He spoke at the National Biodiversity Conference this morning in Dublin Castle, where an important conversation for nature is taking place. He offered a personal reflection on the role of nature in our lives, and outlined the progress he's made since becoming Minister.
"It is a privilege to join you all here in Dublin Castle to officially open Ireland’s second National Biodiversity Conference. This year’s event is timely as we look towards wider European and global action to halt the decline in biodiversity and restore nature for this and future generations.
Growing up in a council housing estate on the edge of a town in the south east of Ireland, the interface between nature and the hungry growing needs of human communities was then, as now evident in the loss of habitat; the loss of familiar places as people moved from the centre to the edge of towns. My brothers, my friends and I were five minutes away from the river to the east of our estate where we fished, swam and explored and five minutes away to the west from the scrub woodlands where we played war games and hunted for rabbits.
The city stretch of the river Nore in Kilkenny has been a constant in my life. When we moved from an army barracks to this brand new estate just outside the old Borough boundary of the city we discovered a wild place with old mills, long meadows, swimming holes and fishing spots where we fished for trout and eels. In more recent years I have been active with groups removing Himalayan balsam or doing daubenton’s bat surveys. Many of us campaigned unsuccessfully against the construction of a new road bridge across the river and we saw sections of it canal banked to prevent flooding in houses and businesses in the town centre. This stretch of the river was historically called the town pond where the merchant families once boated and entertained. It still resembles a pond. A poorly designed fish pass had to be removed and replaced to allow salmon move upstream to spawn.
Although we haven’t always been kind to the river, she has been kind to us; providing us with our drinking water, with power, leisure, fun and adventure and of course the ecosystem services that we don’t see or very often account for. She forgives us every time and still provides.
But the River Nore also sparked the curiosity of a young boy into the natural world. Almost daily exposure to nature, topped up in the evening with nature TV programmes such as ‘Amuigh Faoin Spéir’, with Gerrit Van Gelderen and Eamon De Buitléir, pushed me deeper into trying to make sense of the natural world. The illustration of Irish flora and fauna and paying my first subscription to an Irish eNGO; the Irish Wildlife Trust.
I’m sure my experience was similar to many here in the room. Those critical formative years where being immersed in the natural world led you to studying botany, entomology, or other nature -related disciplines. It took me down the activist route and eventually into green politics. I knew that we had to change hearts and minds and that our collective wellbeing and prosperity were reliant on a healthy natural world. Political leadership and political courage are needed as a key part of the jigsaw of restoration of nature and a whole shift in our relationship with the natural world around us.
We need lots more young boys and girls with that curiosity and hunger to learn about nature to become the scientists, conservationists, to become activists and critically; politicians who will lead on nature. It should start in our pre-schools through outdoor and forest school practices, it should permeate our primary school curriculum and direct students in secondary school towards careers in nature conservation and restoration.
Time is against us, but over the past two years as a Minister with responsibility for nature I have met the most incredibly dedicated people all across Ireland. I’ve met them on blanket bogs, on dunes, on machair, in woodlands, by river banks, out on the ocean, on mountains and on zoom.
Nowhere more have I seen such dedication than among the people in my own department; the National Parks and Wildlife Service. From General Operatives in our National Parks, to our rangers and education staff, to those in the scientific, legislation, licensing, peatlands and conservation measures teams, I have had the privilege to work with the most dedicated, professional, creative and hard working group of people. I feel proud to be part of a government that is addressing the under-resourcing of the NPWS and the organisational restructuring it requires to move Ireland from being laggards on biodiversity, to leaders.
I’d like to take a moment to outline our progress to date.
My most immediate task was resourcing.
We increased NPWS funding by 50% in 2021 and again in 2022 to pre-financial crisis levels of €47.2m – a total increase 64% since I became Minister. This investment has unlocked a wealth of potential that will see its value multiplied right across the country.
But while fundamental, resourcing would only take us so far – we also needed to look at governance.
So we reviewed the NPWS, developed a Strategic Action Plan to renew it, and dedicated €55m to funding its transformation to an Executive Agency with a full organisational restructuring and dedicated management team, and you’ll hear more on the detail of this renewal in the next session.
We also committed to reviewing nature governance in Ireland more broadly, with a view to ensuring the coherence and effectiveness of the State’s response to biodiversity and climate action across the many actors with responsibility in these areas. This is a vitally important commitment and I’m very much looking forward to progressing it.
