In Ireland, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is the organisation responsible for managing the conservation of nature. With a huge and varied remit, its priority aims include;

  • Implementing nature conservation legislation and policy;
  • Designating and advising on the protection of habitats and species in protected areas;
  • Managing, maintaining and developing State-owned National Parks and Nature Reserves;
  • Promoting awareness and engaging with stakeholders on natural heritage and biodiversity matters.

However, according to an independent review published last year, the NPWS in its current form, ‘is not aligned effectively to deliver on its current demands and future mandate. 

‘There are major strategic, structural, capacity and resource issues, meaning the NPWS cannot meet current obligations, let alone plan for and respond to future challenges and legislation, including the Climate Action Bill and EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030’.

This depressing note, featured in the first few paragraph of the independent report, confirmed what many in the conservation sector across Ireland already know – that despite dedicated, passionate and knowledgeable staff – organisationally, the NPWS is failing nature.

But is all that about to change?

Last week, Darragh O’Brien TD (Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage) and Malcolm Noonan TD (Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform) published a Strategic Action Plan for the NPWS. The Plan sets out a timeline for a full restructuring of the NPWS, with a commitment to invest an additional €55m, together with the early recruitment of 60 key staff for critically important roles.

The Government claim that this new Action Plan will make the NPWS more resilient, better resourced, and better equipped to play its part in Ireland’s response to the biodiversity emergency, on the national and international stage.

Gannet flying with vegetation in its beak on the way to build a nest.

This announcement is fantastic news for the NPWS, and more importantly, is good news for nature. An increased financial and staffing resource will allow a restructured NPWS to effectively carry out and fulfil its responsibilities to our special, rare, and threatened species and habitats. A fit for purpose and fully functioning NPWS will not only protect ecosystems and wildlife but allow them to recover from decades of decline.

However, although a well-deserved €55 million investment in nature conservation sounds like a lot of money, between restoring Ireland’s peatlands, protecting our freshwater and marine environment, overseeing agri-environment policy, counteracting biodiversity loss, monitoring our current protected areas – and lots more besides – there is a huge amount of work to do. In fact, it is likely that in the long-term, the increased financial investment in the NPWS won’t be enough to buck the trend of biodiversity loss on and around this Island. Yet, that is not to say this announcement isn’t a hugely positive and encouraging step for Irish wildlife – it is!

It is an acknowledgement that nature conservation has been under-resourced and undervalued for too long; an essential first step on a road to a truly greener, more sustainable and wildlife-friendly Ireland.

What does this mean for our seas?

A humpback whale tale sticking up in the air as it dives below the surface of the sea, seagulls flock overhead waiting to feed on scraps.
Humpback whale and gulls by Daniel Lettice

Fair Seas hope the announcement will also spell good fortune for the fate of our seas. The current Programme for Government (PFG) commits to developing ‘comprehensive legislation for the identification, designation, and management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Irish territorial waters. We will realise our outstanding target of 10% under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive as soon as is practical and aim for 30% of marine protected areas by 2030’. 

The expansion of Ireland’s MPA network will require a large financial investment to adequately resource-effective MPA designation, management and enforcement, as well as all the associated public consultation and engagement, the scientific research and monitoring, and the all-important restoration initiatives that will drive the recovery of our MPAs.

Significant resource and investment in marine conservation is also needed beyond that of MPAs. One such example is the additional measures needed to bring about ‘Good Environmental Status’ (GES) of Ireland’s seas as described in the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD).

Unfortunately, the latest MSFD assessment demonstrated how Ireland missed its 2020 deadline to achieve GES of its wider seas, failing to positively deliver for critical components of healthy functioning ecosystems such as ‘biodiversity’, ‘foodwebs’ and ‘sea-floor integrity’. It’s clear an ambitious new programme of projects and initiatives, going beyond what is already in place, is needed to ensure all our seas are ecologically diverse, clean, healthy and productive.

As the old saying goes ‘money makes the world go round’, and so it is for protecting our seas too. With additional investment in the State’s institutions for nature conservation, delivered alongside fully resourced plans for expanding Ireland’s MPA network, and achieving GES, Ireland now has an exciting opportunity to put nature first, and give us all a cause for some much-needed Ocean Optimism.


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