Northern Ireland

Political uncertainty has dominated the past year, but nevertheless there have been successes to celebrate.

Wildlife recognises no border

Nobody could fail to be aware of two issues that have dominated Northern Ireland over the last year. Yet despite the continued suspension of the Stormont Executive and Brexit – with its uniquely thorny question of borders dominating public discourse – we have risen to meet the challenges posed by both.

In the case of Brexit, a whole new initiative recognises that – for wildlife – there are no borders. Wetland habitats across Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland received a special Christmas present in December when Co-operation Across Borders for Biodiversity (CABB) was launched. Led by RSPB NI, the five-year partnership programme will improve habitats for birds, butterflies and other species, restore blanket bog and help purify drinking water at a lower cost.

This £4.3-million project is supported by the European Union’s INTERREG VA Programme and managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB). It targets 2,228 hectares of bog for restoration, and raises community awareness of the environmental, cultural and historical importance of bogs.

Our big beneficiaries are the Garron Plateau, Montiaghs Moss and Pettigo Plateau, each of them a designated Special Area of Conservation. It’s truly fantastic news for hen harriers, curlews, cuckoos, rare flowers such as marsh saxifrage and Irish lady's-tresses orchids, and the exquisite marsh fritillary butterfly.

Leading the way for action

At a policy level, RSPB NI is leading a coalition of environmental NGOs, under the auspices of Northern Ireland Environment Link, to secure the best future for our environment post-Brexit. 

The public-facing campaign, Nature Matters NI, presses for action on key issues: nature and environmental protection; sustainable agriculture; marine protection and management; securing funding for nature conservation; and recognition of Ireland as a single bio-geographic unit. We have taken our key messages to Westminster and in conjunction with Environment Pillar, a coalition of 29 environmental groups from the Republic of Ireland, to Seanad Éireann, Dáil Éireann (the upper and lower houses of the Oireachtas, the Irish legislature) and the European Parliament.

We’ve also been working closely with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to help develop the NI network of Marine Protected Areas. Despite the lack of a Northern Ireland Executive, which has delayed the designation of two large Special Protection Areas, we are pushing forward with new evidence to support our call for more Marine Conservation Zones. 

We were also pleased to see the Draft Marine Plan for NI released in early 2018 for public consultation and we will be engaging closely on the development of this important piece of policy. 

Highlights

Good news for farmland wildlife 

Farmland birds received a huge boost this year with the much-anticipated launch of the Environmental Farming Scheme. It marks a welcome lift after years of decline without any agri-environment scheme whatsoever.

We now have three Farm Focus Areas for breeding waders: Glenwherry, Lough Erne and Lough Beg, and across NI over 400 farmers are supported by RSPB NI in managing their land for farmland birds and other wildlife.

One particularly outstanding farmer in Northern Ireland was recognised during the year for his work. Ballynahinch man Philip Bell was awarded “the boot” at the Farming Life and Danske Bank Awards for being NI’s most wildlife-friendly farmer. His close co-operation with RSPB NI advisors has led him to recreate a wildflower meadow, plant a wood and nurture exceptional wild bird cover that sustains farmland birds in winter.

Years of work for curlews pays off

For the first time in 20 years, curlew chicks have fledged at the College of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (CAFRE) Hill Farm in County Antrim. Since 2009, RSPB NI has been working with partners – including CAFRE – on the Glenwherry Hill Regeneration Project to ensure the sustainable management of this extensive upland hill farm, which is used to demonstrate good agricultural practice to students and existing farmers. 

After a failed attempt to breed at Greenmount Hill Farm in 2016, two pairs of curlews returned in 2017 and one of those pairs successfully fledged three young. The project has undertaken a host of measures to make the area attractive to curlews. These include rush cutting, removing trees that would otherwise provide lookout perches for potential predators, as well as predator control itself, which was carried out by the Irish Grouse Conservation Trust. Other waders have also benefited, with snipe numbers increasing from 17 to 23 pairs. 

Alongside this, RSPB NI is part of the UK-wide Curlew Trial Management Project exploring habitat management and predator control. What’s unique about our part in this project is that it’s being run on land outside our control: the early results of increased numbers and productivity are a tribute to the efforts of local farmers and communities.

Island wildlife gets a boost

News from Rathlin Island just seems to get better and better. This year saw the highest-ever visitor numbers at the West Light Seabird Centre (just under 20,000), which we run in partnership with the Commissioners of Irish Lights. Rathlin's Seabird Centre is one of 12 Great Lighthouses of Ireland offering unforgettable experiences and creating a deep appreciation of the role of lighthouses and the maritime and seafaring story. 

And best of all, this year we celebrated the acquisition of a significant addition to the Rathlin reserve. Funding from a range of sources – including generous contributions from RSPB supporters – enabled us to buy land we have been managing for over 20 years.

The “new” addition ranges from open water and heathland to hawthorn hedge and scrub, and is home to Irish hares, snipe and native bluebells. Crucially, it is a target area in our plans to double the land under management for corncrakes. Someone must have told the birds – this year two corncrakes were reported and one is likely to have bred. 

Our people

Connecting people with nature

The past year has provided so many examples of our school and community work flourishing. For instance, our red kite project has reached 40 schools as well as many young people and communities in counties Down and Armagh, where red kites are present. 

The Heritage Lottery Fund is foremost among the funders who have enabled us to increase awareness and support for these graceful birds of prey. Next year will mark 10 years since the ground-breaking reintroduction of red kites to NI, after they had been persecuted to extinction around 200 years ago. 

Even though there is still the very real threat of persecution, there has been a fantastic level of involvement both in terms of people signing up as volunteers and reporting red kite sightings via redkiteni@rspb.org.uk.

Getting closer to the landscape

Elsewhere, we piloted a My Place Within the Landscape project where we joined forces with the Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership and the Seamus Heaney HomePlace to work with five secondary schools around Lough Beg, inspiring young people to reconnect with their local landscape through outdoor learning experiences and the poetry of Seamus Heaney. 

And in south Belfast, one of our Pledge For Nature Partners, The Greater Village Regeneration Trust, has been promoting urban nature in a big way. It has created a secret wildlife garden, and a nature trail to bring city people closer to a whole range of urban wildlife in our gardens, streets and houses. More than 150 people turned out for an RSPB NI-led bat walk, and over 30 swift boxes have been put up, close to existing swift colonies and where housing development had removed previous nest sites.

Epic journeys and shocking declines

On the Isle of Man, where we work in partnership with Manx BirdLife, surveyors undertook the first census of the Isle of Man’s seabirds since 1999. Ten thousand birds of 17 species were logged. The survey team was especially proud that after 947 nautical miles – equivalent to touring 10 times around the island – they had suffered just one incident of seasickness! 

Initial findings suggest that only cormorants, guillemots and Manx shearwaters have made gains (the latter thanks to a rodent eradication programme on the Calf of Man). Gull species showed declines of 68–85%, while fulmar, kittiwake, razorbill, shag and black guillemot numbers have all halved. 

Finally, we pride ourselves on our scientific expertise and a collaborative study with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is bringing astonishing information about one of our best-loved migrants. 

We fitted 20 swifts with tiny 1g tags to learn more about their foraging and migratory behaviour throughout the year. Birds nesting in boxes at our headquarters in Belfast made a round trip of more than 40 miles to collect food for their chicks and one bird was recorded travelling as far as Mozambique on migration – isn’t nature amazing?