I also hope that the Biodiversity Citizens Assembly, which is currently ongoing, will give us much to consider in terms of the big questions around nature in Ireland, and its future.
Ensuring sufficient staffing across the National Parks and Wildlife Service was another key priority, after too many years of under-provision.
We’ve brought staffing back up to pre-2008 levels, with around 400 staff members now employed in NPWS. This includes 85 rangers, with provision to increase the number to 120.
This is in addition to the prioritised recruitment of 60 additional staff members through my Strategic Action Plan, as well as a further commitment to address staffing in light of the restructuring.
On biodiversity policy, we’re making strong progress in the areas that NPWS leads on.
This includes the new National Biodiversity Action Plan – which you’re here today to help shape – which will set the agenda for nature across in Ireland for the next five years. While NPWS coordinates it, it’s an all-of-Government, all-of-society plan, with actions, implementation and delivery for a wide range of sectors and organisations.
We’re also addressing our additional biodiversity policy commitments in the Programme for Government by commencing the development of a new Invasive Species Management Plan and coordinating actions regarding peatlands through the mid-term review of the National Peatlands Strategy, which is at an advanced stage.
The Water Section of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is finalising the River Basin Management Plan and starting development of a National Restoration Plan for our rivers, contributing to the EU Commission’s target of having 25,000kms free-flowing by 2030 through the removal of obsolete barriers and restoration of wetlands and floodplains.
The Marine Environment Section, meanwhile, has published the independent review of the public consultation on Marine Protected Areas, showing an overwhelming 99% support for the expansion of the MPA network, and are very close to publishing the Heads of Bill on the legislation.
We’re also working hard at the international level to support global efforts on biodiversity policy.
We’re continuing to engage with processes around the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s development of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework and working with colleagues across the EU to support a strong and unified European position on the world stage.
We’re ratifying the Nagoya Protocol too, and earlier this year, we led the OSPAR agreement to create one of the world’s largest High Seas Marine Protected Areas for endangered seabirds, covering 600,000km2.
Furthermore, motivated by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and our engagement at COP26, we’re aiming to progress with others across the continent the concept of a European peatlands initiative that we hope to bring to COP27. This initiative will support collaboration, knowledge sharing and coordination on peatlands conservation.
On legislation and enforcement, we’re working hard to deliver on the wide-ranging Programme for Government commitment to review protections and enforcement of legislation for natural heritage.
We’ve redoubled efforts on wildlife crime, establishing a new internal approach, bolstering boots on the ground to tackle enforcement and engaging on a Memorandum of Understanding with An Garda Síochána.
We’re assessing ancient and long established woodlands and reviewing the mechanisms that contribute to their protection and conservation.
We’re at a very advanced stage in bringing the Wildlife Amendment Bill back to the Oireachtas, which will place a biodiversity duty on State organisations and give statutory teeth to the National Biodiversity Action Plan.
And we’re working towards a review of the Wildlife Act and Birds and Habitats Regulations. This is a seminal piece of work that will take a number of years, and we’re at the earliest stages, but it’s vitally important. We’re determined to get it right.
As for our beautiful National Parks and Nature Reserves, we’ve committed through the Action Plan to bringing legislation to clarify and underpin powers around their management.
The legislation will provide updated and stronger, statutory underpinnings for our National Parks and the work of the NPWS in protecting and conserving threatened and endangered animals, plants and habitats in the State.
We’re also increasing the resources available to them, and restructuring staffing within them as per the Action Plan. This will include consideration of the Programme for Government commitment to ensure Educational Liaison Officers across the network.
Another key area for us is the delivery of measures to support the strategic management and conservation of Ireland’s EU-designated protected habitats.
We’ve established a new, dedicated Conservations Measures Directorate that is underpinned by the necessary resourcing to deliver. It’s now established almost a year and its extensive programme will touch on the work of pretty much everybody in this room. I’d strongly encourage everyone to listen in to the talk on measures after the coffee break.
In addition, we are making great progress on the ground to restore protected peatlands and NPWS are regulators on Bord na Mona’s 33,000 hectare scheme to rehabilitate post-industrial cutaways.
To support this work, and much more besides, we are also working to improve biodiversity data collection and management, as outlined in the Programme for Government.
The Strategic Action Plan for the NPWS outlines a much-needed ICT modernisation strategy, which is just getting started and will continue over the next three years. This will underpin work across the entire organisation and beyond.
