Ireland lacks ambition for current Terrestrial & Marine Protected Areas with no management plans or insufficient management plans in place to conserve species and habitats.

Ireland has been summoned to the European Court of Justice due to its persistent failure to meet its obligations under the Habitats Directive and properly designate Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), more than five years after the deadline for this has expired (more than 10 years for some sites). 423 sites were due to be designated as SACs and some of the claims brought against Ireland are that 149 of these sites do not have sufficient conservation measures in place for the species and habitats for which they’re designated and 230 of the sites have no conservation measures in place at all.

What is the Habitats Directive?

The Habitats Directive was adopted in 1992 and is an EU directive with the objective of safeguarding biodiversity while taking into account economic, social, cultural and regional requirements. Along with the Birds Directive, the Habitats Directive is the cornerstone of Europe’s nature conservation plans and makes up the Natura 2000 network. 

“The Natura 2000 Network is the largest coordinated network of ecologically coherent protected areas in the world with 28,000 sites across 27 member states.”

Member states must designate SACs and SPAs (Special Protected Areas under the Birds Directive) on land and sea for rare, endemic or threatened species or habitats. Almost a fifth of the EU’s terrestrial land area and approximately 10% of its marine area are designated. Overall more than 1,000 species of plant and animal and 200 habitat types are meant to be protected in various ways with specific action plans. Proper implementation of these plans should restore and protect populations and habitats across the EU. Member states are obliged to set conservation objectives for each site and implement conservation measures to achieve these.

In theory, this all sounds great, but unfortunately, many of these areas are what we call ‘paper parks’. They have official designation as protected areas, but there are actually no management or monitoring plans and so conservation objectives are not met. This is partly why Ireland is being taken to the European Court of Justice.

What has Ireland failed to do?

The European Commission states that Ireland has failed to meet its obligations under Articles 4(4) and 6(1). These two sections of the Habitats Directives are intrinsically linked and if article 4(4) is not met then it is not possible to meet Article 6(1). The Commission also states that Ireland makes general and persistent infringements of their obligations and so merely remedying the specific breaches is not enough and a general change in practice across the board is needed.

Failing to reach the requirements of these articles not only results in biodiversity loss at a national level, but it also harms efforts at an EU level to conserve and restore biodiversity throughout the Natura 2000 network. The opinion of advocate general Capeta was released this month where he analysed all the evidence and his conclusion is that the Court should declare that Ireland has failed to meet its obligations under the Habitats Directive. The next stage is to wait and see what the Court decides and what the penalties will be.

Article 4 of the Habitats Directive – Designating sites as SACs

  1. Member States must propose a list of sites which have native species and habitats within it. 
  2. The European Commission and the Member State must then agree on which sites should be designated as Sites of Community Importance (SCIs).
  3. Member States must transition SCIs into SACs…as soon as possible and within six years at most. Ireland has not done this for all its current SCIs, with the six-year deadline expiring in some cases, over a decade ago.  

Article 6 of the Habitats Directive – Establishing and Implementing conservation measures in SACs

Article 6(1) states that for SACs, member states must ‘establish the necessary conservation measures involving, if need be, appropriate management plans specifically designed for the sites’. So, designation of an SAC is not just setting its geographical limits, it is also clarifying the reasons why it is a protected area and creating plans that will meet its site-specific ecological requirements. Member States have the power to choose what these conservation measures are but they must be able to show evidence to the European Commission that the conservation objectives are clear and the measures undertaken are suitable and sufficient to the site.

The Commission states that:

  • 230 out of 423 sites have no conservation measures in place at all. 
  • 149 of the remaining 193 sites only have partial measures and do not protect all habitats and species within its boundaries. 
  • The remaining 44 sites have conservation measures in place which are not based on site-specific measures. 

Ireland states in its defence that there are no sites which do not have conservation measures in place as there is a list of actions for each one. However, these actions are extremely broad and they do not provide specific details or link with the conservation requirements for each site.

What else could Ireland do?

This case shows the importance of not only designating areas as protected areas but also ensuring that these areas are properly managed with clear conservation objectives and plans. New Marine Protected Area legislation is currently being scrutinised by the Irish Government and draft recommendations are expected soon from the Pre-Legislative Scrutiny committee. This is a great opportunity for Ireland to turn the tide on MPA implementation and create strong legislation on the management, monitoring and enforcement of protected areas. This will not only help Ireland restore and conserve our native species and habitats, but it will also help Government hit the conservation targets already committed to at a national, European and international level. This is a crucial time for Irish conservation and it’s imperative that our politicians take action and grab this opportunity to deliver healthy, productive and resilient seas.

What can the EU do?

The EU can ensure that an ambitious Nature Restoration Law is passed which will have legally binding targets for member states to hit restoration goals (at least 20% of land and 20% of the sea by 2030). The European Commission’s landmark proposal for a Nature Restoration Law (NRL) comes at a time of a triple crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. Having these restoration and conservation targets in law rather than a directive will mean member states will have to act accordingly and there will hopefully be fewer cases taken to the Court of Justice.

So all in all, Ireland has a bad track record when it comes to protecting nature. However, the tide is turning. With a robust network of Marine Protected Areas that are created using the best scientific information and in-depth engagement with local communities, we can finally give nature in Ireland the space it needs to recover.


This blog was written by Grace Carr, Marine Policy Officer at the Irish Wildlife Trust, a partner of the Fair Seas campaign.

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We also welcome you to join us in Cork on 8th June, where we are hosting our inaugural World Ocean Day conference. We are bringing ocean advocates, government, industry and key stakeholders together to map out the next steps for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Irish waters.

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