Ireland has lost a case brought to the European Court of Justice by the European Commission over its failure to implement conservation objectives under the Habitats Directives.
In 2004, 423 sites of conservation importance (SCIs) were agreed upon and Ireland had 6 years to designate these areas as SACs. In 2013 the Commission asked Ireland to provide details of the measures taken and it was found that they had failed to do this. In 2015 the European Commission (EC) formally notified Ireland that they had failed to deliver on 3 objectives.
- Designate Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)
- Have site-specific conservation plans in place
- Adopt the necessary conservation measures
There has been a back and forth between Ireland and the Commission on this matter since then with the Commission giving Ireland a final deadline to have fulfilled their obligations by January 2019. To see a more detailed analysis of this timeline read our previous blog here. Ireland did not meet this deadline and so the case progressed to the European Court of Justice and the final judgement was made on June 29th 2023.
Findings of the Court
In objective 1 (designating SACs from SCIs) Ireland acknowledged that there were 423 SCIs and it had only designated 212 SACs (6 of which were not part of the original SCI list). Ireland claims, however, that the sites which it did not formally designate still enjoyed the same protection as SACs due to obligations under the European Communities Regulations 2011 with regard to activities, plans or projects which may affect European sites. This doesn’t call into question the fact that they had failed under Article 4(4) of the Habitats Directive to designate these SACs. Ireland also emphasised the complexity of informing landowners and dealing with appeals. To formally designate the sites as SACs Ireland would need to engage with 18,516 landowners and deal with 674 appeals already lodged. The Commission has stated that Member States cannot plead that complexities within its national legal system as a reason for failure to designate SACs.
Judgement – Complaint upheld
Objective 2 sees the Commission claim that Ireland failed to set site-specific conservation plans in respect of 140 of the 423 sites at issue. Ireland has acknowledged that it has not completed the process of identifying and publishing specific conservation objectives for all 423 sites of Community importance, although it claims to have made considerable efforts to rectify this but the COVID 19 pandemic delayed finalisation of these efforts.
Ireland acknowledges that by the final deadline given by the Commission for the 9th January 2019, it did not have detailed site-specific conservation objectives for the sites.
Judgement – Complaint upheld
The Commission claims Ireland failed to adopt any conservation measures in 230 sites and had incomplete conservation measures in 149 sites. In the 44 sites with complete measures, the Commission claims these are not valid due to being adopted prior to the setting of conservation objectives.
The Commission also states that Ireland has a consistent record of failing to hit conservation objectives in all sites. To support this claim, they used an assessment of two important priority habitat types – blanket bogs and coastal lagoons and also an assessment of the endangered freshwater pearl mussel. For coastal lagoons, Ireland’s conservation measures had vague timelines and lacked quantitative terms as well as definitions of the people responsible. For blanket bogs, there was the same vagueness in the measures and it did not take into account pressures on bogs from agriculture, peat extraction or drainage. Again with pearl mussels, the examples for protection were vague and did not take into account the site by site pressures faced by this species. The Commission has basically stated that Ireland has failed to specify who does what, where and when across the board.
Judgement – Partially upheld
It was found that the mere fact that conservation objectives were adopted before conservation objectives were defined does not mean that they did not meet the requirements for the site and so this is not an infringement of Article 6(1) of the Habitats Directive. The Court also stated that the Commission failed to demonstrate that Ireland consistently fails across all sites to hit conservation targets by only using blanket bogs, coastal lagoons and freshwater pearl mussels as examples as they are not representative of all Sites of Community Importance.
However, Ireland has failed to fulfil its obligations under Article 6(1) by failing to adopt any conservation measures for 230 of the 423 sites and failing to adopt complete measures for 149 of the remaining 193 sites.
Ireland was ordered to pay the costs incurred by the Commission during this case, although the issue of fines has not been confirmed as of yet and a grace period may be granted for Ireland to rectify its infringements. This case brings to the forefront how important the EU Nature Restoration Law is for restoring and safeguarding our degraded habitats and also how timely it is that the new Irish MPA legislation be enacted into government. There is no more time left to waste to designate protected areas and enact site-specific, ecosystem-based approaches to conservation and restoration.
Minister of State Malcolm Noonan responded to the judgement stating “It is important to note that the Court’s findings refer to the position in January 2019. This Government has made very considerable progress in recent years: we are transforming and renewing the National Parks and Wildlife Service and have created a dedicated Directorate to lead on the implementation of conservation measures across all of Ireland’s Natura 2000 sites. I am confident that we will respond to this judgement swiftly with positive and constructive actions in order to bring Ireland into full compliance.”
We appreciate the efforts made by the current Government in addressing the reasons behind our failure to protect biodiversity but these actions need to be amplified if we are to see any substantial change.
Nature Restoration Law
The Nature Restoration Law (NRL) is the most important piece of legislation for nature in Europe in the last 30 years. At Fair Seas, we are currently campaigning for effective Marine Protected Area (MPA) legislation to protect our ocean, this will be complemented by a strong Nature Restoration Law in Europe. This blog highlights where the NRL is at and some of the myths surrounding it. On July 12th MEPs will vote on this historic piece of legislation.
If you would like to send a letter of support for a strong NRL follow this link to the quick and easy email tool. Just add your name and a prewritten letter will be sent to Irish TD’s, Minister’s and MEP’s.
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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