The objective of this designation is the protection of natural habitats of EU importance.
SACs gained legal backing under the European Communities (Natural Habitats) Regulations, 1997 (s.i.No.94 of 1997). EU Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild flora and fauna also known as the Habitats Directive.
The main aim of the Habitats Directive is to conserve the best examples of natural and semi natural habitats and species of flora and fauna throughout the EU. Each member state is required to designate Special Areas of Conservation to protect those habitats and species which are listed in the annexes of the Directive.
Irelands SACs became part of the NATURA 2000 network of European wide protected sites as each SAC must be given sufficient protection so as to conserve adequately the listed habitats and / or species. A number of priority habitats are listed which deserve special attention and EU funds can be used to assist in their conservation. Stricter protection is given in the Directive to SACs which have priority habitats and species.
Article 4.1 of the Directive (92/43/EEC) requires that member states employ criteria set out in Annex III to make a selection of sites for each Annex I habitat type and Annex II species that occurs naturally within their territory.
(A) Site Assessment Criteria for a Natural Habitat in Annex I:
Degree of representation of the natural habitat type.
- Area of the site covered by the natural habitat type in relation to the total area covered by that natural habitat type within the national territory.
- Degree of conservation of the structure and functions of the natural habitat type concerned and restoration possibilities.
- Global assessment of the value of the site for conservation of the natural habitat type concerned.
(B) Site Assessment Criteria for a given Species in Annex II:
- Size and density of the population of the species present on the site in relation to the populations present within national territory.
- Degree of conservation of the features of the habitat which are important for the species concerned and restoration possibilities.
- Degree of isolation of the population present on the site in relation to the natural range of the species.
- Global assessment of the value of the site for conservation of the species concerned.
On the basis of these criteria member states will classify the sites which they propose on the national list as areas eligible for identification as sites of community importance according to their relative value for the conservation of each natural habitat type in Annex I or each species in Annex II. The list will show the sites containing the priority natural habitat types and priority species selected by the member states on the basis of the criteria in A and B above.
Assessment of the community importance of the sites included on the national lists:
- All the sites identified by the member states in Stage 1 which contain priority natural habitat type and / or species will be considered as sites of community importance.
- The assessment of the community importance of other sites on member states’ lists, i.e. their contribution to maintaining or re-establishing, at a favourable conservation status, a natural habitat in Annex I or a species in Annex II and / or to the coherence of Natura 2000 will take account of the following criteria:
- • Relative value of the site at national level.
- Geographical situation of the site in relation to migration routes of species in Annex II and whether it belongs to a continuous ecosystem situated on both sides of one or more internal community frontiers.
- • The total area of the site.
- Number of natural habitat types in Annex I and species in Annex II present on the site.
- Global ecological value of the site for the biogeoraphical regions concerned and / or for the whole of the territory refereed to in Article 2, as regards both the characteristic of unique aspect of its features and the way they are combined.
(Taken from Annex III of the Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 may 1992, ‘On the conservation of natural habitats and of wild flora and fauna’, European Commission Representation Office, Dublin).
By 1997 400 candidate sites (comprising approx. 551,000 ha.) had been listed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht. The list of Candidate sites drawn up by the responsible authorities is required to be sent to the European Commission, which has the power to adopt or reject a site as an SAC, based on scientific evidence. The Habitats Directive also contains an extensive list of “Animal and plant species of community interest in need of strict protection”.
Legal provisions for conservation in SACs include the following:
- Permission for damaging developments in non priority habitats may only be given for imperative reasons of overriding public interest.
- Permission for damaging developments in priority habitats (e.g. active blanket and raised bogs, sand dunes, limestone pavements, tourloughs etc) may only be given for overriding health and safety reasons.
- There must be assessment of developments not connected with, or which take place outside a SAC, but which might have a significant impact on it.
- Sites damaged illegally must be restored.
- Local authorities must assess developments prior to making decisions on planning applications.
- Landowners must be notified of designations.
- Landowners may be compensated for proven loss of income arising from designation.
- Management agreements may be made with landowners.
Management plans should be prepared, either for specific sites or integrated into development plans.