These designations were usually clearly demarcated, with boundaries such as rivers, roadways, walls and ditches.
Subsequently, EU designations in the form of the Natura 2000 network were introduced on the back of the habitats directives in 1997.
The new EU designations took the form of Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protected Area (SPA) when introduced. These did not replace the NHAs but became a further designation on lands.
Currently, there are over 400 Natura 2000 sites covering over 700,000ha or 13% of the land area of the country.
The sites are designed to protect species and habitats, with 28 species of land mammal, over 400 species of birds, in excess of 4,000 plant species and over 12,000 species of insect detailed.
When first introduced at EU level the Oireachtas had not passed the necessary legislation to qualify SAC designations. As a result, all Irish SAC designations were initially classified as candidate designations.
However, all restrictions for farmers that related to a fully ratified Natura 2000 designation still applied.
The process of applying full SAC status to these sites commenced in 2017, with the National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS) contacting landowners and notifying them of the new status.
This process is currently ongoing. So if you are a landowner with an SAC site and you have not yet been contacted, then the expectation is that you will be in the coming year.
For farmers with SPA sites this ratification process has already been completed.
On the establishment of the INHFA we recognised the major issues these designations were causing which is why we included the term Natura in our name. We have also been working to reduce their impact and to find financial supports for the major burden they are imposing on landowners.
Currently the Natura 2000 network of designations (SAC & SPA) covers 14% of the country with many of these designations west of a line from Lough Foyle in North East Donegal to Cork City. In addition to this most of these designations falls on hill lands both commonage and private hill land.
The Natura 2000 designations were introduced as a response to falling biodiversity across the European Union with their objective been to protect the high levels of biodiversity that existed in certain areas. So in simple terms the designations were recognition of a job well done by landowners in relation to protecting biodiversity and the vital habitats across our hills on in river basins.
Unfortunately, the management of these designations by State Bodies has been an utter disaster. Farmers and landowners who had delivered habitats worth protecting were side-lined and State Bodies prioritised a policy of preservation over conservation. This policy was best illustrated through the 38 Activities Requiring Consent (ARC’s) that compelled farmers to get permission from the NPWS or the Local Authority to carry out normal farming activities.
The activities requiring consent included mulching, controlled burning, topping, spreading lime, fertiliser, slurry or farm yard manure. Permission is also required if you want to change the type of stock or introduce a new stock type (eg introducing cattle if they were not there before) or if you are significantly increasing or decreasing your stock numbers.
For landowners looking to put up a new fence, or planning to use a digger on land for any reason then they are expected to get planning permission from the Local Authority (County Council). This planning application will require a Natura Impact Statement (Environmental Assessment Statement) that could cost anything from €1,000 to €3,000.
What all of this has done is to restrict landowners/farmers from carrying out the very activities required to manage and protect these habitats. As a result of this we have seen a regression in the habitat status on many of these sites with no consequence for the environmentalists and State authorities that have contributed to this regression.
Currently the INHFA are working to address many of these issues and ensure that farmers are protected and rewarded for their efforts. We are also seeking financial recognition for the loss of income and the clear devaluation these designations has imposed on these lands.
Finally, for the many farmers that are not impacted by these designations there is now the looming threat of further designations under the EU Biodiversity Strategy that demands designations on 30% of each countries land base. In addition to this there are also proposals to introduce a new designation type called Strictly Protected across 10% of each countries land area. This new designation where applied will see the cessation of all farming activity and is rewilding by another name.