Biodiversity in Northern Ireland

Heather Simpson considers steps being taken to protect the NI environment

Biodiversity is intrinsic to life on earth. But research has shown Northern Ireland’s biodiversity is diminishing at an alarming rate.

Northern Ireland’s natural heritage makes this part of the world distinct. The rich diversity of rocks, soils, water, plants, birds and animals which we enjoy is something of intrinsic value and beauty.

We have more than 20,000 different species of living things. But because of the unsustainable relationship between humanity and the natural world this variety of life is deteriorating at an alarming rate. Already the Irish Hare and the Corncrake are among the species that are close to extinction. Scientists believe other species and habitats will follow. Society has taken for granted our natural heritage. In so doing we have failed to realise how easily it can be lost.

Robert Shearman, biodiversity officer with the Conservation Volunteers, explains: 'Maintaining the biodiversity of the living world is essential for the health of the planet as a whole and because all human life is dependant on biodiversity for survival. In addition to the huge range of plants and animals that provide food and other resources, there is also the potential of many undiscovered species, which may offer curse to diseases or other benefits as yet undiscovered.’

Shearman maintains that any human activity which reduces biodiversity could therefore damage our own quality of life by reducing the resources available to us.

The term biodiversity first came to the fore during the earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Shearman explains: 'Biodiversity is the diversity of living things, which inhabit the earth and it ranges from trees and plants through to fish or bacteria. It can also be thought of as the diversity of life in different habitats such as a peat bog or coral reef. The living world is made up of hundreds of thousands of different animals and plants.

'Biodiversity is represented by all the plant and animal species that we see but it also includes the genetic variation and the complex ecosystems of which they are part. It includes the whole of the natural world from common plants found in gardens to the exotic and endangered habitats such as rainforests.'

Because of world-wide concern over the deteriorating state of the environment, 178 countries met at the earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The countries, which included the UK, signed a number of agreements, including the Convention on Biological diversity. The meeting confirmed that action must be taken to halt global loss of animal and plant species and genetic resources.

As part of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity every country was required to look at ways to protect their own biodiversity. In Northern Ireland this work is co-ordinated by the Northern Ireland Biodiversity Group (NIBG). In Biodiversity in Northern Ireland: Recommendations to Government for a Biodiversity Strategy, the Northern Ireland Biodiversity Group identified 15 major issues affecting biodiversity here and proposed specific recommendations to safeguard biodiversity up to 2016.

One of the major threats listed was the impact of agriculture. About 5,000 years ago we began to farm, keeping livestock and growing crops. This resulted in clearing land and cultivating it. But the replacement of traditional and more sustainable land management practices with more intensive systems has led to a loss of rough land, scrub woodland and wetlands.

Farms have increased in size from small, mixed crop holdings, to large farms with re-seeded grassland, which has less wildlife value. Subsequently, the biodiversity group has encouraged environmentally sustainable farming which advocates minimal use of fertilisers and chemicals.

The group also put forward recommendations to manage trees and woodlands.

Northern Ireland is the second least wooded area in Europe, with only 8.3 per cent of land under tree cover. But implementations are under way to protect, enhance and extend remaining semi-natural woodland and provide incentives for their management. The group has advocated managing commercial woodland sustainably and increasing the cover of broad-leaved woodland.

Further recommendations have been put forward for our freshwater environments. Our freshwaters suffer from nutrient enrichment or eutrophication, which to a greater degree has been caused by agricultural run-off from fertilisers and slurries. This run-off has caused the excessive growth of algae and water aquatic plants which cause serious disturbances to the balance of aquatic life.

However, measures seek to develop a eutrophication control strategy and adopt anti-pollution measure to minimise the amount of effluent and solid waste entering our water courses.

In terms of coastal and marine environments the group have realised commercial fishing can severely impact on fish stocks. It is important that fish stocks are not depleted and are managed carefully. The EU has set catch levels but it essential that these quotas are maintained.

Scientists have also highlighted that human activity is producing by-products which travel from rivers into the sea and is unsightly and dangerous to living organisms. Consequently, the group recommended environmental considerations must be more fully integrated into the Common Fisheries Policy in order to conserve fish stocks and maintain biodiversity. The group has also adopted measures to enforce anti-pollution legislation.

The loss of peatland habitats has caused concern. Drainage, peat-cutting and over-grazing are major contributors which have resulted in the decline in the quality of peatlands. Grazing of blanket bogs has also become a problem because of the increase in upland sheep. The group recommends limiting peat extraction and stopping the loss of blanket bogs.

By Heather Simpson
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation