The most important pieces of legislation underpinning biodiversity and nature conservation in Ireland are the:
- Wildlife Acts 1976 to 2022 and
- European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011-2021
The Wildlife Acts 1976 to 2022 is a collective citation for the following:
- Wildlife Act 1976 (no. 39 of 1976)
- Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 (no. 38 of 2000)
- Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2010 (no. 19 of 2010)
- Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2012 (no. 29 of 2012)
- Heritage Act 2018 (no. 15 of 2018), Part 3
- Planning, Heritage and Broadcasting (Amendment) Act 2021 (no.11 of 2021), Chapter 3
- Flora (Protection) Order, 2022
An administrative consolidation of the Wildlife Act 1976 (updated to 16 May 2022) may be viewed at this link: Wildlife Act 1976 consolidated
Please also see here for the complete list of amendments made to the Wildlife Act 1976 and Statutory Instruments made under the Wildlife Act 1976, listed by section of the Act.
The Wildlife Act, 1976 provided a good legislative base for nature conservation. The species protection provisions, including those regulating hunting, are quite comprehensive, to the extent, for example, that they largely foresaw similar aspects of the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. However, the habitat/site protection measures in the 1976 Act were relatively weak, and were almost completely limited to measures which could be introduced in agreement with landowners. There was very limited power to ensure protection, even in the case of outstanding habitats or sites, where agreement of landowners was not forthcoming.
Nature conservation legislation was substantially enlarged and improved by the Wildlife (Amendment) Act, 2000 and the Birds and Natural Habitats Regulations.
Read more about the Wildlife Acts on this website:
Wildlife (Amendment) Act, 2000
Birds and Natural Habitats Regulations
The European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats Regulations 2011 (S. I. No. 477 of 2011) transpose the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive. The 2011 Regulations were amended by:
- S.I. No. 290 of 2013
- S.I. No. 499 of 2013
- S.I. No. 355 of 2015
- Planning, Heritage and Broadcasting (Amendment) Act 2021 (no.11 of 2021), Chapter 4
- S.I. No. 293 of 2021
An unofficial consolidated version is available here.
NPWS has issued the following circulars as guidance on implementation of the Regulations:
- Circular Letter NPWS 1/10
- Circular Letter L8/08
- Circular Letter NPWS 2/08
- Circular Letter SEA 1/08 & NPWS 1/08
- Circular Letter PD 2/07 & NPWS 1/07
- Circular Letter NPWS 2-07 - Guidance on Compliance with Regulation 23
Previously, the Birds and Habitats Directives had been transposed into Irish law through inter alia the Wildlife Act 1976 and the European Communities (Natural Habitats) Regulations, 1997. However, two judgments of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) – notably cases C-418/04 and C-183/05 - found that Ireland had not adequately transposed the two Directives. Therefore, the 2011 Regulations consolidate the European Communities (Natural Habitats) Regulations 1997 to 2005 and the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats)(Control of Recreational Activities) Regulations 2010, as well as addressing transposition failures identified in CJEU judgments.
Designation of European Sites
A key measure to protect nature and biodiversity in the EU is the establishment of a network of nature protection areas under the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive. The areas designated under these two pieces of legislation are known collectively as Natura 2000 sites, also referred to as European Sites under national legislation.
The 2011 Regulations seek to conserve species of wild birds and require the designation of a network of habitats for birds, based on scientific criteria. These designated sites are known as Special Protected Areas (SPAs). See: www.npws.ie/protected-sites/spa.
The 2011 Regulations, also require the designation of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for the protection of certain habitats and species of plants and animals (other than birds). See: www.npws.ie/protected-sites/sac.
Information on the designation process is available here.
Activities requiring consent
Activities requiring consent (ARCs) are specific activities which have the potential to damage a SAC or a SPA. A list of 38 ARCs has been established. ARCs are not prohibited activities but before being carried out, consent must be granted by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, or by another relevant public authority to which the consent function for that activity falls.
