You’ve probably never even heard of an ocean quahog but these amazing creatures are just one of the species which will be protected if proposals for new Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in and around Northern Ireland go ahead.
Ocean quahogs are large clams which can live for over 500 years. The population in the proposed Outer Belfast Lough MCZ is around 220 years old, surviving both World Wars and witnessing the launch of the Titanic!
Ocean quahogs live buried in the sediment with only their siphons extended to the surface to filter small pieces of food from the water above. They can be found in water up to 500m deep and are an important food source for cod.
Ocean quahog models (c) RSPB NI
The Department of the Environment is proposing three other local MCZs – in Carlingford Lough, at Waterfoot (off the Antrim coast) and off Rathlin Island.
These places are also home to a wealth of unique wildlife, from threatened birds like black guillemots to beds of seagrass, a flowering, fragile underwater plant which provides a home and nursery grounds for a host of marine wildlife.
Black guillemots. Credit Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
As well as benefitting our environment, Marine Conservation Zones will also boost our economy. As the number of plants and animals increases, a 'spill over' effect from increased life inside the MCZ will help replenish the surrounding marine environment. For commercial species, this is a positive step towards more sustainable fishing. Healthy, undisturbed areas with abundant wildlife will also promote eco-tourism and recreational activities.
A recent report commissioned by the Northern Ireland Marine Taskforce (NIMTF) found that a functional network of marine protected areas in Northern Ireland could be the most valuable in the UK and provide as much as £54.5 million to the local economy.
You can help to make sure our seas are healthy and productive into the future by supporting the creation of these proposed Marine Conservation Zones. Visit www.nimtf.org for details of upcoming information roadshows and to respond to the consultation. You can also join in the conversation on social media using #SeaChangeNI.
There will be no post-Christmas blues in the RSPB Northern Ireland office because we have lots to celebrate in 2016 – our golden anniversary year!
The Ulster Society for the Protection of Birds was formed in 1921 and focused its efforts on bird protection rather than habitat restoration, installing perches for tired migrating birds at Maidens Lighthouse in Larne and appointing watchers on Rathlin Island and Strangford Lough to protect seabirds from poachers.
Some years later, in 1966, the Ulster Society was amalgamated with the RSPB in an attempt to garner more support for bird protection and RSPB NI was born.
Frank Hamilton was appointed as the first Regional Officer, operating from an office in Queen’s University with just one other member of staff.
RSPB NI staff in 1989
With the help of our members and supporters, we’ve come a long way since then! Our workforce now stands at around 330 people (including 280 amazing volunteers) and we own, manage or advise on thousands of hectares of land across Northern Ireland for the benefit of nature.
There are far too many highlights from the past 50 years to cover them all. However, particularly proud moments have included the successful reintroduction of red kites back into Northern Ireland’s skies, the reversal of breeding wader declines in key areas - up 78 per cent between 2011 and 2014 thanks to the Halting Environmental Loss Project - and the return of chough to Rathlin Island.
The success of our educational outreach also deserves a mention – we are now connecting 20,000 young people each year with nature – and major improvements to facilities at nature reserves including Belfast’s Window on Wildlife, Portmore Lough and the West Light Seabird Centre on Rathlin have opened up these special places to even more people.
We have a busy 12 months ahead of us, from Big Garden Birdwatch later this month to the official re-launch of the West Light Seabird Centre, devolved elections at Stormont to the development of a landscape-scale project to protect and promote the unique heritage of the Fermanagh Lakelands.
Throughout 2016 we’ll be incorporating our 50th anniversary celebrations into all aspects of our work – from specially produced pinbadges at SunflowerFest to a programme of free events for RSPB NI members and the planting of special wildflower meadows.
We’d also love to hear from you about your experiences of nature and RSPB NI over the past five decades – whether it’s an old photograph of one of our nature reserves or a wildlife moment that inspired you to take up a career in conservation.
Get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook (RSPB Northern Ireland) and Twitter (@RSPBNI).
With reports of single swifts still being spotted in the skies across the UK, check out this guest post from Ciaran McLarnon, our volunteer urban nature advisor -
Swifts are one of our most charismatic summer visitors. Every year, they fascinate us with their fast paced, acrobatic flight and their distinctive screaming calls, as they zoom above us in our towns and cities.
These birds spend almost their entire lives on the wing. In fact, the only time they touch ground is when they arrive here with us in the summer to breed and raise their young. They are closely tied with our built environment, using the cracks and crevices of buildings to nest within. Swifts have been using sites such as these for hundreds of years, as their natural nesting habitat, such as cliffs and ancient woodland have declined and disappeared.
Although much loved by many people, swifts are increasingly under threat. Within a remarkably short period of time, swifts have experienced significant declines. For instance, between 1995 and 2011 they have declined by 30 per cent in the UK and Ireland. As a result of these declines, the swift is now listed as an amber species of conservation concern.
The main reason behind these declines is thought to be a loss of suitable nesting sites. Modern building techniques and regulations, refurbishment and redevelopment have meant that these birds are finding it increasingly difficult to find a home in our modern built environments.
Since 2013, the Belfast swift city project has been surveying the city to identify key swift colonies. This information will allow us to target key areas to help protect and enhance swift colonies found there. This year, a committed team of volunteers took to the streets of Belfast to find out exactly where these amazing birds are nesting. Volunteers covered survey areas throughout the city and, once again, it was in the south where most nests were found.
In total 75 nest sites were identified in the 2015 survey. The majority of these were found within the Village area of south Belfast, which is quickly gaining a reputation as a swift hotspot! After three years of surveying we are gaining knowledge of a number of important areas for the species. This information allows us to target conservation work in these areas to help the species. One way of doing this is to influence planners and developers to incorporate wildlife friendly measures within their work. Purpose built swift bricks can be incorporated into the design of new build projects and readily provide nesting space in new developments.
We are also working with local communities in key areas to help swifts and other urban wildlife. For example, we are currently working with the Greater Village Regeneration Trust which is developing an action plan to help nature within the Village area. This will have positive impacts for the people who live here, through greater opportunities to engage and connect with nature.
Over the coming years we will continue to survey for these fantastic birds. The more information we can gather, the better equipped we are to deliver conservation advice in key areas and ultimately help this increasingly threatened species. 2015 has been a success, reaffirming the importance of south Belfast as a swift hotspot and the need to influence those working and living within the area to do things to help this species. This work would not be possible without our team of dedicated volunteers who spent a number of summer nights looking for swifts entering and leaving nest sites.
As we go into a new year it will not be too long before our summer visitors return from their winter in Africa. With their arrival, begins the process of looking at roof height for any sign of a nest. I cannot wait!
To get involved in the 2016 swift surveys, please email email@example.com