Environmental Crimes

Environmental / Habitat Crimes

Environmental / Habitat Crimes

The rapid growth of mankind on this earth and our unrelenting consumption of its natural resources places enormous pressure on the other species that we share this planet with.
Our ancestors first set foot in Ireland about 12,500 years ago and since then our impact on its wild flora and fauna has been great but unfortunately mostly in a negative sense. Practically all of our wild places have been tamed and cultivated for the growing of food crops, the building of houses, roads and other infrastructure.

The vast area of forest cover was the first to disappear from the Irish landscape. Drainage and cultivation of our rivers and wetlands followed and today we struggle to protect remaining remnants of what was once a vast area of active raised bog covering the Irish midlands. Many species of flora and fauna have lost out to the more intensive nature of present day farming. Pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers can certainly increase our agriculture output but their use can take a serious toll on farmland biodiversity. Anyone old enough to remember hearing the dawn and evening chorus in the 1950’s will know that in today’s world that wonderful sound has greatly diminished.

It hasn’t all been bad news; pine marten numbers have increased greatly in recent times, the buzzard is now a common bird of the countryside, little egrets are establishing themselves in our wetlands and the great spotted woodpecker has returned and its numbers are increasing in our woodlands.

However, those and other successes may hide a more dismal trend of overall loss of our biodiversity.
Except for a few species of bees and butterflies we generally know little about and fail to notice the decline of the many invertebrate species, which pollinate our crops and are a major component in the food chain of other species.
Our insect eating bats are declining. Once common farmland bird species such as the corncrake, grey partridge, skylark, meadow pipit, yellowhammer, barn owl and kestrel are now considered species of high conservation concern. The curlew, a recently common and iconic bird of our wetlands and moorlands, is now almost lost to Ireland as a breeding species. Our red grouse populations continue to decline in line with the degradation and loss of the heather dominated peatlands they depend on.
The water quality of our rivers and lakes has deteriorated with a resulting decline in aquatic species.

To ensure the conservation of any species of wildlife it essential to protect the habitat it lives in and safeguard other environmental factors influencing its survival. We must also understand the principles of and its place in the ecosystem that it is part of. With this knowledge we can avert the decline and extinction of many species and ultimately perhaps ensure our own continuance on this earth.
To that end, examples of important habitats and ecosystems are afforded protection under national and European legislation.

Habitats and Irish Law

These are key Irish statutes that protect habitats and their inhabitants.

The Wildlife Acts 1976 to 2012
Nature Reserves
Refuges for Fauna and Flora
Management Agreements
Wildfowl Sanctuaries
Other Lands for Nature
Natural Heritage Areas
Hedgerows / Vegetation

European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats Regulations 2011
Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)
Special Protected Areas (SPAs)
National Parks
Other bodies that have responsibility for implementing conservation directives

Nature Reserves

Section 15 of the Wildlife Acts 1976, as amended provides for the protection of land (including land covered by inland water) owned by the State and containing habitats, ecosystems, features of geological, geomorphological or other natural interest that would be likely to benefit if measures are taken for its protection. The Minister may by order (referred to as an ‘establishment order‘) declare the land to be a nature reserve.

Example: Nature Reserve (Pollardstown Fen) Establishment Order, 1986 Statutory Instrument Number 414 of 1986

Section 16 of the Act provides for the Minister to declare privately owned lands a Nature Reserve, in agreement with the owners. The lands must include a habitat or an ecosystem or other natural interest as described in section 15. The Minister may by order (referred to as a ‘recognition order’) recognise the land as a nature reserve.

Example: Nature Reserve (Fenor Bog) Recognition Order, 2004. S.I. No. 86 of 2004

Refuges for Fauna and Flora

Section 17 of the Act provides that where the Minister considers that a particular species, or particular species of either or both fauna or flora should be specially protected on any land which is, or is contiguous to, a habitat of the species, he may publish in the Iris Oifigiuil and in at least one newspaper circulating in the locality in which the land is situate a notice of his intention to make an order (referred to as a designation order) designating the land as a refuge for such fauna or flora.

Before publishing such notice the Minister shall consult the Minister for Agriculture and any planning authority in whose area the land is situate and serve on the owners or occupiers of such land notice of the particulars to be contained in the notice he proposes to so publish.
Any person who contravenes a designation order shall be guilty of an offence

Example: Refuge for Fauna (Cliffs of Moher) Designation Order, 1988, S.I. No. 98 of 1988

Management Agreements

Section 18 of the Act gives the Minister the power to make management agreements with landowners to ensure that the management of the land (to be specified in the agreement) will not impair wildlife or its conservation.
An agreement under this section shall be entered into only after consultation with the Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, the Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland and any planning Authority in whose area the relevant land is situate, and may provide for a payment of compensation to any affected landowner.

