The objective of this designation is the conservation of plants, animals and wildlife habitats of Irish importance.
First entered into European Law under the 1976 Wildlife Act, transposed into Irish law with the 1997 Natural Habitats Regulations (S.I. No. 94 of 1997), gaining full statutory backing in Ireland with the passing of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000.
Natural Heritage Areas are deemed to be of special interest containing important wildlife habitat and often contain rare or threatened species. They may also be selected on the basis of their geology or geomorphology. Examples of natural heritage areas across the country include sand dunes systems, blanket bogs and wetlands.
Duchas (National Parks and Wildlife Division) and the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht were the responsible authorities for NHA designation and site management. Habitats which exist in a relatively natural state were given a higher rating than habitats which have been modified by human activity (mainly agriculture).
1997 figures showed that Ireland had over 1,250 NHA sites (covering 700,000 ha. Approx.), 80% of which where designated under the previously used Area of Scientific Interest designation. The ASI designation was used to identify not designate, natural areas as a guide for planning authorities.
An early problem for the NHA designation program was that despite government and EU policy to only grant aid developments in these areas that are compatible with protecting the environment concern was expressed that some proposed NHAs may have already been affected by damaging activities.