In a recent report, An Chomhairle Oidhreactha/The Heritage Council of the Republic of Ireland (RoI) issued a series of proposals for protecting the Irish landscape, in all its forms.  The proposals are grounded in and build on the European Landscape (Florence) Convention, which was published in 2000 and came into force in the RoI on 1 March 2004. The proposals also attempt to give substance to the government’s commitment, in its current Programme for Government, to develop a National Landscape Strategy (NLS).   That commitment remains more an aspiration than a reality.  “Ireland is one of the few European countries with no specific legislation for its national parks, or enabling legislation for the active management and conservation of other protected landscapes.”  For example, the government published a draft guideline on Landscape Assessment in 2000, and that draft remains untouched.  A modest beginning can be found in the Irish Planning and Development Amendment Act 2010 which, for the first time, provides that “’landscape’ has the same meaning as it has in Article 1 of the European Landscape Convention done at Florence on 20 October 2000” and requires that impacts on landscape be considered in the planning process.

The term “landscape” comes from the Dutch and means “condition of the land” (land plus the suffix ‘-scap’, or condition). An assessment of landscape, including watercourses, addresses the uses and forms of land whereas biodiversity (or its older form, “nature”) focuses on the living organisms and systems existing on the land and in water.  These are somewhat artificial distinctions but they are useful in separating out what one group is most concerned with as opposed to others.

Earlier forms of landscape protection concentrated on setting aside tracts of land, both large and small, to conserve in an undeveloped state, or protect from further development.  More recent efforts, reflected in the European Landscape Convention, see landscape in its relation to how people use the land and how they perceive and value landscape.  The aim of the Convention is to support “sustainable development based on a harmonious relationship between social needs, economic activity and environmental conservation,” an aim shared with biodiversity, smart growth and other efforts to protect our natural resources against exploitation for private gain. The Convention defines landscape as “an area as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and /or human factors.”  The scope of the Convention is broad as it applies to “natural, rural, urban and peri-urban areas, encompassing land, inland water and marine areas.”

The report explains and explores recent ideas that are informing how we address landscape protection including biodiversity, Green Infrastructure, connectivity and multifunctionality, and Landscape Character Assessment.  See explanations of  “Biodiversity”, “Green Infrastructure”, and “Landscape Character Assessment” in the iePEDIA section of irish environment.

Some statistics suggest how we are using this landscape.  As of 2006 there are 4.2 million people living in the RoI, which is a 16.9% increase since 1996.  Over 60% of the land is used for agricultural activities and 10% for forestry.  At the same time, about 60% of the population reside in urban areas (cities, towns and villages), many living in one urban area and commuting by car to another, creating one of the worst examples of urban sprawl in Europe.  A different 60% live less than 10km from the coast.  Finally, in 2006, over 56,000 one-off rural houses were built on this landscape.  See “One-Off Housing” in the iePEDIA section and the Interview with Ian Lumley of An Taisce in the Podcast section of irish environment.

The language in the report is often abstract and it is sometimes not easy to get a concrete sense of what the aspirations look like in real time and space, but there are a number of case studies that provide some solid concrete realities. Most of the case studies (Slovenia, England, Scotland, Wales, Sweden) describe how considerations of landscape can be or have been incorporated into governmental laws and regulations, e.g., planning, development, environmental assessments.  One particular case study clearly caught the attention of the Heritage Council.  In 2005, the Catalonia region of Spain established a Landscape Observatory, an advisory body for landscape management that functions as a think tank and centre of action. It involves local authorities, universities, professional groups and members of society in developing policies and providing public education on landscape management. To date it has catalogued the landscapes of the region describing the types of landscape in the region, identifying their values and current condition, and proposing ways to protect them.  The Observatory has also carried out professional and public awareness campaigns, created a website, published articles and books on its work, and worked on a Landscape Museum.  The Observatory is particularly interesting because it is a much more proactive, on-the-ground approach while the other case studies rely more on preliminary passive paper approaches.

In addition to these case studies from other countries, the report provides summaries of activities within the RoI where the Heritage Council is working to implement provisions and aims of the Landscape Convention including: a study of the law on defining architectural setting, or curtilage; the Village Design Programme, a way of enhancing, celebrating and managing the local character and distinctiveness of a village; a Bere Island Conservation Programme, initiated by the local community; the Heritage in Schools programme; a training programme in Landscape Character Assessment; Historic Landscape Characterisation; habitat mapping; High Nature Value farming; and other projects.

