RFT 222945 – SPU CO35-2022
Hen Harrier Habitat Map
The hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) is a territorial ground-nesting bird of prey that typically breeds in open upland bog and heather moorland, and their associated habitats.
The most recent (2015) National Hen Harrier Survey estimated the breeding population to be between 108 and 157 pairs in the Republic of Ireland. Outside the breeding season, it ranges more widely across both upland and lowland areas.
Along with a number of other species and habitats, the hen harrier is under threat in Ireland due to a number of factors, but primarily due to the loss of suitable habitat through afforestation/forest maturation, agricultural reclamation and intensification, and wind energy development.
Some of these land-use changes may also cause unsustainable rates of nest loss, due to increased levels of associated predation. In addition, there is a very low survival rate for juvenile birds through their first winter. As a result, the national population is in decline.
Following the designation of the six breeding hen harrier SPAs in 2007, an agreement (the “Hen Harrier Protocol”) was reached between the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), the NPWS of the then Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (DAHG), landowner representatives and forest industry interests, on the management of afforestation within the SPAs.
However, the European Commission considered the protocol to be a “plan”, and as such, it could not lawfully be applied in the absence of a strategic environmental assessment. On foot of that and other concerns, the Protocol was suspended.
It was then agreed that a Threat Response Plan would be prepared that would address issues that had been identified as affecting land use in the hen harrier SPAs, as well as affecting the conservation status of the species.
The draft Plan is being made available for public comment, as required by Regulation 21, and will be published upon its adoption.
The draft Plan will also undergo a screening for Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and Appropriate Assessment (AA), and any further assessments that are indicated as necessary.
The SEA will be commissioned and undertaken by NPWS-DHLGH; NPWS will also commission the Natura Impact Statement for Appropriate Assessment, while the AA determination itself will be made by the Ecological Assessment Unit, pursuant to Regulation 42a of the Regulations.
The final Plan will be adopted by Government.
Detailed site-specific conservation objectives are being set and published for each SPA selected for breeding hen harrier, based on the established NPWS-DHLGH process that aims to define favourable conservation condition at a specific Natura or European site, for a particular habitat or species.
Using the parameters that define favourable conservation status of species, specific attributes for the species and its supporting habitat are set, along with targets that define the favourable reference value for that attribute.
Following the conclusion of relevant research outputs from the Hen Harrier Programme and the mid-term review of the Plan implementation, the SSCOs will be reviewed with a view to their update, if necessary.
The Department also intends to publish conservation objectives for the two wintering hen harrier SPAs in 2023 (Wexford Harbour and Slobs SPA and Lough Corrib SPA), following the conclusion of ongoing relevant research in 2022.
An SPA-network-level conservation objective will also be established, informed by the site-level objectives, so that the breeding SPA network will operate as a coherent whole, and effects that may arise on one SPA can be considered in the context of the whole network.
Due to the proportion of the hen harrier population that occurs outside the SPA network, it is also the Department’s intention to publish a national conservation objective for the species, and to explore the establishment of an all-Ireland objective with Northern Ireland, following the conclusion of the 2022 National Hen Harrier Survey.
Main Threats and Pressures Affecting Hen Harrier
The primary potential threats and pressures to breeding hen harrier, as identified through the consultation process for this Plan, concern forestry, agriculture and wind energy development.
As previously mentioned, detailed reports on each of these sectors and their interactions with hen harrier have been produced to support the Plan’s development. The issues arising are summarised below.
Other potential threats to hen harrier include disturbance from recreational activities, persecution, wildfires and turf cutting, predation and climate change, all of which can affect other species and habitats.
A further forestry-related threat is the increased risk of predation, and nest predation in particular.
The Department will keep the relative importance of these pressures and threats under review as part of the Threat Response Plan implementation process, as well as through the Strategic Environmental Assessment.
The breeding hen harrier SPAs include commercial coniferous forest plantations (more than 50% by area).
These were included in the SPAs during the designation process, as surveys at that time showed that a large proportion of the national hen harrier population was using parts of the plantations for nesting and foraging. Notwithstanding that, the natural habitat of the hen harrier is open bog and heather moorland, with rough grassland also favoured.
Hen harriers find young forest plantations attractive to breed in, and the population is thought to have increased in Ireland in the 1960s and ’70s due to new afforestation. However, breeding success is compromised by the loss of open space as forest canopies close. By 10 years or so after planting, a forest is of little habitat value for hen harrier until clear-felling takes place.
In a balanced, mixed-age forest landscape, approximately one-quarter of the forest estate is in pre-thicket stage at any one time. Currently, however, forests within the hen harrier SPAs lack this mixed-age balance.