Wildfowl Sanctuaries

These sanctuaries are areas that have been excluded from the ‘Open Seasons Order’ so that wildfowl can rest and feed undisturbed.
There are 68 wildfowl sanctuaries in the State.
The hunting of game birds in these sanctuaries is prohibited.

Other Lands for Nature

The Minister may acquire lands for the purpose of the Wildlife Acts, which may not carry any of the above statutory designations.

An example would be the lands at Boora, Co Offaly which the Minister acquired from Bord Na Mona for the conservation of our native grey partridge. At the beginning of this century the grey partridge was perilously close to extinction as a naturally occurring species in Ireland and the last few were surviving in BNM lands at Boora.
The proper management of the lands for the grey partridge since then has seen their population rise to a level where they are now repopulating the surrounding countryside. As this is the last potentially sustainable wild population of grey partridge in Ireland, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have selected a number of priority areas locally for the introduction of the GLAS Tier 1 grey partridge scheme (an agri-environmental conservation scheme) which will benefit wild partridge and many other farmland species.

The management of the Boora lands has already greatly benefited other species. It has become a particularly important site in the Irish midlands for breeding lapwing, it has a huge population of hares and rare birds of prey such as hen harrier, marsh harrier and merlin can be regularly seen hunting the area.

Natural Heritage Areas

The Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000, section 18 introduced a statutory process to give the Minister power to designate land as a Natural Heritage Area (NHA). This applies to an area which is worthy of conservation for one or more species, communities, habitats, landforms or geological or geomorphological features, or for its diversity of natural attributes.

It is currently proposed to designate in excess of 800 sites as NHAs’.
Some of the proposed NHAs’ are tiny, such as a roosting place for rare bats. Others are large, such as blanket bogs or lakes.
To date, only a number of our peat bog sites have been formally designated.
Prior to statutory designation, proposed NHAs’ are subject to limited protection, in the form of:

  • Cross Compliance – for eligibility for certain farm payments
  • Ineligibility of NHA lands for certain grants, in particular Forestry grants
  • Recognition of NHA values by Planning and Licencing Authorities

Natural Heritage Areas enjoy the protection of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 from the date the Minister serves notice on the landowners and occupiers of his intention to make an order designating the land as an natural heritage area.
The notice shall be accompanied by –

  • (a) a map of an appropriate scale which clearly identifies the land to which the notice relates,
  • (b) Outline the reason the site is of special scientific interest and indicate the works which the Minister considers would be liable to destroy or damage the integrity of the proposed natural heritage area
  • (c) Indicate the protective measures the Minister proposes to include in the proposed order for the protection of the natural heritage area, and
  • (d) Indicate the procedures by which a person may object.

Once served with the notice, it is an offence for a person to carry out any works which the Minister considers would be liable to destroy or damage the integrity of the site without the Minister’s consent.

Example: Natural Heritage Area (Girley Bog Nha 001580) Order 2003 S.I. No. 600 of 2003

Hedgerows / Vegetation

The Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000, section 40, restricts the cutting, grubbing, burning, or destruction of vegetation from 1st March to 31st August.

Consolidated Version of the Wildlife Acts (Section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976 as amended by the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000) :

(a) It shall be an offence for a person to cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy during the period beginning on the 1st day of March and ending on the 31st day of August in any year, any vegetation growing on any land not then cultivated.

(b) It shall be an offence for a person to cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy any vegetation growing in any hedge or ditch during the period mentioned in paragraph (a) of this subsection.

(2) Subsection (1) of this section shall not apply in relation to

(a) the destroying, in the ordinary course of agriculture or forestry, of any vegetation growing on or in any hedge or ditch;

(b) the cutting or grubbing of isolated bushes or clumps of gorse, furze or whin or the mowing of isolated growths of fern in the ordinary course of agriculture;

(c) the cutting, grubbing or destroying of vegetation in the course of any works being duly carried out for reasons of public health or safety by a Minister of the Government or a body established or regulated by or under a statute;

(cc) the clearance of vegetation in the course of fisheries development works carried out by the Central Fisheries Board or a regional fisheries board in the exercise of its functions under the Fisheries Acts, 1959 to 1999;

(d) the destroying of any noxious weed to which the Noxious Weeds Act, 1936, applies;

(e) the clearance of vegetation in the course of road or other construction works or in the development or preparation of sites on which any building or other structure is intended to be provided;

(f) the removal or destruction of vegetation required by a notice served by the Minister under section 62 (1) of the Act of 1946 to be removed or destroyed;

but this subsection shall not operate to exclude from subsection (1) of this section anything done by burning.

