The Irish landscape: a mosaic of natural, semi-natural and built habitats - mapping these fragments (extent and condition) is a fundamental element of natural capital accounting
INCASE project ecologist DR CATHERINE FARRELL reports on the work done so far in taking the basic information sets available for the different natural systems in Ireland and building the picture around their extent and conditions. The next steps for INCASE are set out here...
It’s been a busy year. Last June - fresh as a newly sprung daisy - I sauntered through the front gates of Trinity College Dublin, ready to take on the brave new world of natural capital accounting as part of the INCASE project team. Flash forward almost 12 months and those revered Trinity gates are closed as the global human community finds itself immersed in a pandemic.
Life goes on though and thankfully we have been working away on the INCASE project to bring forth a first draft (otherwise known as an organised mess) of our extent and condition accounts in time and on track for the autumn of 2020.
Once the lockdown began in March, what was one to do but take advantage of a diary emptied of meetings and conferences and set about building the basic blocks for our accounts?
First step – review what’s out there that we can use. Luckily for us, there has been an extensive amount of groundwork done across Europe under the EU Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystem Services projects (EU MAES). The MAES team has done the heavy lifting around what is available at the EU level to establish extent and condition accounts. But what is available at EU level isn’t sufficient for what we need at the local Irish level, and the typology used is different to what we use here. The EU MAES project developed a high-level map of ecosystem types and extent of those types. The types follow the Corine Land Cover mapping classes - which is fine if you live in space and you just want to know where solid ground is so you can land your spaceship (avoid the bogs!). But if you are on the ground in Ireland, you need to get into the finer detail of what makes up the terrestrial systems of grassland, croplands, forests and woodlands and built / urban, as well as the freshwater (wetlands, peatlands, rivers and lakes), and marine systems; and then what lies beneath (geosystem) and above (atmospheric systems). That’s a lot of systems and a lot of detail.
So, we have been building the basic information sets around what is available for the different natural systems in Ireland. With the help of our friends and colleagues in the NPWS, DAFM (Forest Service), Government Departments, Research Institutes, BIM and Geological Survey Ireland, we have a clearer picture of how we can map different units as well as the main drivers (policy instruments such as agricultural and forestry targets), pressures (think population growth, land conversion, climate change) and their resulting condition (state – think polluted water course versus crystal clear stream) .
Let’s focus on freshwater ecosystems for a moment – this ecosystem type includes rivers, lakes, swamp, peatlands, wet heathlands, turloughs and a few other bits. Each of these unique natural systems has evolved and developed in the context of the time, landscape, geology, hydrology and climate. Each has specific characteristics, and each has been ‘used’ or ‘modified’ by humans for a specific purpose, and therefore affected in a myriad of different ways. The drivers of change, the resultant pressures, and how those pressures manifest the impacts and resultant present-day state (condition) are complex stories to say the least.
So where are we at? With the help of our new GIS analyst and data manager, Lisa Coleman, we are gathering and building the stories for extent and condition. Of course, while developing extent and condition, we will continue to work on the services in the background but it's important to get the foundations right!
Here’s what we will (hope to) do over the next few months (pandemic permitting!):
For the extent accounts:
Starting with the sub-basins of the Dargle catchment in County Wicklow, INCASE will test the EnSym model using the available datasets to establish extent (cover) of grassland, cropland, peatland, heathland, woodland, forest, built and freshwater habitats, as well as coastal and marine (where feasible) habitats; and geological assets.
INCASE will use nationally available datasets (including the new OSI/EPA Landcover which is due for completion any day now!) to establish this ‘first cut’ of the extent maps.
INCASE will use the NPWS MAES HAR 2016 as a reference / baseline as well as accessing those datasets already processed in 2016 for ease of use by INCASE.
The final topology for the different natural systems will be developed over the course of the extent mapping. Note: Fossitt 2000 is widely used in Ireland but is being gradually superseded by the newly developed IVC classification. It is unlikely INCASE will be able to map to Fossitt Level 3 or the IVC comparable levels of detail and some ground-truthing will be required.
And then condition…
Condition indicators will be selected from existing data sources that reflect the ‘functional’ aspects of each natural system.
Diversity is obviously a key indicator of resilience; INCASE will use NPWS habitat and species extent data where available, as well as condition (Article 17 reporting) and National Biodiversity Data Centre data.
The SEEA-EEA recommends the use of 6-10 condition indicators, however we will begin with what is available and reliable during the course of the project.
Examples of condition indicators will include drainage (peatland), vegetation cover and/or erosion (peatland and heathland), canopy cover and species composition (woodland and forest), management (grassland and cropland), water quality (freshwater) and green and blue infrastructure (built systems). Proxies for condition will also be used and these will include pressure, land use and management.
These condition indicators will be used as baseline to establish the condition of the different natural systems (good or bad – Note: this is INCASE working terminology!) as well as data gaps and needs for further reporting.
Highly managed systems (referred to as Intensive Land-Use systems / Artificial systems) in IUCN GET) such as cropland, forest, intensive grassland and built systems will be treated in a different way as these are artificially modified to deliver food, fibre, timber, fodder, fish, living space etc. For these ‘less natural’ systems, which are managed for their capacity to deliver commercially valuable goods and services, condition indicators will be explored to reflect whether these services are delivered in a sustainable way; that is without damaging other natural systems and their functional characteristics and /or their capacity to deliver ecosystem services.
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