As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, we look back on a very successful year in Northern Ireland with Joanne Sherwood, Director of RSPB NI.
Bigger than ever
I'm writing this on the 50th anniversary of RSPB NI, and I can't believe how far we've come in that time. Frank Hamilton was our first regional officer, working from an office in Queen's University with just one member of staff.
Now we have 50 members of staff, 280 volunteers and we own or manage thousands of hectares of land vital for wildlife across NI. We also offer better-than-ever visitor experiences at our reserves, including the revamped Window on Wildife (WOW) in Belfast, and the Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre, which re-opened in March 2016.
Connecting people with nature
Talking of the public, I'm proud to say we welcomed almost 2,000 new members in the 2015-16 period, and we now have around 14,000 members in NI. In addition, through education and outreach, we connect around 20,000 young people with nature every year.
One of our most notable occasions is the wildlife photography event at Portmore Lough. It takes place in an area of Portmore Lough not normally open to the public, in an area well-known for its Irish hares.
Our Big Wild Sleepout is the biggest UK Sleepout event – with a staggering 500 people taking part last year! In partnership with National Museums Northern Ireland, it takes place at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in County Down, in their amazing grounds.
We've also been very successful in our Big Garden Birdwatch, increasing numbers of people taking part from 12,000 to 25,000 in two years.
Wonderful for wildlife
I'm delighted to report that 2015-2016 was a wonderful year for wildlife across our sites. For example on just one plot on Rathlin Island, the number of kittiwake pairs increased from 62 in 2014 to 165 in 2015. At Lough Beg near Toomebridge we recorded 121 ‘spikes' of the rare Irish lady's tresses orchid.
In County Fermanagh, Sandwich terns returned to breed on Gravel Ridge Island in Lower Lough Erne from their wintering grounds in West Africa. This colony is unique as normally they only nest at the coast. Counts revealed 138 pairs, up from 124 in 2014, and an impressive rate of breeding success.
We can also report the highest numbers of breeding waders ever on our sites. RSPB nature reserves have potential to hold up to 49% of the NI population of redshanks. There were also some rare sightings throughout the region, including pintails at Portmore Lough and the discovery of rare beetle Carabus clathratus in the Glenwherry area, previously thought to be extinct in County Antrim!
There's no doubt that agriculture has shaped Northern Ireland's landscape. Close to three-quarters of the land is dedicated to producing food, with the agri-food industry employing over 100,000 people and boasting an annual turnover of around £4 billion.
Technological improvements and a temperate climate mean that NI has developed a sophisticated and productive livestock farming system. However, wildlife, habitat, landscape character, water and soil quality have all suffered declines as a result of agricultural modernisation.
We've been working with farmers in key areas to plan how they can attract more wildlife. Through this project, RSPB NI has been able to improve the fortunes of species such as curlews and yellowhammers - species that have seen declines of up to 90% in some areas.
We would not have been able to do this without the help and support of farmers, who are essentially saving species from extinction in the wider countryside.
Grant for Lough Erne
Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has awarded funding to preserve and enhance one of Northern Ireland’s greatest natural treasures, Lough Erne in County Fermanagh.
This money will go to the Lough Erne Landscape Partnership, of which we’re a lead partner, for the stage one development phase. It will be used to conserve ‘at risk’ heritage buildings and to preserve and improve wildlife species and their habitats within the Fermanagh Lakelands, which are an important breeding ground for wading birds such as curlews, snipe and lapwings.
Three members of staff will work in County Fermanagh to help connect people to the landscape.
In town and at sea
We don't only work in rural areas. We're continuing with the Belfast Swift City project, which raises awareness of the plight of swifts, monitors swift populations, and works in partnership with planners, developers, local authorities and businesses to protect and provide nest sites. We're collecting swift sightings online to help target conservation action.
More than half of Northern Ireland's biodiversity is found in the sea, so we need to ensure that marine wildlife has proper protection. Four new Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) have been proposed: Carlingford Lough, outer Belfast Lough, Waterfoot and Rathlin Island. These are home to a wealth of unique wildlife, including seagrass, black guillemots and the ocean quahog. RSPB NI was instrumental in campaigning for the successful implementation of these, and we're waiting for a final decision.
To create a healthy, wildlife-rich environment based on sustainable land management, we must look beyond the boundaries of our reserves and work in partnership with others to help give nature a home.
Our Futurescapes sites at Portmore Lough near Lough Neagh and at Lough Beg near Toomebridge demonstrate how restoration and management of wet grassland can be achieved in the wider landscape.
We've formed a partnership with the Forest Service to provide advice and expertise on potential peatland restoration on their land and with Northern Ireland Water to identify poor-quality water catchment areas with the potential to become sustainable catchment areas.
An INTERREG funding bid with RSPB Scotland, Birdwatch Ireland and other environmental organisations has been developed to restore wetland habitats, bog and wet grassland for the benefit of breeding waders, hen harriers, merlins, rare plants and insects.
Adapting to changing conditions
One constant throughout the RSPB is that there are always things we can’t control. In winter 2015, we experienced the highest levels of flooding in 30 years, and it particularly affected our Portmore Lough reserve.
Together with the unexpected weather, we’ve also been adjusting to major changes in government funding, changes to local government and planning for post-election changes to the Northern Ireland Executive.
We started this financial year still reeling from the severity of the assembly’s cuts to the Natural Heritage Grants Programme which affected environmental organisations working for nature in Northern Ireland. We joined up with Northern Ireland Environment Link and other affected environmental organisations to provide a sectoral response to this devastating news for nature.
In May, we were relieved that our voice for nature had been heard and we were able to recoup a significant amount of our funding losses through the new Natural Environment Fund that raised revenue through the carrier bag levy. Whilst this fund was a welcome reprieve for many it underlined the fragility of the environmental sector in Northern Ireland and the low levels of funding upon which it relies.
On 1 April, 11 new ‘super councils’ took over from the previous 26 councils with new powers and responsibilities for planning functions. As a result of this shift to 11 councils working simultaneously on local and community plans, there will be a considerable and concentrated volume of work for our small planning team. We will continue to target our efforts in those areas where there are the greatest opportunities for, and threats to, our special places and species aligned to our conservation work.
Finally, another most fundamental change for us to plan for is the ‘merger’ between the Department of Environment and Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The new Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs effective from the May 2016 elections will also be responsible for Inland Fisheries and Sustainable Development, whilst the Rivers Agency, Inland Waterways and Strategic Planning moves to the new Department for Infrastructure.
In preparation for this seismic shift in environmental governance we have been working with a coalition of environmental organisations including National Trust, Friends of the Earth and NIEL. Together and through a commissioned report we are providing evidence based analysis of environmental governance options to convince decision-makers of the need for better environmental and governance outcomes for Northern Ireland.