(3) The Minister may request from the person concerned details of any works carried out under subsection (2)(c) and such details shall be furnished to the Minister by that person together with a statement of the public health or safety factors involved.

(4) In any proceedings taken in respect of a contravention of this section consisting of the doing of any act, it shall be a good defence to prove that the doing of that act was necessary for the purpose of extinguishing or preventing the spread of a fire while it was in progress or for the purpose of saving human life or was necessary in any other emergency in respect of which that act was an appropriate measure.

European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats Regulations 2011

Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)

These are prime areas of natural habitats in the country, considered to be important for wildlife on a European as well as an Irish level.
Areas chosen as SAC in Ireland encompass an area of approximately 13,500 sq. km. Roughly 53% is land and the remainder being marine or large lakes.

The legal basis on which SACs are selected and designated is the EU Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC). This directive was transposed into Irish law in the European Communities (Natural Habitats) Regulations 1997, which has now been revoked and replaced by the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011.

The Habitats Directive lists certain habitats and species that must be given protection in SACs.
Irish habitats include raised bogs, blanket bogs, fens, turloughs, sand dunes, heaths, lakes, rivers, woodlands, estuaries and sea inlets.
The Irish species which must be afforded protection include salmon, otter, freshwater pearl mussel, marsh fritillary butterfly and Killarney fern.
Some habitats and species are deemed “priority” and have greater requirements for designation of sites and protection.

Map of SACs in Ireland

Special Protected Areas (SPAs)

These sites are areas of importance for bird species.
There are 154 SPAs in Ireland encompassing over 570,000 hectares of marine and terrestrial habitat.
The legal basis for selection and designation is the EU Birds Directive (79/409/EEC) which requires the designation of SACs for:

  • Listed rare and vulnerable species such as hen harrier, whooper swan, corncrake, kingfisher and terns
  • Regularly occurring migratory species, such as ducks geese and waders
  • Wetlands, especially those of international importance, which attract large numbers of migratory birds each year. (‘Internationally important’ means that 1% of the population of a species use the site, or more than 20,000 birds regularly use the site).

In addition sites important for dispersed species are required under the Directive.

Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protected Areas collectively form part of ‘Natura 2000’ a network of protected areas throughout the European Union. Across the EU, sites forming part of ‘Natura 2000’ cover an area of land and sea the size of Germany.

Under Irish law, SACs and SPAs are protected under the E.C. (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011.
The procedure for designation and protection is similar to the protection of natural heritage. Once a site has been identified, landowners are notified of the Minister’s intention to designate and it becomes a ‘proposed candidate SAC’ or a ‘proposed SPA’. Maps are issued to landowners giving details of the site boundary. A list of activities that might damage the wildlife interest of the site, and measures required to protect the site, is also provided. These are called ‘Actions Requiring Consent’.

A person on whom such a notice is served or any other person having or being entitled to an interest in or over the land comprising the site or part thereof or any other person with land outside and whose use of the land may be potentially affected by the designation may within a three month period of the notification object on scientific grounds to the inclusion of the land as an SAC or SPA.
Where the Minister refuses permission for an Action Requiring Consent the landowner is entitled to compensation of an amount equal to the loss suffered by the depreciation of an interest in the land to which he or she is entitled.

Conviction for causing damage to an SAC or SPA or other infringements of the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011 can carry penalties of a fine not exceeding €500,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years, or both.

Where an activity, plan or project that has been carried out within or outside an SAC or SPA has caused damage to that site or to a species or habitat types for which the site was selected and is in contravention of these Regulations, or of the Planning and Development Acts 2000 to 2011 or is otherwise unlawful, the Minister may, by Direction issued in writing, require the owner or person who carried out the activity, plan or project, or such other persons he or she considers appropriate, to restore the land in accordance with the Direction.
Failure to comply with the Direction is an offence.

Map of SPAs in Ireland

National Parks

In Ireland we have six national parks covering a total of 612 sq km.
They mostly comprise large areas of sensitive upland habitats which are owned and managed by the State for conservation and conservation-sensitive visitor use.

