IRELAND is finally in compliance with European law protecting wildlife 20 years after the legislation was first introduced.
Regulations signed into law yesterday oblige local authorities and An Bord Pleanála to ensure that vulnerable species of birds, animals and plants are not further endangered by development plans and planning permissions.
The European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011 also clarify who is responsible for designating land as special protection areas, in which birds can not be disturbed, and special areas of conservation, which protect habitats like raised bogs, sand dunes and woods.
They give the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the power to grant or withhold consent for certain developments proposed for outside a designated area but which could have a detrimental effect on a designated area nearby.
They also make it a criminal offence for the public to assist the growth or spread of plants and animals which have been classified as invasive species and are a danger to native species.
Chief culprits on a list of unwanted species include the grey squirrel, which is decimating the native red squirrel population, and African pondweed, which is strangling other plants and endangering fish in many parts of Lough Corrib.
The regulations reinforce rules introduced last year which empower the minister to restrict or prohibit leisure pursuits such as quadbiking, power boating or jet-skiing where they might damage habitats.
In addition, they clear the country’s record with the EU, which has taken Ireland to court on numerous occasions for failure to implement European directives on the protection of wildlife and natural habitats.
Two of those cases, in which Ireland was found guilty in the European Court of Justice and ordered to pay costs, related to directives introduced as far back as 1991 and 1992.
The cases found Ireland did not have sufficient special protection areas, was not adequately protecting species and could not do so because of a failure to properly study and record population trends, nesting sites, breeding sites and feeding areas.
Heritage Minister Jimmy Deenihan said the new regulations would satisfy EU requirements, although he said it was not just about legal obligations.
"It is in our interests and those of our children. The protection of our rich natural heritage and our environment is essential if we are to continue to reap the rewards that healthy ecosystems provide.
"Tourism, agriculture, fishers and aquaculture are some of Ireland’s key industries that depend on our natural environment, not to mention the irreplaceable health and psychological benefits of having outstanding nature on our doorsteps."