Climate change threatens the species and habitats we value in Ireland and the services these provide. Wind energy, as part of a sustainable energy mix in Ireland, can help to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and so reduce our climate impact. However, we also have obligations under European Law to ensure that the expansion of this relatively new energy (including actual turbines and associated infrastructure) does not impact on our protected habitats and species. Legal action has already been taken against Ireland for failing to adequately protect wild birds and the habitats they rely on, which led to the production of the Group Species Actions Plans by BirdWatch Ireland in 2011. A key recommendation of these reports was a necessity for better land-use planning using spatial tools. This recommendation, in line with similar initiatives worldwide, has resulted in the development and roll out of the Bird Sensitivity Mapping for Wind Energy Development project.
This project aimed to give a measured spatial indication of where protected birds are likely to be sensitive to wind energy developments. By assessing the characteristics of a selected number of most-sensitive bird species, a simple mapping tool has been developed as a pre-planning tool for industry, government and conservation practitioners.
The potential impact of wind energy developments on protected bird populations is not simply limited to collision with turbines, as some might assume. Many studies have shown that loss of habitat, disturbance of birds and obstructing movements (i.e. barrier effects) can have just as great an impact on bird conservation. However, these latter effects are much harder to measure and so expert opinion on a number of risk factors was required. For this, an expert group was compiled to give opinion built up over years of experience. For the 22 most sensitive species, expert opinion was combined with available data on 'risk' to give a "species sensitive score" for these species. Then, using trusted distribution data for each species, a combined picture of bird sensitivity to wind energy could be developed for mainland Republic of Ireland. This map, at a 1-km2 resolution for mainland Republic of Ireland, uses a graduated colour scheme based on species sensitivity and species richness (see above). This has been integrated onto an online map viewer hosted by the National Biodiversity Data Centre website and will soon also be available on the Heritage Viewer and MyPlan.ie. This is accompanied by introductory information on individual species' ecology and characteristics which increase their sensitivity to wind energy, and a full Guidance Document outlining the project justification, details on the mapping process and detailed species-level literature reviews.
This project has been presented to 90% of Local Authority planning and Heritage departments, yielding extremely positive feedback on its conception, design and use. The tool and its associated guidance material are publicly accessible on the BirdWatch Ireland website and are integrated onto the majority of Local Authority planning maps.
At every stage of the project's development there has been a strong emphasis on stakeholder engagement. A total of 25 participants from the energy sector and government departments and agencies have contributed to the development of appropriate guidance, format and in targeting user groups. Additionally, the opinions of 15 scientific experts on species attributes and vulnerabilities were obtained, while the roll out of the mapping tool and guidance has involved local authority, NPWS and consultant professionals. From early scoping, case study trials and final map composition to the mobilisation of the tool with end-users, the support of the energy sector and these end-users has been an important objective.
Possible next steps for this work are numerous and diverse. For example, with the massive potential for offshore renewable energy in Irish waters and an increasingly integrated European energy grid, any potential impact on seabirds from offshore and marine renewable energy installations (OMREIs) requires accurate mapping to ensure better planning. Additionally, as new or more information on vulnerable bird species becomes available there will be a need to update and improve the mapping tool and guidance. Further, economic development in Ireland could benefit from more directed sensitivity maps (e.g. roads). All of these next steps will rely on good data and adequate funding.