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In the past 40 years the EU has adopted a substantial and diverse range of environmental measures aimed at improving the quality of the environment for European citizens and providing them with a high quality of life.

There are a number of International, European and National Directives and Conventions in place specifically aimed at the protection of the natural environment and water.

The EU Birds and Habitats Directive

The European Union’s Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild flora and fauna), in conjunction with the Birds Directive (Council Directive 79/409/EEC on the conservation of wild birds) is the main legal tool of the European Union for nature conservation. The EU Directive on the conservation of wild birds was adopted in 1979 by nine Member States, and was the first EU Directive on nature conservation. Since its adoption it has been a vital legal instrument for the conservation of all birds that occur naturally across the EU, acting in the broadest public interest to conserve Europe’s natural heritage for present and future generations.

The EU Habitats Directive was proposed in 1988 and after many significant changes was adopted in July 1992. The stated aim of the Directive is to contribute to the maintenance of biodiversity within the European territory of the Member States through the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora of Community interest. The Birds and Habitats Directive together offer useful legal conceptual models and a set of standards and norms in common use.

The Habitat Directive seeks to establish "Natura 2000", a network of protected areas throughout the European Community. It is the responsibility of each member state to designate Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) to protect habitats and species, which, together with the Special Protection Areas (SPAs) designated under the EU Birds Directive, form Natura 2000.

Member States are required to maintain or restore at ‘favourable conservation status’ the habitats and species of Community importance listed in Annex I and II of the Directive.

According to the Habitats Directive (Article 1(I)) a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) means a site of Community importance designated by the Member States through a statutory, administrative and/or contractual act where the necessary conservation measures are applied for the maintenance or restoration, at a favourable conservation status, of the natural habitats and/or the populations of the species for which the site is designated. 
Special Protection Areas (SPAs) are classified under Article 4 of the Birds Directive. These areas are designated in order to protect endangered bird species listed in Annex I or migratory species.

To date, Ireland has transmitted 420 sites to the European Commission as candidate Special Areas of Conservation. These cover an area of approximately 10,000km2. Across the EU, over 12,600 sites have been identified and proposed, covering an area of 420,000km2. In Ireland to date, 110 SPAs have been designated. A further 25 sites have been notified to landowners. Approximately 25 SPAs are also designated SAC. The Irish SPAs join a total of around 3,000 sites across the European Union.

The Birds and Habitats Directives set out various procedures and obligations in relation to nature conservation management in Member States in general, and of the Natura 2000 sites and their habitats and species in particular. A key protection mechanism is the requirement to consider the possible nature conservation implications of any plan or project on the Natura 2000 site network before any decision is made to allow that plan or project to proceed. Not only is every new plan or project captured by this requirement but each plan or project, when being considered for approval at any stage, must take into consideration the possible effects it may have in combination with other plans and projects when going through the process known as Appropriate Assessment (AA).

The obligation to undertake Appropriate Assessment (AA) derives from Article 6(3) and 6(4) of the Habitats Directive, and both involve a number of steps and tests that need to be applied in sequential order. Article 6(3) is concerned with the strict protection of sites, while Article 6(4) is the procedure for allowing derogation from this strict protection in certain restricted circumstances. Each step in the assessment process precedes and provides a basis for other steps. The results at each step must be documented and recorded carefully so there is full traceability and transparency of the decisions made.

Wildlife Act, 1976

The Wildlife Act, 1976, is the principal national legislation providing for the protection of wildlife and the control of some activities, which may adversely affect wildlife. The Wildlife Act, 1976, came into operation on 1 June 1977. It was the only major legislation concerned with wildlife that was passed in the previous 45 years. It replaced the Game Preservation Act, 1930, and the Wild Birds (Protection) Act, 1930. The aims of the Wildlife Act 1976 are to provide for the protection and conservation of wild fauna and flora, to conserve a representative sample of important ecosystems, to provide for the development and protection of game resources and to regulate their exploitation and to provide the services necessary to accomplish such aims.

Under the Act, the Minister responsible for nature conservation may afford protection to all wild species of fauna and flora. However, the 1976 Act did not provide for the conservation of fish species nor of aquatic invertebrates in general, except insofar as species may be added in agreement with the Minister responsible for marine matters. Currently all bird species, 22 other animal species or groups of species and 86 species of flora are afforded protected status.

The Act also enables the possession, trade and movement of wildlife to be regulated and controlled. Hunting and also falconry is controlled under the Act. Specific areas of importance for wildlife may be protected under the Act either as Nature Reserves, Refuges for Fauna, or by way of management agreements.

The Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 gives rise to the basic designation for wildlife in Ireland; the Natural Heritage Area (NHA). The main objectives of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act, 2000 are to:

  • provide a mechanism to give statutory protection to NHAs;
  • provide for statutory protection for important geological and geomorphological sites, including fossil sites by designation as NHAs;
  • improve some existing measures and introduce new ones, to enhance the conservation of wildlife species and their habitats;
  • enhance a number of existing controls in respect of hunting, which are designed to serve the interests of wildlife conservation;
  • broaden the scope of the Wildlife Acts to include most species, including the majority of fish and aquatic invertebrate species which were excluded from the 1976 Act;
  • introduce new provisions to enable regulation of the business of commercial shoot operators;
  • ensure or strengthen compliance with international agreements and, in particular, enable Ireland to ratify the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds Agreement (AEWA );
  • increase substantially the level of fines for contravention of the Wildlife Acts and to allow for the imposition of prison sentences;
  • provide mechanisms to allow the Minister to act independently of forestry legislation, for example, in relation to the acquisition of land by agreement;
  • strengthen the provisions relating to the cutting of hedgerows during the critical bird-nesting period and include a requirement that hedgerows may only be cut during that period by public bodies, including local authorities, for reasons of public health or safety;
  • strengthen the protective regime for Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) by removing any doubt that protection will in all cases apply from the time of notification of proposed sites; and
  • give specific statutory recognition to the Minister's responsibilities in regard to promoting the conservation of biological diversity, in light of Ireland's commitment to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity

Many of these NHAs in Ireland have overlapping designations of SAC and/or SPA, but there are currently 802 proposed NHAs, which are not SAC/SPA. They cover an area of about 1130km2. These will be reviewed and other sites surveyed, during the course of the designation process. Under the Wildlife (Amendment) Act, NHAs will be legally protected from damage from the date they are formally proposed.

Flora (Protection) Order, 1999

The current list of plant species protected by section 21 of the Wildlife Act, 1976 is set out in the Flora (Protection) Order, 1999, which supercedes orders made in 1980 and 1987. It is illegal to cut, uproot or damage the listed species in any way, or to offer them for sale. This prohibition extends to the taking or sale of seed. In addition, it is illegal to alter, damage or interfere in any way with their habitats. This protection applies wherever the plants are found and is not confined to sites designated for nature conservation. A licence must be applied for if one has a special requirement to take specimens of these plants, or to interfere or alter their habitat. Any major change in existing land-use (e.g. a change from pasture to arable, or a change in fertiliser regime) is covered by this provision.

Convention on Biological Diversity

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was ratified by 180 countries including the European Community, at the 1992 Rio de Janerio Earth Summit on Environment and Development.

The CBD is pre-eminent amongst nature/biodiversity-related conventions, both in terms of its widespread support and its comprehensive scope. It represents the charter within which nature conservation and other issues relevant to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity must be addressed on a worldwide basis. The CBD adopts an inclusive approach to all ecosystems and biological resources. It breaks new ground in international conservation law by going beyond a focus on special areas and species to require the identification, regulation and management of processes and categories of activities which may adversely affect biodiversity and the establishment of legal regimes for access to genetic resources and the sharing of benefits arising from their utilisation. The convention has three main objectives:

  • The conservation of biological diversity;
  • The sustainable use of components of biological diversity; and
  • Fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources

By becoming a signatory in 1992 to the Convention, Ireland undertook to promote the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. Section 9 of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act, 2000 has explicit responsibility for this function. The National Diversity Plan, 2002, issued by the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands is designed to ensure Ireland fulfils its obligations under the Convention.

Ramsar Convention on Wetlands

The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty, which provides the framework for national action and international co-operation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are presently 146 Contracting Parties to the Convention, including Ireland, with 1456 wetland sites, totaling 1.3 million km2, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. The Convention's mission is the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international co-operation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world (Ramsar COP8, 2002). One of the criteria for international importance is that the site regularly (i.e. over a period of five years) holds 1% of the biogeographic population of a species or 20,000 individuals.

Water Framework Directive

As part of a substantial restructuring of EU water policy and legislation, a Directive establishing a new framework for Community action in the field of water policy (2000/60/EC) was agreed by the European Parliament and Council in September 2000 and came into force on 22nd December 2000. The Directive, generally known as the Water Framework Directive (WFD) rationalises and updates existing water legislations and provides for water management on the basis of River Basin Districts (RBD's). The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is promoting the establishment by local authorities of such projects to address all inland and coastal waters. The WFD sets a framework for comprehensive management of water resources in the European Community, within a common approach and with common objectives, principles and basic measures. It addresses inland surface waters, estuarine and coastal waters and groundwater. The fundamental objective of the WFD aims at maintaining “high status” of waters where it exists, preventing any deterioration in the existing status of waters and achieving at least “good status” in relation to all waters by 2015. Member States have to ensure that a co-ordinated approach is adopted for the achievement of the objectives of the WFD and for the implementation of programmes of measures for this purpose. The objectives of the WFD are:

  • to protect and enhance the status of aquatic ecosystems (and terrestrial ecosystems and wetlands directly dependent on aquatic ecosystems);
  • to promote sustainable water use based on long-term protection of available water resources;
  • to provide for sufficient supply of good quality surface water and groundwater as needed for sustainable, balanced and equitable water use;
  • to provide for enhanced protection and improvement of the aquatic environment by reducing/phasing out of discharges, emissions and losses of priority substances;
  • to contribute to mitigating the effects of floods and droughts;
  • to protect territorial and marine waters; and
  • to establish a register of 'protected areas' e.g. areas designated for protection of habitats or species.

The Directive rationalises and updates existing water legislation by setting common EU wide objectives for water. It is very broad in its scope and relates to water quality in rivers, lakes, canals, groundwater, transitional (estuarine) waters and coastal waters out to a distance of at least one nautical mile.

Environmental Impact Assessment Directive

Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive