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Celebrating a record breaking year on RSPB NI reserves

Last modified: 15 October 2013

Calling curlew

Image: Graham Catley

As the end of 2013 fast approaches, RSPB Northern Ireland is celebrating a fantastic year on its reserves thanks to the dedication of staff, volunteers and funders, including the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) which has provided financial support to the charity through the Natural Heritage Grants Programme since 2006.  This partnership approach has resulted in some of the best figures for bird and wildlife numbers ever recorded at the charity’s reserves across Northern Ireland.

Fantastic results are also being seen in areas which are part of the Halting Environmental Loss Project (HELP), funded through the EU’s INTERREG IVA Programme delivered locally by the Special EU Programmes Body. RSPB project officers have been working hard to advise farmers how they can help make homes for birds and wildlife on their land.

Primarily, this involves advising farmers and landowners to remove rush, remove scrub and put in place the correct level of grazing to make suitable homes for these ground-nesting birds which have experienced serious population declines over the past 25 years.

A huge increase in breeding wader numbers – primarily curlew, lapwing, redshank and snipe - is testament to the effort which has been invested into managing habitats for these threatened species.

Overall, the RSPB has counted a record-breaking 357 pairs of breeding waders on its reserves with more than half of this number nesting on islands in Lower Lough Erne alone.

Breeding waders are also thriving at Portmore Lough nature reserve outside Aghalee and reserve staff have been working closely with nearby Maghaberry Prison to survey lapwing on their site.

A fantastic 21 pairs nested at Maghaberry this year compared to 16 in 2012. With an amazing 61 fledglings to date, it has among the highest productivity of any site in the UK!

426 pairs of breeding waders have also been counted in HELP areas, including Glenwherry, north of Ballyclare, Lough Beg near Toomebridge and Lough Foyle near Limavady, which represents a staggering 700 per cent increase since the project began in 2011.

In 2013 Lough Beg has also been a real haven for rare plants. The rare Irish lady’s tresses orchid came into bloom in late July and 195 spikes of this beautiful plant were counted over the following weeks.

The orchid can go for many years without blossoming so the appearance of so many flowers in consecutive years is further evidence that wet grassland restoration and management work is having a positive impact on these rare plants.

It has also been a busy year at Belfast Lough Reserve – a bustling home for birds and wildlife nestled in the heart of the city’s busy docklands.

Terns and gulls flocked to the newly refurbished islands and 375 pairs of black-headed gulls bred successfully. There were also 356 pairs of common terns and 48 pairs of arctic terns on the islands - another record high!

This success is wonderful to see as the reserve prepares to close its doors later this year for major capital works. The £460,000 redevelopment plans will see the reserve transformed into Belfast’s very own “Window on Wildlife” (WOW).

The project will involve an extension to the existing visitor centre, a new community room, sand martin banks and two new outdoor viewing areas.

Funding for the project has come from the European Regional Development Fund administered by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Belfast Harbour Commissioners and the Alpha Programme administered by Groundwork NI.

Of all the RSPB reserves in Northern Ireland, Rathlin Island is still a firm favourite with the public for its stunning scenery and internationally important seabird colony. This year seasonal staff and volunteers ensured that over 12,000 visitors were able to enjoy a spectacular visitor experience at the RSPB Seabird Centre.

Whilst the overall number of breeding seabirds was down due to unusual weather conditions in the early part of the year, Northern Ireland’s only pair of chough bred successfully for the second year in a row and fledged two chicks in July. You can see the choughs at Knockans or the Roonivoolin Reserve at  the southern tip of the island - just look out for those bright red legs and bills!

RSPB NI is also working hard with landowners to attract the globally threatened corncrake back to the island.

It was once an iconic bird cross Northern Ireland’s farmland and many people have fond memories of listening to its loud and distinctive crex-crex call on a summer’s night. Each spring corncrakes fly north from winter their winter homes concentrated along the southern edge of Africa’s savannah grasslands and land among meadows across Western Europe to breed.

However over the last few decades their numbers have dropped alarmingly, largely due to changes in farming practices from traditional hay cutting to silage.

Apart from a few corncrakes still clinging on to unchanged habitats on islands off the coast of Donegal, the nearest source to Northern Ireland of potential colonists is the west coast of Scotland.  Here RSPB is fostering a recovery in the population and fields are being managed to hold on to small populations, which are expanding on to adjoining suitable habitat. 

Logic suggests that the successful efforts in Scotland could have a domino effect in Northern Ireland so RSPB NI has been working hard to create inviting homes by providing early ground cover in the form of nettles.

This year alone 121 bags of nettle roots have been transported to the island and 1,400 metres of bramble have been cleared. Volunteers have given a staggering 748 hours to the project and RSPB NI is extremely grateful for all of their hard work.

More volunteers are always needed to help give nature a home in Northern Ireland. To get involved in RSPB’s work for corncrake, contact corncrakeNI@rspb.org.uk or call Genevieve O’Reilly on 02890 491547.

While these good news stories are to be celebrated, RSPB NI has warned that there is still much more to be done to save nature in Northern Ireland, This work must also happen at a much bigger scale than ever before and nature reserves play an important part by demonstrating what it is possible to achieve within the wider landscape. 

The results of the recent State of Nature report, compiled by the RSPB and 24 other conservation organisations, revealed that a shocking 60 per cent of the species studied have declined over recent decades.

James Robinson, Director of RSPB Northern Ireland, said: ““Nature is in serious trouble in Northern Ireland and it’s essential that people work together to give nature a home. I am proud and delighted that the RSPB is playing its part in helping threatened wildlife and I want to thank NIEA and our other partners for their support and effort. There’s so much more to do, but the success we are creating is a shining beacon of hope for nature in Northern Ireland.”

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