Finally, the Heritage Council report discusses several themes that emerge from the work being undertaken in landscape protection and that serve as the basis for the specific actions recommended by the Council.  A fundamental principle is that landscape protection requires “an integrated approach to landscape planning and management across all areas of government policy formulation and implementation, i.e. across sectors such as spatial planning, cultural, environmental, agriculture, social and economic policies.”  The same applies of course to biodiversity, sustainable development and environmental protections in general.

Equally important is effective and meaningful public participation.  If local communities are engaged from the beginning in understanding, identifying and protecting landscapes, they can counter the influence of private vested interests and we might well avoid the kinds of disastrous unsustainable developments that clutter the Irish landscape.  See Robert Emmet Hernan, “Local Citizen Participation in the Irish Planning Process” in the current Articles section of irish environment. The report notes that engaging the farming community is challenging for a number of reasons, including the fact that land ownership in Ireland is dominated by small private farms.  In 1844, 419,500 farms had one acre or more; in 2007, only 128,200 farms were over one hectare (2.4 acres) and in 2000 only 17% of farms were larger than 50 hectares.  Building consensus and participation in small-holdings farming communities requires a lot of resources.

Related to the last issue is the need to develop and expand literacy in landscape through education, training and awareness, and the need to stress landscape protections in planning and development actions, including any tax incentives and disposition of land assets under the control of the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA).

Physical access to landscapes remains important as does access to information about landscapes.  Visitors to the island cite the character or beauty of the Irish landscape as a most important reason for visiting. In a recent survey by Frommer’s travel guides, Ireland was voted as the top tourist destination for 2011, with visitors commenting on the “rugged beauty”, “lush landscapes”, and lovely scenery.  Visitors spent three times as much on hiking and hill walking as on golfing in Ireland.  Using the landscape also contributes to our health.  

To improve access to information, the Council suggests that the data-gathering function of the National Biodiversity Data Centre could be expanded to include data focused specifically on landscapes.  The Council also argues that designation of specific areas for conservation or protection are important but insufficient steps that need to be followed by actions, and resources, to manage such sites over the long term.

As promised by the title, the report ends with a set of proposals to advance efforts to understand and protect landscapes, and to implement the Convention, namely:

1.    Establishing a Landscape Observatory of Ireland (LOI) as a champion of the landscape to promote a ‘whole landscape approach’ in all sectoral land-use policies.  The Heritage Council offers to assume this role on behalf of the government, in part to avoid the need to create another agency.

2.    Introducing a Landscape Ireland Act, to facilitate collaborative and integrative approaches to landscape management and conservation and to provide a legislative basis for Ireland’s National Parks and other designations.  The former purpose requires further concrete explanation.

3. Landscape-proofing existing primary legislation, governmental programmes and policies.

4.    Promoting a vibrant research and learning culture on landscape.

5.   Increasing public participation, accessibility and the use of local                   knowledge in landscape management.

The consequences from climate change have upped the ante for protecting our landscape, as those changes will have significant impacts on the land and watercourses and the way we use our landscape.  The Heritage Council has provided a valuable assessment of what we can do collectively and legislatively to protect the landscapes of Ireland.


An Chomhairle Oidhreactha/The Heritage Council, Proposals for Ireland’s Landscapes 2010

Renewed Programme for Government, 10th October 2009.

EEA Report, No. 10/2006, Urban Sprawl in Europe – The Ignored Challenge

See, “Natural Wealth Accounts” and “Landscape Character Assessment” entries in the iePEDIA section of irish environment

See, “Biodiversity and Planning: Developing Connectivity for Sustainability: Irish Biodiversity Forum and Northern Ireland Biodiversity Group”, in the Reports section of irish environment

See, Seamus Burns, “Futurescapes: a vision for large landscape-scale conservation in Northern Ireland” and Robert Emmet Hernan, “Local Citizen Participation in the Irish Planning Process,” in the Articles section of irish environment

See the interviews in the Podcast section of irish environment with Frank McDonald, Environment Editor, The Irish Times; Ian Lumley, Heritage Officer, An Taisce The National Trust for Ireland; and Gerry Crilly, National Council, An Taisce (current issue).

“Travel guide votes Ireland top destination for 2011,” The Irish Times, 29 December 2010.

Michael Viney, “Defending the texture that gives a place its character,” The Irish Times, 18 December 2010.

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