17th March

Ireland’s green image and wetlands

Karin Dubsky, Coastwatch

As everyone knows, Ireland gets a lot of rain which makes the landscape very lush and green.  This matches the green image we want to portray.  Bord Bia too draws heavily on this image, with the best meat produced from cattle that graze outdoor nearly all year round.

Notwithstanding this, when you look at how we fare using other environmental indicators such as shellfish water quality; timely implementation of water pollution control legislation or designation, and management of Natura sites,  our image  is less green. Indeed, have you ever tried to relate the number of pigs seen outside with Irish pork steaks in supermarkets?  

8.1 environment wetlands
Tralee Ramsar site and SPA. Photo Tim Smith

Ireland’s record of breaches in environmental law set down by the European Court of Justice is another warning that green image and reality need to be better synchronised. Until very recently, an unresolved ECJ ruling on wetlands looked like landing us with daily fines, not least due to woefully inadequate wetland protection law.  Thankfully changes were finally implemented, in the form of two separate statutory instruments each with its own legally binding guidance document.


The definition of wetlands found in the Ramsar Convention (www.ramsar.org)  and  also adopted  in EC  literature is:

‘Areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres.

Ramsar information then sets out a long list of wetland types with a definition and guidance on each.  Our estuaries, reed beds, ponds and ditches, valley fens with bulrushes, which are now popping up new shoots, are all wetlands.

A recent survey of wetland types in Wicklow carried out for Wicklow County Council, identified 34 types!

New wetland protection law
New farm regulations S.I. No. 456/2011 — European Communities (Environmental Impact Assessment) (Agriculture) Regulations 2011 set out to protect wetland habitats.  They also cater for the farmer’s need to deal with water logging problems on agricultural land. 

For example, a farmer can address a wet patch or blocked drains  in his barley field as before; however he/she must seek planning permission to infill a pond, in that field, or an adjacent marsh as these  are wetland habitats protected under the new planning  S.I. No. 454/2011 — Planning and Development (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2011.

In addition to the above there are extra requirements when works might affect a protected site or species and if it is above a threshold size.  There is also a screening provision whereby farmers can request an official check as to whether works can go ahead or may need planning permission or an environmental impact assessment.
The aim of the two regulations is to preserve wetland quality and avoid loss. In essence, this new law, in addition to other regulation, should enable the sustainable use of wetlands.

My concerns around our wetlands now are threefold.

Firstly, we have decades of passionate and widespread belief that it is justified to infill, drain, or cut away wetlands especially bogs, small ponds, parts of flood plains. These practices won’t change, simply by bringing in new laws.

Secondly, when wetlands are infilled or drained illegally, authorities may halt it; however restoration of wetland functions is rare. 

Thirdly, by casually losing such wealth and beauty we are undermining our own green image and thereby job opportunities in the food and tourism sectors and render the land increasingly vulnerable to flooding. 

Let me spell this out.  We still have land owners including local authorities who are infilling wetlands.  There is a lack of transparency regarding the screening process in the Agricultural SI that is driven by the desire to produce more food. Given the reduction in enforcement staff and the lack of reward for farmers who have top quality wetlands, this creates a significant danger of further wetland loss rather than an improvement in the status of wetlands. 

For the coastal Inshore Ireland reader that could mean the risk of pollution bleeps and eutrophication of local bathing or shellfish waters increasing.

My call is that in spite of financial constraints, we need to address these concerns fast.  Hopefully we have come far enough as a nation and now have the right leadership and networking in place. 

At the recent ‘wetlands of international importance’ poster launch for example, Minister Jimmy Deenihan was so committed to wetlands that everyone there felt lifted. 

So what is needed?
Accessible information, including a national wetland inventory along with education/ training to enable wise and decisive protective action.

Wetland restoration. The short film by Éamon de Buitléar shown on World Wetland Day of the life brought back to a canalised stream at Annestown Co Waterford once its bed and soft edge were reinstated, demonstrates how results can be achieved in some wetland types.

Cherish and improve our wetland stocks and the jobs they support
In the current climate of job shortages, wetlands themselves could help deliver many more jobs than they are currently supporting. Take the interplay of tourism, the fishing industry, recreation and farming sector for example. If carefully handled, each could support and reinforce the green quality image of the other.

If  visitors could see cattle grazing outdoors at the right density; water full of fish, shellfish that can be sold as caught or after minimal local depuration; restaurants and markets with a wide range of the finest wild and grown food, they will not only rave about Ireland but by word of mouth help bolster Irish products on the global market.   

If on the other hand however the tourist meets a bulldozer lovingly pushing demotion waste into a wetland, or bog sausage machines in full flight, or counts the number of signs warning that streams on bathing beaches are too polluted for children to play in, then these eco-tourists will spread another  kind of message...  

The Ramsar Convention has a tourism and recreation theme for 2012 and we in Ireland have the opportunity to show case our wetlands on that world website, and to the ecotourism companies that are working with Ramsar this year. 

In addition, representatives of the 160 country ‘Ramsar family’ gather every three years for an international meeting, which many combine with a holiday. This time the Ramsar COP is in Europe (Romania) and Ireland could attract some of the business…

We could guide visitors towards our stunning wetlands and Ramsar sites, intertidal mudflat areas with sea grass beds and a rocky shore edge full of edible life?

 (Further information on the Irish Ramsar Wetlands Committee from www.irishwetlands.ie )

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