Another Life: Corncrakes, ponds and EU funding

Biodiversity across the State benefits hugely from investments by Europe

At the foot of the hillside, beyond the last fence, a wide lawn of wind-blown, shell-sandy grass the size of a football field spreads between the dunes and a big freshwater lagoon. To locals, this is the duach, but geographers see it as machair, a landform unique in Europe and shared between northwest Ireland and Scotland’s Outer Hebrides (“machair” is the Irish for “plain”).

The Dooaghtry machair below us is the most extensive example in Ireland, wrapped around a headland below Mweelrea mountain. It has not been fertilised, fenced or built on, or used as a caravan park, golf links, football pitch or airstrip, as in the history of machair meadows in Co Donegal and elsewhere.

All the Irish sites have suffered heavy overgrazing, first documented in the 1980s. But Dooaghtry, known to science for rare miniatures among snails and plants, now shares in a new drive to give machair back its lost nesting birds, such as lapwing and dunlin, and more wildflowers for pollinating insects.

The initiative is from the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), with funding from the EU Life environmental programme. It targets 3,500 hectares of machair at more than at a dozen sites from Slyne Head in Connemara to Gweedore Bay in Donegal and including the Inishkea Islands off Co Mayo.


A results-based programme will have farmers adjusting their grazing levels, improving vegetation and controlling predators on nesting waders to maintain at least 250 pairs. Community workshops will develop projects for eco-friendly tourism and recreation, with the lure of €80,000 grants.

The scheme has a total budget of some €7.4 million, with an EU contribution of about €5.5 million. This adds to some €60 million from EU Life already invested in Irish environmental projects, mostly in the landscapes of the Wild Atlantic Way .

Blanket bog

There’s a new €5.9 million over five years to improve corncrake numbers on coastal farmland of the northwest. EU Life’s €12 million share in the nine-year €20 million “Wild Atlantic Nature” project will help protect and restore blanket bog at Natura conservation sites along the Atlantic seaboard.

In mountain valleys of Mayo and Kerry, Life has fostered schemes to conserve the river catchments of the endangered freshwater pearl mussel. In Co Galway, it awarded almost €2 million to help conserve the limestone habitats of the three Aran Islands. In Co Clare, it funded development of the great Burren programme of farming for conservation and later named it the best-ever project for nature and conservation in EU Life’s history.

That history now spans 30 years, to be celebrated next month. An alliance of 15 European life science research centres based in Barcelona, EU Life’s goals have been split between environment, climate action and fostering a circular economy. It has co-financed thousands of projects, with grants up to 95 per cent, and its budget was recently boosted by 60 per cent by the EU Commission to €5.4 billion.

Two recent Irish awards are aimed at improving freshwater life. An Taisce, an NGO supporting the EU”s new Green Deal, is creating up to 10 ponds across Ireland and promoting their value as “biodiversity refugia” in schools and local communities. Along with lobbying for organic agriculture, it will spend almost €500,000 on its “Legacy4Life” project, including some €300,000 of a grant.

Best rivers

On a different scale, the NPWS is tackling the degradation of Ireland’s best rivers. With an EU Life award of almost half the €20 million budget, its “Waters of Life” project is developing restoration of rivers that should host the highest biodiversity. This means developing measures to govern land use in their catchments.

With some €500 million to spend, EU Life’s next call for proposals will be launched on May 17th, with deadlines in autumn for the actual submissions made online. These can come from government agencies such as the NPWS, local authorities, universities, companies or community groups. The awards are typically from €1 million to €5 million for projects lasting three to five years.

The new Life programme has four sub-programmes (this is the EU, after all). There’s still strong emphasis on nature and biodiversity and management of Natura conservation sites; other aims cover climate action, energy and a circular economy, managed in a unit called CINEA.

Were it not for the millions from EU Life, Ireland’s nature conservation record would be a lot worse. The National Parks and Wildlife Service chose the Natura conservation sites but lacked resources to manage them. Now, the best will be much more secure, nourished by the schemes for the greening of the Wild Atlantic Way.