The area identified as suitable for this project is Ards Forest Park. Ards Forest Park, which covers 480 hectares, is a major entertainment venue in Donegal. It has a car park, restrooms, picnic areas, and several walking trails, some of which traverse the marsh and dunes. The 2130* Fixed Dunes at Ards are part of a larger complex of dunes in the Sheephaven Bay SAC. The area of 2130* fixed dunes is 12,074 ha, which represents 4.68% of the 2130* fixed dune habitat in the ZEC, and 0.15% of 2130* fixed dunes at the national level. The location is notable for the combination of habitats in close proximity to each other. Pioneer dunes, fixed dune grasslands, salt marshes, heaths, and native woodlands and rock outcrops are mosaicked together, providing a variety of wildlife resources. The park comprises 134 hectares of ancient forest, visible on maps generated during the first artillery survey of the 1830s. However, much of the native forest is heavily modified by plantations in the 19th and 20th centuries, as the area it was part of the former state property at Ards. Invasive species such as rhododendron and laurel are also a problem in some areas. The current state property has a mixture of exotic coniferous species such as Pinus nigra, Picea sitchensis, Tsuga heterophylla, Abies grandis, Abies procera, Lawson cypress and broadleaf species such as oak, ash, beech, sycamore, alder, birch, hazel. Parts of the remaining native forest represent an unusual coastal variety of sessile oak forest type 91A0. This project proposes to target Pinus contorta and Pinus nigra planted along the northern edge of the sand dunes in 1933 and 1957, where it is found alongside Picea sitchensis, and a mix of hardwoods including oak, ash, sycamore, birch and hazel. Pines have been planted in the sandy soils near the dunes and are often quite open with some native vegetation surviving below the canopy. The natural regeneration of conifers occurs through the dunes and it is necessary to eliminate them.
The condition of dune habitats was last assessed for the Directive 92/43/EEC article 17 report in 2007. At that time, habitats 1210 and 2110 were identified on the site, each occupying a small area (0.005 ha and 0.108 ha, respectively). Two habitats of interest were also recorded: 2,120 (0.479) ha and 2,130* (12,074 ha). Approximately 2ha of 2130* were estimated to be affected by coniferous planting, and regeneration of invasive trees was observed in other parts of the same habitat. These dune formations are senescent and species-poor, so the habitat was assessed as unfavourable-unsuitable.
Several underlying factors are responsible for the poor condition of the dunes in the ZEC. The conifer plantation is a source of non-native woody species that threaten the herbaceous vegetation of the fixed dunes. The lack of management to maintain the herbaceous vegetation cover has had a negative impact on the structure and composition of the herbaceous stratum. Given the complexity associated with managing a site for conservation and recreation, while reducing the impact of forestry, a well-planned approach is required that takes into account the wide range of impacts and potential solutions. This project will provide a framework within which NPWS and COILLTE can work together with local stakeholders to develop solutions that deliver better conservation outcomes for the 2130* fixed dunes. The relationships built throughout the project will be beneficial to the long-term management of the site and will strengthen the development of the AfterLIFE works.