The Mullaghareirk Mountains, West Limerick Hills and Mount Eagle, and the Blackwater River, Natura 2000 network sites in south-west Ireland are important for numerous species, including hen harrier (Circus cyaneus), merlin (Falco columbarius), Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), brook lamprey (Lampetra planeri), freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera) and European otter (Lutra lutra). The conservation status of these species has declined due to habitat degradation and loss. Hen harriers have declined by an average of 18.1% across designated Natura 2000 sites and a 2012 survey confirmed the loss of breeding hen harriers from 80% of territories that were occupied between 2008 and 2011. The fish species have also greatly declined due to increased nutrient enrichment, channel degradation, siltation and the impact of invasive species. There is a clear need to reverse these declines, and to improve the conservation status of habitats and species.
The RAPTOR LIFE project aimed to restore habitats and improve conservation status for fish and birds, in particular the four main project target species of hen harrier, merlin, Atlantic salmon and brook lamprey, in the Mullaghareirk Mountains, West Limerick Hills and Mount Eagle, and the Blackwater River, Natura 2000 network sites. The project aimed to do this through the development and demonstration of best management practices.
The project’s main objectives were to:
- Restore the hen harrier population and enhance habitats for a range of Annex I and Annex II species by restoring habitat across a range of land use types through integrated actions in important Natura 2000 network sites;
- Increase the quantity and quality of habitat for the targeted species by linking three designated sites, through direct local participation, the involvement of local stakeholders and participation in work schemes;
- Develop management prescriptions for an important winter roosting area; and
- Bring together the communities living in Duhallow with wildlife experts to address the conflict between landowners and hen harriers.
The project RAPTOR LIFE carried out a series of conservation actions to restore and enhance habitats for the target species, hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) and merlin (Falco columbarius), as well as several other priority species. Actions focused on managing agricultural land in an SPA in southwest Ireland and the restoration of riparian habitats in the SAC. The project drew up a SPA management plan and an invasive species management plan. Actions included the cutting and mulching of rush and heather, strategic fencing, improvement of hedgerows, removal of invasive species and the provision of nesting sites for raptors.
Although the project actions help enhanced some habitats for the target species, the hen harrier population in the SPA was not restored as foreseen. Raptors still face pressure from large-scale afforestation and the installation of windfarms, but the habitat restoration achieved during the project is nevertheless expected to increase the population of prey species and thus the productivity of the target raptors. The project also focused on connecting sites by directly engaging local stakeholders and landowners in its actions. While such habitat enhancement was on limited scale, measures to improve the riverine habitat, such as the erection of fences and planting, were extensive and are expected to have a greater impact.
Quantifiable results of the project included:
- Fencing and planting on 29 km of riverbank to reduce excessive erosion and siltation within the upper Blackwater SAC;
- Control of Himalayan balsam on 126.2 km, and Japanese knotweed on 29.0 km of riverbank;
- Removal of conifers and rhododendron on 29.6 ha of upland habitat, thus improving nesting and foraging habitat;
- Planting and improvement of 7.2 km of hedgerow, thus improving prey populations; and
- Habitat improvement on six project farms covering 122.6 ha.
Finally, the project helped foster relationships between communities living in Duhallow and wildlife experts to address any areas of conflict. In 2016, the National Parks and Wildlife Service drew up a Hen Harrier Threat Response Plan to address the ongoing decline in the hen harrier population in Ireland.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).