species is set out in the Regulations. It will be an offence to release or allow to escape, to breed, propagate, import, transport, sell or advertise such species. Transitional provisions will allow a reasonable period for people holding such animals or plants to dispose of them appropriately.

Widespread consultation with the public, with interested parties and with public authorities was undertaken in the drafting of these new regulations.

“The protection of our rich natural heritage and our environment is essential if we are to continue to reap the rewards that healthy ecosystems provide. Tourism, agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture are just some of Ireland’s key industries that depend on our natural environment. Healthy ecosystems also help us to ensure good water quality, defend against flooding and remove carbon from the atmosphere, not to mention the irreplaceable health and psychological benefits of having outstanding nature on our doorsteps”, Minister Deenihan added.

A PDF version of the new Birds and Habitats Regulations can be downloaded from: