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Habitat Management & Nature Conservation in North West Ireland

Habitat management & nature conservation primarily amount to the same thing, i.e. in managing and protecting a habitat, the ‘Nature’ associated with that habitat is conserved. The National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS), part of the Department of the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (AHG), is responsible for Nature Conservation in Ireland, although Non- Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) and voluntary conservation organisations also play a significant role in this regard.

Contrary to popular belief, leaving habitats to their own devices is not generally the best method of conservation. They will simply revert back to the climax vegetation, namely woodland. In the case of heathland, for example, this would be unfavourable for its wildlife. The number of habitats and species present in Ireland are as a result of our farming and other management practices during Ireland’s human occupation. Modern changes in agriculture within the last 100 years have dramatically altered the habitats of certain species to such an extent that these habitats are no longer suitable. Examples include the loss of the Corn Bunting from Ireland and declines in Corncrake, Chough and Yellowhammer.

Habitats and species are protected by two methods;

a) Legal designation & protection of land as a conservation area (see explanations below).

b) Landscape-wide conservation management tools can be implemented such as the Agri-Environment Options Scheme (AEOS) which replaced the Rural Environmental Protection Scheme (REPS).


Department of Arts, Heritage & Gaeltacht affairs       (Governmental department responsible for conservation)

Department of Agriculture (Governmental department responsible for the AEOS)

National Parks & Wildlife Service   (Government environmental protection service)

Birdwatch Ireland (BWI)

BWI Sligo Branch                 (Local bird sightings and information)

Irish Birding                         (National bird sightings)

Irish Whale and Dolphin Group

Bat Conservation Ireland

National Biodiversity Data Centre  (Database for all wildlife data in the country)

(International Union for the Conservation of Nature)


Conservation Terms & Designations explained

SAC - Special Areas of Conservation

SAC's are areas of land which are designated on the basis of the presence of an important unique habitat or species within it. The EU Habitats directive (1992) introduced the requirement for each member state country to designate SAC's for protection. The habitats directive lists priority habitats in Annex I and important species in Annex II. These species include Petalwort (a sand dune bryophyte plant species), Lesser Horseshoe Bat, Grey & Common seal, Marsh Fritillary, White clawed Crayfish and Kerry Slug, amongst others. 16 priority habitat types have been identified in Ireland for which SAC designations have to be made. Some examples of local SACs are as follows:

SAC location

Designated for:

Ben Bulben, Gleniff and Glenade Complex, Cos. Sligo and Leitrim

Alpine plants, Tufa, Bryophytes, Whorl Snail (Vertigo geyeri)

Ballysadare Bay, Co. Sligo

Mudflats, Sand Dunes

Union Wood, Co. Sligo

Oak woodland

Ox Mountains, Cos Mayo and Sligo

Blanket bog, Oligotrophic lakes, Greenland White-fronted Goose and Golden Plover

St. John’s Point, Co. Donegal

Orchid-rich grassland, Limestone pavement, Sub-tidal reef

SPA - Special Protection Areas

In 1979, the European Community adopted Council Directive 79/409/EEC on the conservation of wild birds (the 'Birds Directive'), in response to the 1979 Bern Convention on the conservation of European habitats and species. The Directive provides a framework for the conservation and management of, and human interactions with, wild birds in Europe. One of the main objectives of the birds directive was the identification and classification of Special Protection Areas for rare or vulnerable species listed in Annex I of the Directive, as well as for all regularly occurring migratory species. Examples of SPA designations in North West Ireland include:

SPA location

Designated for:

Sligo - Leitrim Uplands

Peregrine, Chough

Lough Arrow, Co. Sligo

Great Crested Grebe, Tufted Duck, Red-breasted Merganser

Aughris Head, Co. Sligo

Fulmar, Kittiwake, Guillemot, Razorbill

Donegal Bay, Co. Donegal

Great Northern Diver, Brent Goose, Common Scoter

NHA - Natural Heritage Areas

This is the basic designation in Ireland for conservation purposes, and are designated under Irish law as opposed to European law. Although similar to SAC's, they cover a much wider geographical area. Most NHA's designated to date have been for Blanket and Raised Bogs, but designations of geological features will also be included. Examples of NHA's include:

NHA Location

Designated for:

Corry Mountain, Co. Leitrim

Upland Blanket Bog

Rinn River, Co. Leitrim

Wetland, Grassland & Raised Bog

National Parks

Ireland has 6 designated national parks, which are owned by the State:

The Burren, Co. Clare 
Killarney, Co. Kerry
Connemara, Co. Galway 
Ballycroy, Co. Mayo
Glenveagh, Co. Donegal
Wicklow Mountains National Park, Co. Wicklow

Nature Reserves

These are small areas, either owned by the state or privately. Nature reserves can be designated for a wide range of features, including geological or geomorphological. Examples of local nature reserves are outlined below:

Ballygilgan Nature Reserve, Co. Sligo: A large 30 ha improved grassland field protected by NPWS because of its use by 3000+ wintering Barnacle Geese from Greenland.

Union Wood Nature Reserve, Co Sligo: Owned by the NPWS, it holds some of the largest oak woodland in the region.

Pettigo Plateau Nature Reserve, Co. Donegal: One of the few remaining areas of intact blanket bog and wet heath, the reserve covers 900 ha 10 km southeast of Donegal town, just west of Lough Derg. 

Ardnamona Nature Reserve, Co. Donegal: Protecting 46.6 ha of old oak woodland, it is situated 5 km north of Donegal town on the west shore of Lough Eske.

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