Lightly grazed heath/bog, with some scrub, is the most suitable habitat for nesting hen harrier. Lowland tillage, in combination with open heath/bog and rough grasslands, is important for both foraging and roosting outside the breeding season, which constitutes a significant portion of the year.
The quality of rough grassland, or indeed improved grassland, for hen harrier can be influenced by a range of agricultural practices, including grazing intensity, grazing periods, grazing types, fertiliser/slurry usage, rush control etc.
Hedgerows are also important, providing foraging networks throughout the year.
Habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation due to agricultural intensification have already significantly reduced the availability and quality of open heath/bog and open grazed wet grassland habitats in areas important for breeding hen harrier. There are also significant concerns about the low survival rate of young hen harriers, particularly over winter. Appropriate grazing of these open habitats is an effective means to deliver suitable farmland habitats for hen harrier.
Areas of abandoned land with scrub, though not considered extensive at a landscape-scale, can be utilised by nesting and/or roosting hen harriers in particular. It is also important to retain natural and semi-natural habitats in the landscape, as well as to ensure that the quality of appropriately-grazed habitats is not negatively affected by other pressures.
While heather, rush and scrub are among the most important habitats for hen harrier, the eligibility of such land for entry to the Basic Payment Scheme (and subsequently ANC and GLAS) has been problematic, and there have been many instances where area or payment reductions were applied due to their presence.
In parallel, many landowners have cleared or burned extensive areas of such habitats to maximise eligibility for payments. Such habitats may even be seen as a hindrance to the earning potential of land under schemes such as BPS, ANC and GLAS. There are ongoing challenges around the communication and implementation of land eligibility.
Wind energy developments
There is considerable overlap between the breeding range of hen harriers and the upland areas in which wind energy development has been concentrated in Ireland.
Over two hundred and fifty wind turbines occur within the hen harrier SPA network.
There is now some evidence that hen harrier breeding productivity may be impacted by wind turbine development close to nesting areas.
This is particularly relevant as the Habitats Directive requires that planning decisions must ensure that there are no adverse effects on the integrity of European, or Natura, sites, for a project or plan to be consented to under Article 6(3) of the Habitats Directive.
Summary assessment of pressures and threats
Existing Measures to Address Hen Harrier Conservation Requirements
Restrictions arising from the designation of SPAs
Restrictions or additional duties that arise on lands designated as SPAs fall into two main categories:
a. Requirements of planning and licensing authorities (including the Forest Service)
b. Activities requiring consent (ARCs)
Under the EU Nature Directives, and as interpreted through the Irish Courts and the European Court of Justice, consenting authorities can only consent to activities in an SPA if they are clear that there will not be an adverse impact on the species for which the SPA has been designated.
These are activities that might be damaging to a Natura 2000 site but that do not require planning permission or another form of consent. In such cases, prior consent is needed from the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Obligations as set out above in relation to screening for appropriate assessment, and appropriate assessment as necessary, also apply to ARCs.
The rules of the Basic Payment Scheme also require that farmers must not undertake these activities without prior consent from the Minister.
There are currently three ARCs relevant to hen harrier SPAs:
– Agricultural improvement of heath or bog.
– Construction, removal or alteration of fences, stone walls, hedgerows, banks or any field boundary other than temporary electric fencing (consent is not required for normal maintenance).
– Off-road recreational use of mechanically propelled vehicles.
Agri-environment Schemes Relevant to Hen Harrier Areas
NPWS Farm Plan Scheme (2006-2015)
The NPWS Farm Plan Scheme was launched in 2006. The main purpose of the scheme was to promote a focused, targeted and innovative approach to farming for the conservation of habitats and species of conservation concern, where they were not adequately covered by other national agri-environment schemes.
In total, 377 NPWS farm plans, based on a five-year contract, were put in place with farmers in hen harrier SPAs. Following the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent budgetary cutbacks, the NPWS farm plan scheme was closed to new applicants in April 2010 and most plans reached their end-of-life by 2015. Over €14 million was paid to the participating farmers, with an average payment of €7,347 per annum.
This scheme was funded solely from the national exchequer, i.e. no EU funding was allocated. The NPWS farm plan scheme was never resourced to the extent that it could provide suitable habitat at a landscape scale for hen harrier, with less than 10% of the farmers in the SPAs participating.
The Green Low Carbon Agri Environment Scheme is the current agri-environment scheme, which is part of the RDP 2014-2020 (extended to 2023). The GLAS standard ‘package’ is up to €5,000 for eligible farmers per annum, with an additional package of €2,000 per annum for those in GLAS+, in return for exceptional environmental commitment.
