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Commission closes two nature protection cases against Ireland

The European Commission has been able to close two long-running cases of nature protection infringements in Ireland. The cases resulted in judgments by the European Court of Justice in 2001 and 2002. One relates to a 1995 deadline to complete a list of nature sites to protect Ireland's most endangered natural habitats and species as part of Natura 2000 – a Europe-wide network of protected areas set up to protect biodiversity and halt species loss. The other concerns measures to recover vegetation in Irish uplands that were extensively damaged by overstocking of sheep from the 1980s onwards. The Commission decisions follow notification by Ireland of over 400 important nature sites and the adoption of measures to restrict sheep numbers on fragile soils to environmentally sustainable levels.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "I am pleased to announce the closure of these long-running cases following action taken by the Irish authorities. I would now urge them to redouble their efforts to satisfy other important court rulings on nature in Ireland. This is crucial if we are to halt the loss of biodiversity."

Commission closes case on Natura 2000 contribution

Ireland's contribution to the Natura 2000 network of 423 sites, covering an area of more than 13,500 km², has enabled the Commission to close a long-running case against the country for violation of nature protection legislation.

In September 2001, Ireland was condemned by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for not respecting a June 1995 deadline under the EU Habitats Directive to formally propose to the European Commission a complete list of sites for the conservation of its most endangered habitats and animal and plant species. The listed sites were to be Ireland's contribution to the European network of protected nature sites.

Ireland's contribution since the judgment includes threatened habitats such as raised bogs, blanket bogs, limestone pavement rock formations, old oak woods, orchid rich grassland, machair and sand-dune systems and the habitats of species such as the salmon and the freshwater pearl mussel.

Overgrazing in protected areas – file closes

The Commission has also decided to close a second infringement case against Ireland relating to damage caused by the overstocking of sheep. In June 2002, Ireland was condemned by the ECJ on two accounts: firstly, for not protecting the 25,000 hectare Owenduff-Nephin Beg Complex special protection area (SPA) in County Mayo from erosion damage caused by overstocking of land by sheep and, secondly, for not protecting the wider habitats of the red grouse from similar damage. The breaches arose under the Wild Birds Directive, which requires the habitats of wild birds to be protected, and under the EU Habitats Directive, which lays down safeguards for SPAs.

Overgrazing results in the loss of heather, which red grouse need to feed on and nest in. Other effects include loss of soil, sometimes down to rock, and silting and contamination of rivers.

Ireland has since taken steps to reduce sheep numbers on Irish hills and has also introduced further protective safeguards in the Owenduff-Nephin Beg Complex and the Twelve Bens, where damage from overgrazing has been most serious.

EU nature legislation

Europe's nature is protected by two key pieces of legislation, the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive. Under the Birds Directive, Member States are obliged to designate all of the most suitable sites as SPAs to conserve wild bird species. To assess whether Member States have complied with their obligation to designate SPAs, the Commission uses the best available ornithological information. Where the necessary scientific information is lacking, national inventories of Important Bird Areas (IBAs), compiled by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) BirdLife International, are used. While not legally binding, the IBA inventory is based on internationally recognised scientific criteria. The Court of Justice has already acknowledged its scientific value.

The Habitats Directive requires Member States to propose sites of Community Importance (SCIs) for the conservation of natural habitat types, and once these areas have been formally adopted by Commission Decision, to designate them as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) within 6 years. Together SPAs and SACs form the Natura 2000 network of protected areas, which is the EU's most important instrument for conserving natural habitats and the animal and plant species they contain.


Legal Process


Article 226 of the Treaty gives the Commission powers to take legal action against a Member State that is not respecting its obligations.

If the Commission considers that there may be an infringement of EU law that warrants the opening of an infringement procedure, it addresses a "Letter of Formal Notice" (first written warning) to the Member State concerned, requesting it to submit its observations within a specified period, usually within two months.

In the light of the reply or absence of a reply from the Member State concerned, the Commission may decide to address a "Reasoned Opinion" (final written warning) to the Member State. This clearly and definitively sets out the reasons why it considers there to have been an infringement of EU law and calls upon the Member State to comply within a specified period, normally two months.

If the Member State fails to comply with the Reasoned Opinion, the Commission may decide to bring the case before the European Court of Justice. Where the Court of Justice finds that the Treaty has been infringed, the offending Member State is required to take the measures necessary to conform.

Article 228 of the Treaty gives the Commission power to act against a Member State that does not comply with a previous judgement of the European Court of Justice. The article also allows the Commission to ask the Court to impose a financial penalty on the Member State concerned.

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