Annex IV protected areas: water dependent habitats and species and high status sites

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The purpose of this guidance is primarily to provide information on Habitats Directive Annex 1 and 2 listed water dependent habitats and species, on their occurrence and conservation status in Ireland generally, and within Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) protected for nature conservation under the Habitats Directive in particular. The maintenance or improvement of the status of water is an important factor in their protection. It also provides measures to protect water bodies at high status as assigned by the EPA under the interim status classification and also catchment areas of monitoring sites indicated to be at high status.

Water dependent Habitats Directive Annex 1 listed habitats and their associated Annex 2 listed species have been grouped into broad themes, with the aim of identifying the landscape, land-use, and water status issues that arise, and how these interact with nature conservation objectives, and the existing pressures on them as identified in the conservation status reporting which has recently been completed by NPWS under Article 17 of the Habitats Directive:

Coastal marine habitats

These are inshore and offshore habitats that occur from the low intertidal down into deep sea water. The main pressures and threats to coastal marine habitats identified by the Article 17 conservation status assessment (carried out by the National Parks and Wildlife Service under the Habitats Directive) were fishing/dredging, extraction, and construction. Water pollution from discharges, and possibly from aquaculture, are potentially impacting some large shallow inlets and bays sites.

Coastal transitional and intertidal habitats

This category include coastal lagoons, a priority Annex 1 listed water dependent habitat. A key feature of lagoons is restricted tidal exchange, which makes them vulnerable to eutrophication. Drainage and modification of hydrography, including the installation of non-return valves resulting in modification of salinity, are also listed as damaging pressures.

Intertidal habitats include sand and mudflats, and salt marsh habitats. They are vulnerable to sediment erosion and re-deposition arising from a number of pressures, and water quality issues also arise. Many individual sites are designated as Special Protection Areas under the Birds Directive because they host internationally important numbers of waterfowl.

Coastal onshore habitats

This category includes sand dune and machair habitats, which depend on coastal geomorphological and sediment transport processes for their formation and continued existence. Groundwater dependent dune slack, and machair wetlands and lake habitats occur within them. For landscape reasons, coastal onshore habitats attract recreational uses and developments, as well as residential development, in addition to agricultural land use. These lead to hydrological pressures including water abstraction, reducing groundwater levels and potentially leading to saline intrusions, and impacting adversely on dune slack and machair habitats and on the water dependent plant and animal species associated with them. Water quality issues also arise in some areas.

Surface water dependent habitats

This category includes Habitats Directive Annex 1 listed lake, river, and associated habitats and species. The Water Framework Directive lake typology differs from the Habitats Directive Annex 1 listed lake types, which are based principally on macrophyte communities. It should be noted that some of the Habitats Directive Annex 1 listed lake habitats are highly oligotrophic (3110, 3140, 3160). It is possible that for some Annex 1 listed lake habitats, high status environmental quality standards may not be stringent enough for the protection of highly oligotrophic lakes. Work remains to be done in elucidating the complex issues that arise. The Draft European Communities Environmental Objectives (Surface Water) Regulations (2008) provide a framework within which the more stringent environmental quality requirements of the Habitats Directive can be addressed.

A number of Annex 2 listed water dependent species occur in rivers, in particular the fresh water pearl mussel species Margaritifera margaritifera and Margaritifera durrovensis, which are critically endangered (IUCN threat category), and require measures to restore favourable conservation status. All Margaritifera populations are at unfavourable-bad conservation status, mainly because of continuous failure to produce new generations of mussels because of the loss of clean gravel beds in rivers. Sub-basin plans are to be prepared for 27 M. margaritifera populations and the sole remaining M. durrovensis population, under the Draft European Communities Environmental Objectives (Freshwater Pearl Mussel) Regulations (December 2008)
The water status pressures identified for Habitats Directive Annex listed lake and river habitats and species relate broadly to the point and diffuse source pressures identified in the Water Framework Directive National Characterisation Report. Hydrological pressures also arise, and are adverse for some sites.

