Integrated and efficient electricity
30th October 2014
Renewable electricity is not enough
30th October 2014

Mapping bird sensitivity

thumb-large-31 Shane McGuinness, from BirdWatch Ireland’s policy and advocacy team, explains how its new project will help developers to cater for the environment.

Rising global carbon emissions is the challenge of our time – an issue requiring global decisions leading to local actions. In Ireland, one method of substantially reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is the increasing exploitation of renewable energy sources, such as wave, solar and wind energies.

Whilst being much cleaner and greener than conventional fossil fuel power and helping us meet our EU 2020 emissions targets (and mitigate future fines), the adoption of wind energy in particular can often be at odds with the conservation of our natural heritage. Birds, with a suite of impressive airborne hunting behaviours or long distance migrations, are perhaps most at risk of negative impacts from wind energy infrastructure.

To help reduce this conflict, BirdWatch Ireland has spent the past two years developing a bird sensitivity map for wind energy developments, aiming to collate and map distributional data on 22 key species of birds potentially affected by land-based wind energy installations. Importantly, the output of this map does not delineate no-go zones for wind development, nor does it indicate those areas where no birds occur at all.

What this tool does offer is simple: a pre-planning screening tool for use in the early stages of development planning, avoiding damage to irreplaceable biodiversity and, importantly, reducing the chances of costly objections at later stages in a development or outright rejection of planning on the grounds of statutory environmental assessments. Significantly, this project has involved a wide suite of wind energy stakeholders, from landowners, wind energy developers and conservation scientists to representatives from extractive industry and government bodies.

Each species – ranging from the charismatic wintering whooper swan to the lesser known and elusive rare breeder, the red-throated diver – was assessed based on several key criteria, including international protection status, habitat sensitivity and specific sensitivity to wind energy. Though many would assume that collision with wind turbines is the predominant threat, for most species of bird it is much more subtle disturbances to breeding birds, roost sites and migration routes which often have greater effects on endangered bird populations. Thus, through a robust scoring system (involving internal experts and independent external arbiters) and mapping process, each 1km square of mainland Republic of Ireland has been given a species sensitivity score, indicating which species are present and, most importantly, how sensitive those species are to wind energy development.

This map will soon exist in several publicly available formats: a standalone PDF map, a digital shapefile (for use with digital mapping software) and an interactive web-based map viewer. In addition, this project provides an in-depth guidance document, giving extensive background information on each of the 22 species and the mapping process. The final phase of this project will involve mobilisation of this important tool with local authority offices, wind energy developers and the scientific community.

So, with a simple click and drag, stakeholders in wind development can better plan future development towards reducing Ireland’s national carbon footprint, without impinging on our island’s valuable birdlife.

BirdWatch Ireland is the largest independent conservation organisation in Ireland. The map, in its varied formats, will be available soon from and from local authorities.

This project was kindly supported by the NTR Foundation, Bórd na Móna, the Irish Environmental Network, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Irish Wind Energy Association, EirGrid, ESB Networks, the RSPB, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.