Killarney National Park was our first national park and was established in1932 when the 4,300 hectares Bourn Vincent Memorial Park was presented to the Irish State by Senator Arthur Vincent. Since then land has been added through acquisitions and bequests, notably from the McShane estate.
The park now measures some 10,300 hectares and contains the most extensive area of natural woodland in Ireland, including oak woods, wet woodlands and a unique yew wood.
Red Deer have roamed these mountains and woodlands for the last 4000 years and in recent years the magnificent white-tailed eagle can be seen flying overhead.
In 1981 it was designated by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve.

In 1975 large areas of land in Donegal were purchased by the State for the creation of Glenveagh National Park. In 1981, Mr Mcllhenny presented Glenveagh Castle and Gardens to the nation and further acquisitions have since brought the park to almost 17,000 hectares.

Connemara National Park in Galway was established and opened to the public in 1980. It covers just 3,000 hectares of mountain bog, heaths, grasslands and woodlands.

Wicklow Mountains National Park was established in 1991. It comprises a total area of some 20,000 hectares of mountain bog, heaths and grasslands with good examples of oak woodland on the valley slopes.
In the centre of it all remains the preserved ruins of the 6th century monastic city at Glendalough or ‘Gleann da Locha’ meaning the Glen of the two lakes.

The Burren National Park in County Clare was established in 1991. It is situated at the south-eastern edge of the Burren. It covers an area of 1,500 hectares and contains examples of all major habitats within the Burren: limestone pavement, calcareous grassland, hazel scrub, ash/hazel woodland, turloughs, lakes, petrifying springs, cliffs and fen.

Ballycroy National Park in County Mayo is the country’s newest national park, established in 1998. It covers an area of 11,000 hectares of unspoilt wilderness, containing one of the last intact blanket bog systems in Ireland and western Europe.

Ireland has no specific national park legislation although it is intended that this legislation will be considered in the coming years. Currently they are managed under the Bourn Vincent Memorial Park Act, 1932 (part of Killarney National Park) and the State Property Act, 1954.
However, most of the land within the national parks is designated as Special Areas of Conservation under the EU Habitats Directive or Special Protected Area under the EU Birds Directive and is therefore protected under the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011. The Wildlife Acts 1976 to 2012 also provides strong provisions for the protection of nature within the parks, as they do generally.

Other bodies implementing conservation directives

Other national legislation such as our planning and development laws takes cognisance of and protects SACs and SPAs and all public authorities and Government Ministers who licence activities in SACs and SPAs must assess applications in light of the conservation interest of the site.
The Minister in charge of the National Parks and Wildlife Service must assess activities not licensed by other Ministers or Authorities
Other bodies that have direct responsibility for implementing conservation directives are as follows:

  • The Department of Agriculture, food and the Marine
  • The Department of the Environment and Local Government
  • The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources
  • The Office of Public Works
  • The Environmental Protection Agency
  • Local Authorities
  • An Bórd Pleanála
  • The National Roads Authority
  • Waterways Ireland

Recording evidence at the Crime Scene

Assessing whether a criminal offence has taken place may not always be straight forward and other possibilities such as natural deaths, predation and legal hunting should be considered.

If you come across a wildlife crime scene or a dead bird or object that may be related to a wildlife crime, every piece of information is – or might be – important, but it needs to be recorded properly and accurately for the authorities to have a chance of prosecuting an offender.

Reporting an Environmental Crime

To report an environmental crime that you believe to be a breach of Irish wildlife legislation, contact the National Parks & Wildlife Service
Tel: 01-888 3242 or LoCall 1890 383 000

For a pdf of contact numbers for your local NPWS Conservation Ranger click HERE

If you can’t reach NPWS personnel call An Garda Síochána:

If the crime is in progress or about to happen, or if the offender is still at the scene or has just left call 999 or 112

If the event is finished then either call your local Garda Station (Garda Stations Directory) or the Garda Confidential Telephone Number 1800 666 111

If you witness an environmental crime, here are some other organisations / links that may help:

An Taisce – the National Trust for Ireland endeavours to address threats to Ireland’s protected nature conservation areas and would be very interested in hearing from you should you know of any potentially damaging plans or projects.
Email: naturalenvironment@antaisce.org
Tel: 01- 4541786

How to make an Environmental Complaint
Click on ‘How to Make an Environmental Complaint’ for the EPA’s excellent leaflet which tells you who to contact, what to say and do, and provides a directory of relevant agencies’ contact details.

Or use their ‘See it? Say it!’ Reporting App

Additional NPWS Contact email addresses

NPWS Legislation, Licensing and Development Applications Unit


NPWS Peatland Issues and Land Designation


NPWS – Science & Biodiversity


Peatland Council


Peatlands Management Unit


Site Protection Unit


For more information on reporting and how to follow up on a reported crime click HERE