In addition, we’re working closely to reshape and reposition the National Biodiversity Data Centre to better support its work around data collection and management, as well as citizen science.
We’ve also secured almost €34m in EU co-funding for our Blanket Bog, Corncrakes and Machair programmes with farmers.
It’s also vital that we help Local Authorities to equip themselves to respond to the biodiversity emergency in their areas and support the implementation of the National Biodiversity Action Plan.
We’ve allocated €600,000 to progress the commitment for Biodiversity Officers in the Programme for Government. We’ve been working for many months with partners in the Heritage Council, CCMA and LGMA to develop a strategic and effective model that we can roll out on a much wider basis over the lifetime of this government.
Anyone that works in this area knows that communities are at the heart of biodiversity conservation. That’s why we’re doing everything we can to support them as owners, managers and advocates for nature.
We’ve almost trebled the investment in the NPWS Farm Plan scheme to support farmers to manage land for nature.
We grew the Local Biodiversity Action Fund to over €1.5m this year to support Local Authorities and communities on nature projects.
We’re continuing our partnership with the Community Foundation for Ireland on the Environment and Nature Fund and committing to co-funding €500,000 over the next five years, which will bring this fund up to €1.5m. The fund sprang to life at the last Biodiversity Conference, so it’s fantastic to see it continue to grow and support communities to develop their own biodiversity action plans.
We’ve also doubled funding for the Community Wetland Forum, which is coordinated through Irish Rural Link.
And we increased this year’s Peatland Community Engagement Scheme allocation to €500,000. The fund is still open, so get your applications in!
Building on this community engagement, we know that we need to promote biodiversity at all levels of education and work with children and young people to ensure their voices are heard and reflected in national policy.
The Programme for Government is clear that we need to integrate nature more effectively through the school and third level curriculums, and I expect that the National Biodiversity Action Plan will support that work.
I’m thrilled too that we will soon be holding a Children and Young People’s Assembly on Biodiversity Loss – a sister-event to the main Citizens’ Assembly – that I hope that it will provide a new perspective on the value of nature, and what we adults need to do now to protect it for future generations.
Key among all of this work is the wider visibility and awareness of biodiversity – across traditional media, social media, and in our day-to-day lives.
To that end, we’re working hard to raise awareness of biodiversity – as the Programme for Government committed us to – through events like this conference, keystone policies like the National Biodiversity Action Plan, and indeed, through all our work within the Department and the Dáil.
Supporting this will be a new head of communications for the National Parks and Wildlife Service to help tell the many stories that are waiting to be told.
I am aware that while this work over the past two years has undoubtedly moved Ireland as a whole into a better place for nature, that we will need to go further to meet the requirements under the EU Biodiversity Strategy, the proposed EU Nature Restoration Law targets and the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. We have made good gains in catching up, but we will have to continue at this pace – both within and beyond the NPWS – if we are to deliver on our obligations for nature and achieve our wider ambitions.
I am really looking forward to listening to the exciting line-up of speakers here at the National Biodiversity Conference. We hear much commentary about how we have been brought closer to nature due to lockdowns and 2km and 5km restrictions. What I have seen here in Ireland as I travel around the country with my work is a groundswell of activity in many communities and encouraging signs of recovery in nature thanks to the dedication of eNGOs, of volunteers working with NPWS.
From increasing numbers of breeding pairs of Lapwing at Cooldross or little terns at Kilcoole, to a White Prominent moth recording for the first time since 1938 in Killarney NP, faint signs of hope. I still get goosebumps thinking about the first majestic flight of white tailed sea eagles across Lough Derg when we released them in 2021. I think of the day we released over five hundred natterjack toadlets with the schoolchildren of the Maharees. I think of the day we found tawny missning bees nesting in my own garden during lockdown in 2020 or when sphagnum is growing again on a rewetted bog in Longford.
These successes are cherished. Some are by chance or at odds with the negative trends and some are hard fought requiring heroic interventions just to save a few eggs from predators. Very often those few eggs represent the entire success or otherwise of a nesting season.
I am also mindful of the writing of Dara McAnulty in ‘Diary of a young naturalist’. I think that Dara has articulated the real concern of young people on biodiversity loss. Agonising over the relentless, night-after-night crexing of a male corncrake in a field calling out for a mate that isn’t there and feeling its loneliness is heart breaking. It is within our collective power to turn this story around, to restore nature and in turn enrich all of our lives.