Inevitably some wit is going to suggest that the EU Birds and Habitats Directives signed into law yesterday by Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan is for the birds.
It is in a sense, but it has enormous ramifications for the quality of life of the Irish people.
We have a rich natural heritage. Much as people may regret that the Industrial Revolution bypassed most of this country, this had enormous advantages in leaving so many places unspoiled. We have taken this for granted, but it has become a distinct benefit in affording people the opportunity to take advantage of alternative industries that rely on an unspoiled natural environment.
Tourism, agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture are key industries that depend on our natural environment. Healthy ecosystems provide great health and psychological benefits. To appreciate our own advantages we have only to look at the disadvantages of those unhealthy areas polluted by industrial waste, and contaminated with foul air and tainted water.
The new regulations apply to flora, fauna and habitats with particular emphasis on strengthening the protection of birds. The changes are designed to provide clarity in relation to the protection of wildlife and ecological systems, not just to meet our EU obligations but, more importantly, in our own interests and those of our children.
The new directives, which were drawn up after widespread consultation with the public and interested parties, clarify the obligations of various public bodies in relation to areas designated for the protection of endangered wildlife.
Special Protection Areas are designated for the protection of birds and Special Areas of Conservation for other important habitats such as raised bogs, native woodland and sand dune systems. The regulations are not directed primarily at landowners but at inappropriate recreational activities such a jet skiers, and quad users. Local authorities and An Bord Pleanála will be responsible for implementing the Birds and Habitats Directives. This could apply to activity outside the protected habitats, such as upstream activity that leads to the pollution of a protected site.
The regulations have new provisions to tackle the problems of invasive species that can destroy the habitats of native species. These include the grey squirrel, which has displaced the native red squirrel in many places, and the African pondweed, which has become a serious problem in areas of Lough Corrib. It will be an offence to release or allow to escape, to breed, propagate, import, transport, sell or advertise unwanted species, which are set out in the regulations in a black list.
This country was lucky to escape the excesses of the Industrial Revolution. That luck was at the expense of millions of Irish people who had to emigrate. Many in their exile undoubtedly dreamed of the green fields and fresh streams and rivers of home. There is probably no more fitting tribute that we could pay to those generations of Irish emigrants than to ensure that our environment remains as unspoiled and as natural as possible.