This prior consent requirement ensures that the Minister (or the relevant public authority) carries out the necessary environmental assessment to determine if the activity can take place, and if any conditions should be attached to any consent given.
Further information on ARCs is available here.
A key protection mechanism in the 2011 Regulations is the requirement, under regulation 42, for all public authorities to conduct a screening for Appropriate Assessment and, if necessary, an Appropriate Assessment on any plan or project for which it receives an application for consent, or which the local authority itself wishes to undertake or adopt. This obligation derives from Article 6(3) and 6(4) of the Habitats Directive. Further information on Appropriate Assessment can be found here.
The Appropriate Assessment provision of the Habitats Directive is also transposed in Ireland by Part XAB of the Planning and Development Act 2000 (as amended) in respect of land use plans and proposed developments requiring development consent. The 2011 Regulations apply to other activities, plans or projects affecting European sites that do not fall under the planning system. Further information on the Planning and Development Act 2000 (as amended) can be found here.
System of strict protection
EU countries must also establish systems of strict protection for animal and plant species which are particularly threatened, and which are listed in Annex IV of the Habitats Directive.
Article 12 and 13 of the Habitats Directive relates to the establishment of a system of strict protection for certain animal and plant species, while Article 16 provides for derogations from these provisions under limited circumstances. Article 12, 13 and 16 of the Habitats Directive are transposed into Irish law by Regulation 51, 52 and 54 of the Birds and Habitats Regulations of 2011, respectively.
The animal species listed in Annex IV, which occur in Ireland, are:
- the otter
- all bat species
- all cetaceans (whales and dolphins)
- the natterjack toad
- the leatherback Turtle
- kemp’s ridley turtle
- loggerhead turtle
- hawksbill turtle
- the Kerry slug
The plant species listed in Annex IV, which occur in Ireland, are:
- the Slender Naiad
- Yellow Marsh Saxifrage
- the Killarney Fern
Each of these species is strictly protected in Ireland and a person who deliberately captures, kills or disturbs a specimen in the wild, or who damages or destroys a breeding site or resting place of such an animal, is guilty of an offence.
As an Annex IV species may be found throughout the country, the protection of these species is not restricted in geographical terms and is not necessarily associated with areas subject to a specific nature designation.
For further information please see the following:
2019 Report on the assessment of the status of habitats and species that Ireland is required to protect under the EU Habitats Directive
2019 Checklists of the plant and animal species that are afforded legal protection in Ireland, through the Nature Directives (Birds and Habitat Directives) and the Wildlife Acts and associated Statutory Instruments (e.g. the Flora (Protection) Order)
Responsibility of Public Authorities
Regulation 27 of the 2011 Regulations provides that all public authorities have a responsibility to avoid the deterioration of natural habitats and species protected under the Birds and Habitats Directives, and to exercise their functions and statutory powers in compliance with the Directives’ requirements.
With regard to derogations from Regulations 51 and 52 of the 2011 Regulations, note that the existence of any other statutory consent (such as planning permission) to undertake works, or the existence of a statutory power or authority for a local authority to do so, does not remove its obligations under Regulations 27, 51 and 52 of the 2011 Regulations or the need, where applicable, for it to obtain a derogation licence under Regulation 54 of those Regulations. This means that an application for a derogation licence may have to be made as well as an application for planning permission. The grounds on which the Minister may grant a derogation licence, which are prescribed in Regulation 54 of the 2011 Regulations, are quite restricted.
Application for a derogation licence
Application may be made to the Minister under Regulation 54 of the Birds and Habitats Regulations 2011 for a derogation licence. If satisfied that the application meets the criteria for derogation, the Minister may grant a derogation licence, which may be subject to such conditions, restrictions, limitations and requirements as the Minister considers appropriate, and these will be specified in the licence itself. Further information on the application process can be found here.
European Commission Guidance on Articles 12 & 16 of the Habitats Directive
Circular Letter NPWS 2-07 - Guidance on Compliance with Regulation 23
Information on Bats
Last updated: 07/02/2023