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

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The purpose of this guidance is to provide information on water dependent habitats and species that are of nature conservation importance, and on their occurrence in Protected Areas in Ireland. The maintenance or improvement of the status of water is an important factor in their protection. Habitats and 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. 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.

This report 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 al3; 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 sites 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.
This guidance also refers to the Conservation Status reporting which has recently been completed by NPWS under Article 17 of the Habitats Directive4. 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. 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. 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) Regualtions 2008.


2.1. Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC

Article 6 of the Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC requires that “Member States shall ensure the establishment of a register or registers of all areas lying within each river basin district which have been designated as requiring special protection under specific community legislation for the protection of their surface water and ground water or for the conservation of habitats and species directly depending on water.”

Annex IV of the Water Framework Directive defines protected areas for the conservation of habitats and species as follows:
“1. The register of protected areas required under Article 6 shall include the following types of protected areas:
1. (v) areas designated for the protection of habitats or species where the maintenance or improvement of the status of water is an important factor in their protection, including relevant Natura 2000 sites designated under Directive 92/43/EEC and Directive 79/409/EEC.

  1. The summary of the register required as part of the river basin management plans shall include maps indicating the location of each protected area and a description of the Community, national or local legislation under which they have been designated.”

The next stage of implementation is to assign measures to water bodies under the Habitats and Birds Directives, where the maintenance and improvement of the status of water is required to improve the conservation status of certain habitats and species.

2.2. Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC

2.2.1. Aims of the Directive.

This Directive aims to protect and promote biodiversity, and includes requirements to maintain and restore the most rare and threatened habitats and species in the EU at a favourable conservation status. These habitats and species are listed in Annexes to the Directive; Member States are required to protect Annex 1 listed habitats and Annex II listed species through the designation, conservation, and appropriate management of a network of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) throughout Europe. Specific protection is required at a national level for species listed in Annex IV and Annex V. A total of 231 European natural habitat types are listed in Annex 1 of the Habitats Directive. Sixty two Annex 1 listed natural habitats occur in Ireland; 47 of them have been defined as water dependent (see Section 3 and Appendix 1).
When an SAC is proposed for designation under the Habitats Directive, a Natura 2000 form is prepared by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. This assigns a unique Site Code to the site, and provides details of the conservation interests of the site. The Annex listed habitats and species for which the site is specifically designated are referred to as the “Qualifying Interests” of the site. Other Annex listed habitats and species present within the site are also noted when the site is surveyed; others may be found to be present during subsequent specialist surveys.
SAC sites contribute to the Natura 2000 network, and are required to be included as Protected Areas under the Water Framework Directive where they are of interest for water dependent habitats or species. In general, the most extensive and intact areas where Annex 1 listed habitats and species occur are protected within the SAC network.
It is important to note that Annex listed water dependent habitats and species occur outside the current Natura 2000 site network, and the Directive and subsequent case law indicate that these should be protected under national legislation and other measures to promote biodiversity. They occur within Natural Heritage Areas (NHA) and proposed Natural Heritage Areas (pNHA). Habitat and species inventory work by NPWS is on-going, and indicates that there are significant numbers of sites for habitats and species which are not covered by formal conservation designations currently. These include:

  1. sites which are of conservation importance and may merit a conservation designation under EU or national legislation

  1. sites which support non-significant examples/populations of Annex listed water dependent habitats and species, which may not merit a conservation designation under EU legislation, but which may merit a designation under national legislation, or may be important locally as stepping stones/reservoirs for biodiversity5

  1. sites which may have lost much of their conservation value (through arterial drainage schemes in the past, for example), some of which may still be locally important as stepping stones/reservoirs for biodiversity. Specific examples include areas affected by the arterial drainage of the Clare River in Co. Galway, and in karst areas of the Moy catchment in Mayo.