Groundwater dependent habitats

This category includes the Annex 1 listed turlough, Cladium fen, alkaline fen, and petrifying spring habitats. Threats and pressures identified in the conservation status assessments indicate that all are highly vulnerable to hydrological pressures, including water abstractions, arterial drainage, local drainage, and infilling. Water quality issues also arise, and individual sites can be expected to vary considerably in their buffering capacity for nutrient loadings.

With regard to the Water Framework Directive, a key feature of turloughs is that the turlough basin is in direct contact with groundwater. Activities within and adjoining the basin thus constitute a risk to groundwater.

Precipitation dependent habitats

It should be noted that this category, including wet heath, blanket bog and raised bog habitats, are also supported by groundwater (raised bogs), or include ground water dependent habitats and species. They are vulnerable to hydrological and water quality pressures. Land use pressures, including drainage, burning (in an attempt to increase grass cover for livestock grazing), overgrazing, peat cutting, and afforestation within these combined habitats can lead also lead to adverse hydrological and water quality impacts in downstream watercourses. These include reduced low flows, increased peak flows and erosion potential in downstream watercourses, increased suspended solids loads, acidification and nutrient loadings, and increased flood risk.

This guidance builds on and updates the work carried out for the EPA in identifying nature conservation designated areas in the context of the Water Framework Directive (Ó Riain, and Ó Riain et al1; 2005). Areas subject to nature conservation designations in Ireland are under on-going review by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, with the addition of new sites, revisions to the boundaries of existing sites, and changes to the lists of habitats and species Qualifying Interests for which SACs are designated. The information contained in this report is based on the NPWS Habitats Assignment Database Review 2 dated 8th February 2008, additional information from conservation status assessment reporting under the Habitats Directive, and on the NPWS SAC boundary GIS update notified on 4th September 2008.

A number of databases are included with this guidance:

  • SAC_Water_Dependency_Dec08

  • Coastal_lagoons_Sept08

  • Najas_database_June08

  • Arctic_char_lakes_Sept08

  • Habitats Directive and High Status Measures_Dec08.xls

The SAC Water Dependency GIS database prepared in association with this guidance updates the Register of Protected Areas for water dependent habitats and species in the Special Area of Protection (SAC) component of the Natura 2000 site network.

The coastal lagoons, Najas, and Arctic char databases include information relevant to the identification of High Status Sites under the Water Framework Directive. The coastal lagoons (priority Annex 1 listed habitat) database refers to individual sites that are listed as having favourable or unfavourable conservation status under the Habitats Directive Article 17 reporting for the period 2000 to 2006, and indicates whether an anthropogenic source of unfavourable conservation status has been identified. Najas flexilis is an Annex 2 listed plant that occurs in lakes that are transitional between hard water and soft water types, conservation status assessments are available for these individual lakes. Arctic char are not listed in Annexes to the Habitats Directive, but have been included as a water dependent species because of their threatened status, high lake water quality requirement and hence usefulness as an indicator species, and vulnerability to water abstraction.

This guidance also refers to the Conservation Status reporting which has recently been completed by NPWS under Article 17 of the Habitats Directive2. The 2007/08 reporting, for the period 2000 to 2006, is the first to be completed. The reporting indicates unfavourable conservation status for virtually all water dependent habitats and for some water dependent species, in particular the fresh water pearl mussel species Margaritifera margaritifera and Margaritifera durrovensis, which are critically endangered (IUCN threat category). It follows that for some water bodies, measures will be required under the Habitats Directive.

A suite of measures under the Habitats Directive is included in this guidance (Section 7). Many of these measures are also applicable to High Status sites under the Water Framework Directive. High Status and Habitats Directive measures are coded and cross-referred (Appendix 12 / Habitats Directive and High Status Measures_Dec08.xls). Additional measures are given for High Status sites which link the water quality requirements to the water quality objectives and standards set out in the Draft European Communities (Environmental Objectives) Regulations 2008.
The sensitivities of individual water dependent Annex 1 listed habitats and Annex 2 listed species to hydrological and water quality pressures, and to direct impacts, are considered in Section 5. Guidance on the appropriate assessment of plans and projects affecting Natura 2000 sites is given in Section 6.

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