A Bird in the Hand…

With an EU court threat hanging over its head, Ireland has one month to decide how much its wild birds are worth

Ireland has received a severe reprimand from the EU Commission for its lacklustre approach to caring for important species of birds that are protected under the EU Wild Birds Directive. The move could result in Ireland's being taken to court by the EU for its failure to respect EU law.

The Wild Birds Directive is the oldest piece of nature-conservation legislation in the EU, having been adopted in 1979. It demands the protection of birds and their habitats from pollution, over-development, hunting, detrimental agricultural practices and adverse man-made conditions in general.

Ireland has been neglecting its wild bird habitats mostly by not enforcing the strict rules on destructive agricultural practices, in particular over-grazing. As a result, the commission has addressed a “reasoned opinion” to Ireland. This is the last stage before court action in an investigation into whether a directive has been correctly implemented. Ireland has until the end of May to respond.

The body encumbered with implementing the Wild Birds Directive in Ireland is the National Parks and Wildlife Service, under the Heritage Service—Duchas—which is under the aegis of the Department of Arts, Heritage Gaeltacht and the Islands (AHG&I). The directive lays down that designated sites (and the birds within them) must be protected, with detailed rules for land use and controls on hunting. The areas must first be classified as Special Protection Areas, or SPAs. These areas are similar to, but not to be confused with, SACs, which are Special Areas of Conservation under the Habitats Directive—another important instrument of EU environmental law, adopted in 1992 (Ireland has already been served a reasoned opinion for failure to implement the Habitats Directive).

Originally, the EU commission set the deadline for implementing the Wild Birds Directive at two years after its adoption, which is to say 1981. Seventeen years later, it has been accepted that this was a little optimistic, especially in the case of this country. Ireland has not only failed to carry out the conservation measures in these SPAs but also not yet designated several important sites. The result is that the habitats of some rare and endangered species are slowly being destroyed, mainly by agriculture. Overgrazing by sheep and drainage of wetlands are the two activities that most threaten natural bird habitats. They are also two activities that characterise Irish agricultural practice in the latter half of the 20th century.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has designated 109 SPA sites so far. This represents about 222,000 hectares, or 3 per cent, of the state area. They say a “substantial” part of the program is complete and hope to finish it by the end of the year. But serious gaps remain in Wexford (especially Wexford Harbour) and Mayo. The Owenduff-Nephin Beg complex in Mayo, which is to become Ireland's next national park, is the area that the commission most seriously accuses Ireland of failing to protect. This neglect is threatening the Red Grouse, the Greenland Whitefronted Goose and the Golden Plover, which the commission says are Ireland's most rare and endangered species.

The Red Grouse, whose diet consists purely of heather, breeds and winters in Mayo. There are about half a million Red Grouse left in existence between Britain and Ireland. Half of the world's population of white-fronted geese—about 14,000—winter in Ireland and feed on grass, cereals and potatoes. It is one of the bird species proudly illustrated on the new £1 stamp from An Post as part of its new Birds of Ireland collection, chosen by the Philatelic Advisory and Stamp Design Committee because of Ireland's “environmentally friendly nature.” The Golden Plover is a wader that eats worms and insects; about one-fifth of the world's population of one million winters in Ireland, with some breeding pairs in the West.

According to the NPWS, Ireland's initial tardiness in designating SPAs was due to the lack of information available on bird habitats here. A comprehensive survey of bird habitats in Ireland was commissioned—not from an Irish body, but from the British Joint Nature Conservation Committee, together with the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland. The report, “Ireland's Internationally Important Bird Sites,” completed only in 1993, has formed the basis of the designation program.

But the major reason for the delay is the difficulty in controlling land use in Ireland, especially in relation to farming. Irish farmers will not give in easily to aggressive demands from the EU for changes in farming practices, which might work in other states. A slow process of consultation has been under way for several years. And the issue of compensation, which dogs Irish agricultural practice, is central to habitat protection. Under the Rural Environmental Protection Scheme of 1994, all farmers are entitled to £50 per acre compensation if they farm in an environmentally friendly way, according to REPS rules. Farmers whose lands lie in natural heritage areas (which includes SPA/SAC areas) are entitled to extra top-ups of £12 pounds per acre. The NPWS intended to use REPS as the incentive to get farmers to comply with the Wild Birds Directive. But very few farmers have bothered to take up the REPS payments because it means cutting back on use of grazing land where wildlife habitats are located. This means reducing their sheep or cattle stock, which in turn reduces their headage payments—a much more valuable form of income/compensation than REPS. Ireland has an added complication whereby much of the grazing land in question is commonage, so farmers—or their animals—are competing with each other for the same land. It is in these areas that overgrazing occurs, threatening bird life.

In effect, two EU policies are coming into conflict: the Common Agricultural Policy, under which headage is paid to compensate for low sheep and cattle prices, and environmental protection directives, which require changing the very agricultural practices subsidised under CAP. However, these questions are really the concern of the Department of Agriculture, and it has understandable difficulty in treating the wild bird issue seriously.

Another question hangs over whether Ireland's bird habitats are real. Many old estates and demesnes from the last century had extensive lands and were designed to encourage birds not normally numerous in Ireland to breed for hunting purposes. These estates have since outgrown their social context. Some realists argue that many of the birds that made their homes here during that time have also outgrown theirs.

To this can be added an internal political landscape that has helped neither our grouse, geese, plovers nor, indeed, corncrakes—not an immediate concern of the commission, but of which there are only about 200 left in Ireland. A source at the EU Commission told Magill that there is a palpable difference in the way the Department of AHG&I has treated SPAs under the stewardships of Michael D Higgins and Síle de Valera. Under the former, the department was seen as far more active in fulfilling its commitment. The present regime can provide neither particular policy information in relation to the directive nor specifics on funding for the designation process, and it appears to have little fear of the commission's carrying out its threats. Meanwhile, those at the NPWS say there has been little change for them and that they've been getting “the same kicks in the same spot” under both administrations. Whether this means another 17 years will go by before the birds are safe is yet to be seen. What will not be seen so clearly are flocks of endangered birds while bureaucracy thrives away in its own natural habitat.

The only real action being taken at present to prevent court action has come from the Department of Agriculture, through lobbying by the farmers themselves. Moves are under way to bring sizeable increases to the REPS payments—75 per cent of which will be funded by the EU Commission—to provide a real incentive for farmers to look after the birds.