Guest blog by Colum Delaney, RSPB NI Advocacy and Campaigns Officer
The new State of Nature report throws up big challenges for everyone who cares about nature and the protection of our natural environment.
These are challenges which require environmental organisations, government, business and the wider public to work together if we’re to tackle the stark declines in species and habitats that the report reveals. You can read the UK report, and the NI version, here.
We’re seeing evidence that the NI government recognises the need for more joined up thinking, particularly in the Draft Programme for Government (PfG) 2016-21 – the roadmap for the Executive’s next five years in power. However, as always, the proof will be in the ambition, delivery and success of the PfG’s associated ‘action plans’.
Back in July RSPB NI clearly set out our vision for the future during the PfG consultation process.
We called for the protection of our best wildlife sites (both on land and sea) and the sustainable management of our countryside. Another key element of our response included the need to connect more people in Northern Ireland with nature to improve physical and mental well-being.
At the moment our immediate concern is ensuring the new Environmental Farming Scheme to incentivise farmers for protecting biodiversity, which is due to open in February 2017, is adequately funded. Worryingly, funding has not been guaranteed from Westminster as it misses the deadline for the Treasury’s Autumn Statement. This delay means that many farmers have fallen out of previous agri-environment agreements and are no longer able to undertake the same level of wildlife friendly farming.
There is a feeling that ‘Brexit’ changes everything, yet changes nothing. Many of the challenges that nature faces, like climate change, pollution, habitat and species loss, remain issues regardless of Brexit.
However leaving the EU will undoubtedly create uncertainty around environmental legislation and funding. The RSPB is fighting to ensure that whatever environmental legislation may be replaced or unpicked, whatever replaces it is at least as strong.
Recently, there has been a lot of media coverage on the impact of agriculture on nature. Leaving the EU means leaving the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) - which hasn’t delivered for farmers or nature. We now have the opportunity to work in coalition - government, environmental organisations and the farming sector - to create a future for agriculture that produces safe, healthy food, sustains and restores nature, protects natural resources like soil, air and water and also enables farmers to secure a fair return for their produce and supports employment in rural areas, contributing to a diverse rural economy.
While this is undoubtedly a big challenge, we believe these issues can be solved by working together. The State of Nature report is full of inspiring stories which demonstrate that, with the right conservation interventions and partnerships, we can start to turn around many of the declines witnessed in recent decades.
Guest blog by Orlagh McLaughlin
When I got the call to say I was invited to speak on the panel at the UK State of Nature launch in London, alongside the likes of Iolo Williams and Sir David Attenborough, I was in shock! Growing up I was inspired by David Attenborough's wonderful narrative of the natural world and amazed by the excitement of Springwatch. Here was my chance to meet some of my greatest childhood heroes!
Three years have passed since the first State of Nature report, which involved over 50 organisations coming together to report on how nature was doing. At the time I was at university studying a degree in Environmental Biology and this report, along with other research, burst my childhood bubble that nature would always be okay and opened my eyes to the fact nature was in trouble.
The future looked bleak. The species I loved were declining at an alarming rate and I felt like there was nothing I could do. Upset by the fact nature was facing so much darkness, I decided then and there that things needed to change and I couldn't just let this happen.
Although I had volunteered with wildlife organisations before, this report launched the start of my extensive volunteering journey with RSPB NI and other conservation organisations. I joined the RSPB’s Young Campaigners group and found my own way to help nature, through educating children. During my time volunteering I got the opportunity to speak at Stormont, engage with the general public, help out at reserves and was even inspired to write my own children's books to help young people understand nature better. I realised for the first time that there was a light through this darkness and, with hard work, we could turn the situation around for nature.
Three years later the second State of Nature report has been published and I was being given the chance to be the voice of my generation! After meeting Sir David (rendering me momentarily speechless), and in the company of Iolo Williams who kindly took me under his wing, I got the opportunity to hear Sir David speak about the report, followed by the UK Secretary of State for the environment.
The message was clear - nature is still in trouble. A lot of species are experiencing rapid declines but some species are doing well, mainly due to the actions of volunteers and targeted conservation projects. The report reveals that farmland wildlife is facing the most severe declines, with species heavily affected by changes in agriculture land use.
For the debate I was asked to sit on the panel with Iolo Williams on my left and Sue Armstrong-Brown chairing the panel on my right, along with representatives from farming, business and the National Trust. As I looked around at the other members of the panel I noticed I was the only ‘ordinary’ person (ie not well known or famous) and it was such a privilege to be there. The session ran in a similar way to Question Time, with the audience posing questions to members of the panel on how to help nature while protecting farming and business.
To me one of the biggest issues is food waste and the pressure we put on our environment just because we would like a rounder orange or a certain weight of chicken in our supermarkets. The stark reality is that the consumer is you, me and absolutely everyone - and that means everyone needs to act to save nature. We make choices every day that impact our environment - the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the way we travel, our energy use and many more. Simple things that may seem of inconsequence are driving this decline and simple things can reverse it.
The last question in the debate asked everyone on the panel to pinpoint one thing that could reverse wildlife declines. The answer was unanimous. We need a change in attitude and we need to educate the next generation. As a child I loved reading Seamus Heaney's poetry and a line from his poem Digging came to mind. I was given the opportunity to close the debate and my message was this. In Digging Heaney realises that everyone has different talents and he needs to follow a different path. He writes: “Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests, I'll dig with it." We have great leaders like Sir David Attenborough speaking up for the natural world but whether nature bounces back will depend on the actions of ordinary people. We must find our own way to ‘dig’ for nature - whether that be as a politician, a public speaker, a volunteer or simply by taking more care about choices in our daily lives. Nature needs you!
Guest blog by Laura Smith, Portmore Lough warden
At this time of year breeding wader birds, mostly lapwings, have finished nesting in the wet meadows and Portmore’s resident herd of konik ponies have moved on to pastures new – the fen.
‘Konik’ is the Polish word for pony and they are a hardy breed, withstanding all sorts of inclement weather and acting as ‘living lawnmowers’ to munch the ground into the perfect condition for ground-nesting birds.
The fen is the long strip of wetland habitat that lies between the reedbed and the wet grassland. It makes up an important part of the Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) at Portmore Lough.
The restoration of the fen began a few years ago when the land cleared of willow and alder scrub that had overgrown this important habitat. The fen needs to be grazed each year to keep the habitat in good shape - that’s where the ponies come in.
Konik ponies are particularly well adapted for grazing on wetlands, and they like to browse the vegetation, eating lots of different types of plant.
The combination of grazing and trampling the vegetation prevents the fen from becoming rank and overgrown, and encourages a wide variety of different plant species to grow more vigorously.
The fen was well grazed by the ponies last year and as a result, the number of flowering herbaceous plants has really increased this year. The fen is awash with the purples and yellows of loosestrife, blue forget-me-not and the yellow heads of nodding-bur marigold bob in the breeze.
The koniks were moved onto the fen in July and the team here at Portmore kept a careful eye on them. Ponies can become overweight and suffer health problems in the summer months because the vegetation is particularly lush and nutritious. We use a temporary fence across the fen and they graze the area in sections so that we can control how much rich vegetation they have access to and keep an eye on their weight.
This means that every couple of weeks, the team have to move the temporary fence to allow the ponies to graze a new area. The koniks are generally even-tempered animals and are usually easy to work with and move to new ground. There are a few personalities that stand out from the group, and these are firm favourites with staff and volunteers.
By the end of September, the fen will be well grazed down and the ponies will be grazing alongside the boardwalk to the hide before moving back onto their usual territory in the breeding wader meadows, ready for winter grazing of lapwing habitat in preparation for next spring.