Irish forestry breaches EU law, says BirdWatch Ireland


BirdWatch Ireland has responded to Ireland’s draft Forest Strategy Implementation Plan 2023-2027,  by providing evidence that the government approved the planting of forestry at environmentally unsuitable sites.

Research by BirdWatch Ireland has revealed that, since 2014, the Irish government has approved the planting of 13,719 ha of forestry in important areas for threatened breeding waders. This is on top of 6,538 ha of afforestation or replanting at sites supporting Red- or Amber-listed farmland bird species.

BirdWatch Ireland says the planting in some areas will have affected Eurasian Curlew, which is under serious threat in Ireland, as well as Common Redshank, Northern Lapwing and Common Snipe, which also sit on the nation's Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern.

Planting in these areas would have been in breach of the State Aid terms for the Forestry Programme 2014-2022. State Aid consent for the 2023-2027 plan is being sought from the European Commission.

Common Snipe is one of the breeding waders threatened by forestry (Ian Bollen).

The State Aid conditions covering the period over which this planting was waved through required the Irish government to ensure that "Afforestation will be avoided on environmentally unsuitable sites" and "The inappropriate afforestation of sensitive habitats such as peat lands and wetlands will be avoided, as well as the negative effects on areas of high ecological value including areas under high natural value farming."

As well as direct habitat loss, planting increases the risk of nest predation by providing perches for corvids and cover for Red Foxes.

Articles of the EU Birds Directive have also been breached by the afforestation of important areas for birds, says the charity. All wild birds are protected by the legislation, but the government has failed to protect birds in the wider countryside, resulting in declines in most farmland species.

Oonagh Duggan, Head of Advocacy at BirdWatch Ireland, said: "The European Commission cannot in good faith give consent to the 1.3 billion in state aid for the new forestry programme as requested by the Irish government and ignore breaches of existing state aid conditions as well as EU environmental law. This is a five-fold investment over the previous forestry programme and spells the deathknell for threatened farmland birds."

She continued: "The proposed new forestry programme does not contain adequate safeguards to protect habitats for breeding waders and other open countryside birds from afforestation and considering the scale of the lucrative payments available, we anticipate an accelerated loss of important habitats for wild birds and other biodiversity. We call on Ministers Hackett, McConalogue and Noonan to ensure that no further tree planting occurs in farmland bird hotspots and to adhere to EU environmental law.

"We know what needs to be done to protect the habitats of threatened species. The solution lies in the commissioning of bird afforestation sensitivity mapping as soon as possible and to ensure that maps of important areas for birds and other biodiversity are integrated into the afforestation procedures so that these areas can be safeguarded from afforestation."

BirdWatch Ireland says more trees are needed in Ireland, in order to provide habitat for certain species and help battle climate change, as well as for commercial interests, but open landscapes and the species they support should be adequately protected. The charity is calling for an ambitious Nature Restoration Law that ensures landscape-scale improvement of farmland bird habitat and adequate compensation for farmers.