Threats to NI’s natural heritage


Sir, – In 2010, after a three-year survey, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) estimated there to be 5,000 pairs of yellowhammers in Northern Ireland.

John Fitzgerald (July 7th) suggests that if the Heritage Bill is not amended in the Seanad, this once common bunting, together with Irish hares, curlews and bees, could benefit from “crossing the frontier” into Northern Ireland.

I have been watching Ireland’s wildlife North and South for the past 35 years, am a member of the Irish Rare Breeding Birds Panel and the NI Bird Records Committee, and I beg to differ.

While I agree it is unconscionable to advocate burning uplands in March when ground-nesting birds like the curlew seek cover to hide their eggs or to cut hedgerows in August that could hold late-nesting songbirds such as the Yellowhammer, both of which acts would currently be unlawful in Northern Ireland, the harsh reality is that any breaches of the wildlife laws are unlikely to be investigated in this part of the UK where the government itself is embroiled in multiple environmental scandals (the Arc 21 incinerator, the A5 and A6 roads, the Renewable Heat Incentive) and an investigation is under way in Brussels for breaches of the birds and habitats directives.

There is still no prospect of a first national park, nor management plans for any of the EU special protection areas. Arlene Foster (DUP), when responsible for the environment in 2008, urged Northern Ireland not to concern itself with climate change for 100 years and used her casting vote to deny us an independent environmental protection agency, a distinction within the EU shared only with Greece.

Far from being “a beacon of hope”, by any yardstick Northern Ireland remains a “trouble spot” for the environment. How can it ever be safe for curlews to nest or whooper swans to graze where even the conservation charities are giving tacit agreement to the destruction of wetlands that according to national and international law ought to be protected?

This is the case with Ireland’s premier freshwater bird lake, Lough Beg, where 17 pairs of curlew once nested and six pairs of whoopers still do, and the RSPB, Birdwatch Ireland, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the Irish Whooper Swan Study Group all turn a blind eye to what Seamus Heaney described as a desecration, “an ecological wound on a precious wetland”, on part of the Lough Neagh and Lough Beg special protection area and Ramsar site.

The over-optimistic estimate of the yellowhammer population in Northern Ireland 10 years ago masks the seriousness of the plight of this bunting here with their tiny population, in line with most countryside wildlife, dropping like a stone.

I live in the barony of Lecale in Co Down, where the “Yellow Yorlin’s” mnemonic “a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese” may still be heard. The Irish hare is harder still to find requiring an intimate knowledge of the North’s shattered countryside while the call of the corncrake and the cry of the curlew are sounds long lost to the Down countryside.

Hedgerow or whooper swan, the health of the environment in Northern Ireland mirrors that of our wetlands: moribund and toxic (like the Stormont Executive); between 1993 and 2013, without an official’s word of concern, more than 100,000 ducks disappeared from possibly the most unregulated waterbody in Europe, Lough Neagh.

My advice to Mr Fitzgerald, whose anti-coursing petition I have signed, is better the devil you know. – Yours, etc,



Co Down.