Farmers in hen harrier areas (SPAs and other relevant areas identified in the national 2015 survey) are eligible for GLAS and GLAS+. DAFM has estimated that more than €23m per annum is available for hen harrier actions alone in GLAS and GLAS+. As of August 2022, there were 2,476 farmers taking up hen harrier actions in GLAS, with 1,350 of these also in GLAS+.
Hen Harrier Programme EIP (2018-2022)
The Hen Harrier Programme is a €25m European Innovation Partnership (EIP) that has operated between 2018 and 2022. The Hen Harrier Programme has been pivotal in piloting measures for the hen harrier and associated conservation interests, including habitats, wider biodiversity, water and carbon, as well as delivering community buy-in.
The primary objectives of the Hen Harrier Programme were:
1: To ensure the sustainable management of High Nature Value farmland in the most important breeding areas for hen harrier in Ireland.
2: To promote a stronger socio-economic outlook for marginally agriculturally productive upland areas that are generally difficult to manage.
3: To develop an effective model for future sustainable management of hen harrier areas.
4: To foster continued positive relations through locally-led solutions between the people who have managed these landscapes for generations and the relevant Government Departments. This relationship is central to maintaining and enhancing the biodiversity that exists on these lands.
It has targeted approximately 24% of the land area of the hen harrier SPAs and pays farmers to undertake actions to reach the Programme’s goals, the success of which is measured in the field. It has been delivered on the ground by a specialist locally-based intermediary team (between DAFM and the landowners), which was appointed through competitive tender (hereafter ‘the Hen Harrier Programme Team’). The Programme is overseen by a Steering Group, comprised of representatives from DAFM, NPWS, Teagasc, participating farmers and Hen Harrier Programme Advisors.
The Hen Harrier Programme is operated on the basis that payments are for the habitat and support actions delivered during each breeding season. All payments under the Programme are made “in arrears” and are based on the habitat quality and actions delivered by the farmer by August 15th each year, i.e. the latest date for submitting a claim for payment to the Hen Harrier Programme Team.
The delivery of the Hen Harrier Programme is supported at farm level by three types of payments:
• A Results-based Habitat Payment
• A Supporting Actions Payment
• A Hen Harrier Payment
The Hen Harrier Programme has acted in parallel to GLAS. Participation in the Programme was not linked to GLAS participation, and all payments through the Hen Harrier Programme were separate from GLAS. It forms part of a package of supports available to farmers in hen harrier SPAs that also includes the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), Areas of Natural Constraint (ANC) and GLAS schemes.
The CAP 2023-27 will incorporate hen harrier SPAs (and some other important hen harrier breeding sites) into a new Cooperation Project approach, where it is intended that multiple biodiversity interests will be addressed at a landscape scale.
RAPTOR LIFE project
IRD Duhallow, a community-based Rural Development Company, secured €3 million LIFE+ funding for Raptor LIFE 2015 to 2019, after an 85% decline was recorded in the local hen harrier population.
It sought to connect and restore habitats for priority species, including the hen harrier, within the River Blackwater (Cork/Waterford) SAC and the Stacks to Mullaghareirk Mountains, West Limerick Hills and Mount Nagle Special Protection Area (SPA). The latter is the most important SPA site for hen harrier. From 2016-2019, its monitoring showed that this sub-population has had poor productivity (overall fledging rate of less than 1.2 young fledged per breeding attempt).
The RaptorLIFE project drafted a Management Plan for the Stacks to Mullaghareirk Mountains, West Limerick Hills and Mount Eagle SPA.
Hen harrier-specific actions within the plan include:
- management of forests in the SPA with a target of 23 pairs or more for the SPA by 2025, along with a stable/increasing population trend.
- a reduction in nest losses to predators,
- no nest failures to disturbance or fire,
- no losses of adults or nests to persecution, along with
- maintaining or increasing the area/quality of HNV farmland, hedgerows, retaining important nesting areas in scrub, and restoring degraded heath/bog habitats.
Joint Oireachtas Committee Hearing
In 2015, the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine published its report on the “Designation of Lands as SPAs for the Conservation of Breeding Hen Harriers”. The Committee met with representatives of “Irish Farmers with Designated Lands”. The JOC‘s report contains 18 recommendations, reproduced in Appendix 6; these have been used to inform the Threat Response Plan, and many of them have been incorporated into actions in this draft Plan.
Land value and compensation
Regulation 41 of the Regulations provides for compensation where the Minister refuses consent to an activity that had been carried out within the previous five years. The Regulations do not give the Minister powers to make payments for reduced land value per se, nor for the loss of collateral value.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine (see above and Appendix 6) recommended that payments should apply only to the curtailment of current or past activities and current or past income foregone.
Furthermore, payments should not apply to potential or future income; and payment should not be made for failure to secure either planning permission or a rant for new development.