Portmore Lough RSPB reserve, County Down, Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland

Our 50th anniversary year has been filled with highlights, but political uncertainty will mean challenges ahead, explains Joanne Sherwood, Director of RSPB NI.

Great expectations

The 2016/17 financial year began with great expectations for our Rathlin Island reserve – a real jewel off the north Antrim coast that is home to tens of thousands of puffins, razorbillsguillemots and kittiwakes.

We had just opened the impressively refurbished West Light Seabird Centre in time for the seabird breeding season and hoped that it would encourage more people to discover the island’s wildlife for themselves.

Our hopes were fulfilled when more than 17,000 visitors travelled to Rathlin to visit the Seabird Centre during the summer; a record for the attraction. It seemed that the island's birds wanted to rise to the occasion too.

Northern Ireland's only pair of choughs once again raised two young on our reserve and a male corncrake called for 51 consecutive days in habitat created by the RSPB. A male calling for such a prolonged period of time is likely to indicate breeding – a first for many years.

Celebrating 50 years

2016 was also the year that saw us mark the 50th anniversary of the RSPB in Northern Ireland, concluding with a special Members' Day at the Seamus Heaney Homeplace.

It was the perfect venue to celebrate the beauty of the landscape in which we work, just as Seamus did in his inspiring poetry. Fittingly, we had some record-breaking statistics to celebrate on our reserves too. 

Sandwich terns had a bumper year on the Larne Lough Islands with a staggering 1,229 pairs, making it the second largest colony in the whole of Ireland. The reserve is also home to Ireland's largest colony of black-headed gulls, with a best-ever 3,201 pairs. 

Our work to provide nesting areas for terns on the Fermanagh reserves has paid dividends, with a record 226 pairs of Sandwich terns recorded and 41 pairs of common terns, the highest number since 1975.

In addition, we had our highest numbers of redshanks since records began, with 89 breeding pairs. Redshanks also did well at Lough Beg, with 34 pairs recorded – the most since 1992. 

On the same reserve, Irish lady's-tresses continued their blooming success. A total of 1,014 spikes of this beautiful orchid, with its creamy white flowers, was yet another record.

Close up of Irish lady's tresses
Irish lady's tresses orchid

The state of nature in Northern Ireland

Though the breeding season brought us notable results on reserves, September brought us down to earth with the publication of the latest State of Nature report, which revealed that 20% of all species studied in the report are at risk of extinction here. 

Nevertheless, the document also enabled us to restate Northern Ireland's importance for nature. Although we cover just 5,500 square miles, we have a huge number of national and international designations, including 15 Special Protection Areas, 57 Special Areas of Conservation, 21 Ramsar sites and almost 400 Areas of Special Scientific Interest.

All in all, around 23,500 species make their home here in Northern Ireland. Thanks to this report, and other research, we now know more than ever about the threats facing nature, and this year we have made real progress in tackling some of these challenges.

For instance, thanks to a £2.5 million grant from the EU LIFE Programme, we’re embarking on an ambitious five-year project alongside our partners Birdwatch Ireland and the North Wales Wildlife Trust to revive the fortunes of roseate terns.

These birds are some of the rarest in the UK and Ireland, and the RSPB's reserve on Blue Circle Island in Larne Lough holds the last remaining population in Northern Ireland.

Blue Circle Island was created in the 1990s for breeding seabirds, but its sea defences have suffered a breach. As a result, erosion has reduced the amount of breeding habitat and nests and chicks are at risk during high tide. As part of the EU LIFE project we aim to reinstate the sea wall and recreate the habitat lost to erosion, helping to protect these rare birds.

A boost for curlews

We've also been working hard to improve the fortunes of another of Northern Ireland's most threatened birds – the curlew.

Erratic weather, including several frosts in May 2016, contributed to another poor breeding season for curlews throughout the country, but our efforts to reverse a long-term decline began in earnest with the launch of a five-year research project. 

Glenwherry in the Antrim Hills is one of six sites involved across the UK. The area is one of the best sites for breeding curlews in Ireland and supports almost a tenth of the Northern Irish population.

Researchers began by surveying and mapping the site, then we cut 65 hectares of rush to create new foraging and nesting areas. We also brought in contractors to control foxes and hooded crows, the main predators of curlews in this area.

The new breeding season began with a note of optimism and we hope to have good news to report in next year's annual review.

Curlew Numenius arquata, flapping wings after bathing in shallow pool, Geltsdale RSPB reserve, Cumbria, England, May
Common eider stretching wings, Northumberland.

Farming for nature

There's no doubt that agriculture shapes the landscape of Northern Ireland. With three quarters of our countryside used for farming, it is crucial that we work with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) to safeguard our special places and species.

This new government department was launched in the spring of 2016 and we successfully advised its staff on the design of the Environmental Farming Scheme, which will provide a £100 million fund for farmers to help protect nature.

We publicly called for the Scheme to open as quickly as possible and it opened for applications at the end of February 2017. We also successfully advocated for the addition of group options to encourage farmers to co-operate, which we will pilot over the next five years.

Lough Foyle RSPB reserve, County Antrim, Northern Ireland

Political uncertainty

It would be impossible to review this year without highlighting two major areas of great political uncertainty.

Once the Brexit result had been announced, we started the process of trying to ensure that the environment would be afforded at least the same protection as it currently benefits from under EU legislation, and that there would be sufficient money to fund this protection.

We also wanted to ensure the wider countryside is protected from either abandonment or the intensification of agriculture. The island of Ireland is a single bio-geographic zone, so we have also been working with our partners in the Republic of Ireland to ensure that Brexit decision-makers understand that nature knows no borders and that the environmental management of our land and sea has cross-border impacts.

The other significant political upheaval came with stagnation at Stormont, after the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal resulted in a snap Assembly Election in March 2017 and the subsequent failure to form a new government.

It was especially frustrating after our efforts earlier in the year to win support from Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). In the build-up to the May 2016 Assembly Elections, we encouraged candidates to support nature with the Vote for Bob campaign (Bob, as you'll recall, was the squirrel mascot for the environment).

More than half of the new MLAs had voted for Bob, a great foundation of support that will hopefully stand the test of time, in spite of the subsequent political uncertainties.

Stormont Northern Ireland Assembly, Belfast

Hearts and minds

Politicians are not the only people we have to convince about the importance of nature, and much of our work this year centred around winning hearts and minds.

For instance, our summer Paper Meadows project involved working with artists from Belfast Print Workshop to create 1,500 handmade paper flowers embedded with native wild flower seeds. The week-long display outside Queen's University, Belfast, attracted huge interest from both the public and the media. 

In another exciting first, we were chosen as the charity partner for SunflowerFest – a unique family friendly music festival held near Hillsborough, County Down, where we reached out to enthuse a wider range of people than usual.

We also teamed up with the world's biggest youth organisation in 2016 to create a joint RSPB/Girl Guiding Ulster badge for Rainbows. This will help children between the ages of four and seven to learn more about wildlife.

And on the Isle of Man, where we support Manx BirdLife, nature education in primary schools has been given a boost by funding from the Scheinberg family.

Manx BirdLife's new Managing Director, Neil Morris, knows the future of the island’s threatened seabird, hen harrier and chough populations depends on nurturing a love for wildlife among the island’s up and coming generations and we hope to inspire some conservationists for the future.

Father and son in bluebells, Everton