Today I announced the approval by the European Commission of an EU LIFE project, LIFE On Machair, worth over €5.7 million in EU funding. With a total budget of €7.4m (of which €5.7m million is EU LIFE Programme funding) the project seeks to improve the conservation condition of Ireland’s machair habitats and the ecological conditions for the species it supports by working positively with local farming communities.
Machair is a coastal habitat characterised by a plain of lime-rich, wind-blown sand that is unique to the north and west of Ireland and Scotland. The typical flower-rich vegetation of machair is traditionally maintained through low-intensity livestock grazing, but is susceptible to pressures from recreational activities and over grazing. Machair ecosystems provide an important refuge for pollinators and threatened breeding wader bird species, such as Dunlin, Lapwing and Redshank. Post-Brexit, the entire EU land cover of the habitat occurs in Ireland, meaning the conservation of machair in Ireland is of significance on a European scale.
Farming and farmers are central to the project in the role that they can play in protecting and restoring machair systems. Working with project partners the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), Teagasc and Fáilte Ireland, the LIFE On Machair project will seek to build on the successes of locally adapted programmes, including European Innovation Partnerships (EIP), in assisting farmers and other stakeholders to create resilience within rural communities in the light of our biodiversity and climate crises. It will focus on nine Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and 4 Special Protection Areas in counties Donegal, Mayo and Galway. A voluntary Results Based Payment Scheme (RBPS) will be linked to the quality of the habitat, putting the landowner, their skills, expertise and knowledge of their land central to the development of this project.
The award of this funding is a very positive development in addressing the urgent need for conservation and restoration of biodiversity in our coastal areas. I am hopeful that this project will help conserve Ireland’s unique machair systems whilst also supporting coastal rural communities, providing employment opportunities and an important financial injection.
The Natura 2000 network comprises the network of SACs and SPAs (Special Protection Areas for birds) throughout the EU. Stretching over 18% of the EU’s land area and almost 6% of its marine territory, Natura 2000 is the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world. It offers a haven to Europe's most valuable and threatened species and habitats.
SACs and SPAs
Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) are selected to protect habitats and species that are rare and threatened at a European scale. The EU Habitats Directive lists certain habitats (listed in Annex I) and species (listed in Annex II) that must be conserved by designating and appropriately managing SACs. Habitats and species on these lists which are considered to be particularly endangered are called “priority” habitats and species. There are 59 habitats listed in Annex I in Ireland, including raised bogs, blanket bogs, turloughs, sand dunes and limestone pavement. Annex II species found in Ireland include salmon, otter, freshwater pearl mussel, Killarney fern and bottlenose dolphin. Each SAC is designated for one or more Annex I habitats and/or Annex II species. 439 SACs have been nominated for designation throughout the State
Ireland is required under the terms of the EU Birds Directive to designate Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for the protection of listed rare and vulnerable species, regularly occurring migratory species and wetlands, especially those of international importance. The terrestrial areas of the SPA network include inland wetland sites important for wintering waterbirds and extensive areas of blanket bog and upland habitats that provide breeding and foraging resources for species including Merlin and Golden Plover. Coastal habitats including Machair, which are important for species including Chough and breeding Dunlin, are also represented in the network. Agricultural land represents a share of the SPA network ranging from extensive upland areas where hedgerows, wet grassland and scrub offer feeding and/or breeding opportunities for Hen Harrier to the intensively farmed coastal polderland where internationally important numbers of swans and geese occur.
EU Life Programme
The LIFE programme is the EU’s funding instrument for the environment and climate action. The general objective of LIFE is to contribute to the implementation, updating and development of EU environmental and climate policy and legislation by co-financing projects with European added value. For further details please see http://ec.europa.eu/environment/life/index.htm
LIFE ON Machair Objectives
The objective of LIFE On Machair project is to work with farmers and landowners to improve the conservation condition of Ireland’s machair habitats and the ecological conditions for breeding waders and pollinators within project sites. The project will employ an integrated management approach, provide education, guidance, and informed management policies for stakeholders, and deliver concrete conservation actions within a network of machair and wader Natura 2000 sites. The project will have taken place over a total machair system area of c. 3,500 ha and specific component objectives of the project are:
1. Work with farmers to develop and roll out agricultural management agreements on project sites that incentivise and reward farmers for improving habitat functioning and delivering ecological resources for breeding waders and pollinators in the long term;
2. Work with landowners to implement site-specific conservation interventions (e.g. revegetation, predator control) to address acute threats to the targeted habitats and species on project sites;
3. Provide opportunities and support for local farmers and communities to engage in capacity building and knowledge sharing on the sustainable management of machair sites;
4. Reduce the negative impacts of recreational users on popular sites by developing a sustainable tourism model for machair sites;
5. Develop a strategy to ensure replication and transfer of project results.