At present, NPWS does not have sufficient information to distinguish between these three categories for all water dependent habitats and species. In the context of the Water Framework Directive, the occurrence of water dependent habitats and species (including within designated sites, in sites meriting designation, in the wider countryside, and in sites which may have lost much of their conservation value) is relevant to risk assessment, status classification, and also to programmes of measures. Sites that have lost much of their conservation value, for example some of the turloughs affected by the arterial drainage of the Clare River in Co. Galway, may now be in intensive agricultural use or subject to un-sewered pressures from housing. Activities within the surface/ground water catchments of these sites will have a direct impact on ground water status.

2.2.2. Conservation status assessment and reporting.

The Habitats Directive includes a requirement on Member States to report on the implementation of measures taken under the Directive:
Article 17 section 1 of the Habitats Directive6 states

Every six years from the date of expiry of the period laid down in Article 23, Member States shall draw up a report on the implementation of the measures taken under this Directive. This report shall include in particular information concerning the conservation measures referred to in Article 6 (1) as well as evaluation of the impact of those measures on the conservation status of the natural habitat types of Annex I and the species in Annex II and the main results of the surveillance referred to in Article 11. The report, in accordance with the format established by the committee, shall be forwarded to the Commission and made accessible to the public.”

The first Article 17 reporting on the conservation status of habitats and species for the period 2000 to 2006 was completed by NPWS in 2008; a summary report, and details of the findings for individual habitats and species, are available on the website Article 17 reporting covers the entire national range of a habitat of species, and includes areas outside the SAC and other conservation site designation network as well as those within it.
With regard to Annex 1 habitats, Article 17 reports on five categories:

The reporting procedure7 provides for four possible outcomes in each reporting category :

Conservation Status




Unfavourable - Inadequate


Unfavourable - Bad


Unkown: where there are insufficient data to support a conclusion on status


For the structure and functions (condition) of a habitat to be classed as favourable, the habitat must be in good condition, with no significant deterioration in habitat quality, and no significant pressures currently threatening the habitat. An Unfavourable – Bad classification arises if more than 25% of the overall national area of the habitat is at unfavourable status. An unfavourable-inadequate assessment arises in situations intermediate between favourable and unfavourable-bad. The overall assessment of conservation status is based on the outcome of the assessments in the categories range, area, structure and functions (condition), and future prospects. An Unfavourable – Bad overall assessment is made where one or more of the first four categories have been given an Unfavourable – Bad assessment.

Species reporting considers the range of occurrence, the population of the species including reproductive success and survival/recruitment of juveniles into the adult population, the condition of the habitat of the species, current pressures and future threats, and the future prospects for the species, as the basis for the overall conservation status assessment.
The details of the Article 17 assessments are available on the NPWS website, including the reporting form, the backing document with detailed information, and a map showing the range and distribution for each Annex listed habitats and species in Ireland on a 10km square basis:
The outcome of the conservation status assessments for water dependent habitats and species are referred to in Section 3 of this report. The next Article 17 reporting is due in 2013; work on individual habitats and species by NPWS is on-going.

2.2.3. SAC designated sites.

There are currently 423 SAC site areas in Ireland, 412 of which have been formally adopted by the European Commission and are listed in Commission decision 2008/23/EC8. A further 11 SACs have been transmitted to, but not yet formally adopted by, the European Commission. The designation process occurs over several stages:

  • A Member State proposes a site as eligible for designation, and the site is advertised nationally and locally as a proposed candidate SAC as part of a consultation process

  • A map and Natura 2000 data form relating to the site is transmitted to the EU Commission via formal diplomatic channels

  • The EU Commission adopts the site as a confirmed Site of Community

Importance (SCI)

  • The Member State formally designates the site as an SAC

The SAC_Water_Dependency database accompanying this guidance includes two SAC fields: the sites listed in the SAC field have been adopted by the EU Commission, and the sites listed in the pSAC field have been transmitted, but not yet adopted by the EU Commission. Please note that the SAC_Water_Dependency database does not include the four off-shore cold-water coral SACs, which lie outside the RBD areas.

Further SAC sites are likely to be identified and notified as proposed candidate SACs, particularly in the marine area, and as modifications to pre-existing SACs.
The legal requirements under the Habitats Directive for conservation and appropriate management apply to all SAC sites from the date of their first notification as a proposed candidate SAC site.

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