Public health and safety; recovering the economy; and lockdown exit strategies have rightly been occupying the government’s focus over the last few months. And for each of us, our focus has shifted too. We are learning to adapt to a new ‘normal’, adjusting work to care for family members, adopting new ways to communicate and trying to find balance for our own wellbeing.

Bluebells and jay
Bluebell meadow and a jay. Photo credit by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

This shift has also prompted many reflections on our relationship with the natural world; how dependent we are on nature for our food and health and in turn, how dependent nature is on us.

We need a healthy planet to deliver future prosperity and wellbeing. But nature is in trouble. The State of Nature Report 2019 revealed that 41% of UK species have declined since 1970, while 11% of 2,450 species across the island of Ireland are threatened with extinction. To restore our environment and safeguard our future, we need urgent action and policy reforms. However, the global pandemic has had an inevitable impact on crucial laws and governance to protect nature in Northern Ireland, including delays in the progress of the Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Bills. So, what does this mean for our mission to protect nature?

The Agriculture Bill
As Northern Ireland's biggest industry (75% of land is used for agriculture), farming and the laws that govern it, have a direct impact on the health of our environment and economy.
The Agriculture Bill, which returned to the House of Commons last week, has the opportunity to build a more resilient, nature-friendly farming industry in Northern Ireland. An industry that will supply us with nutritious food, help stabilize our economy, and help us tackle the global climate and nature emergency. This will only be possible if vital safeguards are applied to the Bill to uphold the high standards of food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection that we all value so highly.

Foyle fields by Andy Hay
Foyle fields. Photo credit: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

Last week, the Agriculture Bill was debated in Westminster at Report Stage, representing one of the final opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny before it receives Royal Assent. Although this Bill has been mainly focused on an incentivised farm payments system in England, with some elements impacting all four countries, it also provides a framework for each of the devolved nations to begin developing bespoke policy and legislation. Given that some components of the Bill are critical for Northern Ireland, we joined colleagues from Ulster Wildlife and Northern Ireland Environment Link to give evidence to the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA) Committee. During this session our policy team addressed the risks to nature if ‘business as usual’ continues indefinitely and why it’s vital for Northern Ireland to have a long–term vision and clear aim.
Members of Northern Ireland Environment Link, Ulster Wildlife and RSPB NI giving evidence to the AERA Committee. Photo credit: RSPB NI
Members of Northern Ireland Environment Link, Ulster Wildlife and RSPB NI giving evidence to the AERA Committee. Photo credit: RSPB NI

A hidden cost of our cheap food culture is that nature often suffers as farmers try to make a living in increasingly tough economic times, and the challenges of recent months further highlights the fragility of our food system.  That’s why it is vital we continue to call for a transition to sustainable agricultural policies that reward farmers for delivering essential environmental services that aid our long-term recovery. An agriculture policy with nature at its heart can:

• Lock-up carbon;
• Rebuild soil fertility;
• Improve water quality;
• Boost pollinator numbers; and
• Support resilient food production

These benefits can only be realised if policies are reformed. We have a landmark opportunity to make the case for policy reforms and are continuing to work with organisations across the UK, as well as government, to ensure that the development of a sustainable agriculture policy that safeguards our future is prioritised. This will be key as the Bill now moves into the House of Lord’s for further debate and scrutiny.



The Environment Bill
As the only part of the UK and Ireland without an independent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Climate Change Act or net zero emissions target, Northern Ireland is in urgent need of policies that will protect the environment and restore nature.

2019 felt like the year when everyone sat up and listened to the call for action to protect our planet. Climate and nature demonstrations took place in major cities, and nearly 500 of our amazing campaigners responded to the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs’ (DAERA) Environment Strategy for Northern Ireland: Public Discussion Document. Change was in the air!
Curlew in field
Curlew. Photo credit: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

And 2020 looked set be even better. In January, the Environment Bill made a welcome return to Westminster. We welcomed aspects of the Bill’s ambition but raised concerns that it wasn’t as robust as promised (or needed); joined our colleagues in NI Environment Link and The National Trust to give evidence to the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA); and made the case for crucial amendments, which included:

• Timebound targets to achieve high-level, and in some cases, urgent environmental protection;
• Non-regression standards, without which, future legislation could reduce the level of protection afforded under EU laws; and
• Effective enforcement powers and long-term funding for the Office of Environmental Protection

Members of Northern Ireland Environment Link giving evidence to the AERA Committee. Photo credit: RSPB NI
Members of Northern Ireland Environment Link giving evidence to the AERA Committee. Photo credit: RSPB NI
Despite the delay in the Bill’s progression through Westminster, we want to ensure you we haven’t lost sight of our goals. Environmental decline and climate change are still urgent and ongoing. The UN has warned that we have only 10 years to avert a climate catastrophe. Northern Ireland is not immune to this with one in five species at risk of extinction and 8% woodland cover; 38% less than the European average. 

At the time of writing, there is no clarity on when the Bill’s passage will resume but we’re using this time to prepare potential amendments and gather the necessary information for political representatives, so that when the Bill progression picks up again, we don’t lose any further campaign momentum.


The Fisheries Bill
As an island nation with over 300 miles of coastline and 50% of its biodiversity found at sea, Northern Ireland’s fisheries industry will play an important role in the country’s recovery plans. And so too will the laws and policies that govern it.

With the sustainability of commercial fish stocks and fishing communities inextricably linked to the health of our seas and the wildlife found within it, Northern Ireland has a window of opportunity to reform the industry for the benefit of everyone.

Guillemot and puffin on Rathlin Island
Puffin and guillemot on Rathlin Island. Photo credit: Hazel Watson (rspb-images.com)
Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, and throughout the lockdown period, RSPB NI, as part of the Northern Ireland Marine Task Force, has been working with colleagues to make the case for crucial amendments to the Fisheries Bill that would secure a world-leading, sustainable fisheries management system that supports a healthy marine environment. However, despite the Bill’s ambitions, we believe it still falls short of delivering a legal commitment to fishing sustainably.

Our seas are under increasing pressure from overfishing, pollution and climate change. Last year, a global UN biodiversity assessment stated that approximately 66% of the marine environment has been significantly altered by human actions, and a recent analysis of catch and quota records between 2001 and 2020 shows that the United Kingdom landed 1.8m tonnes of fish over levels declared sustainable.

As part of the Fisheries Bill’s Committee Stage, we presented our concerns to the Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA) Committee during an Oral Evidence Session in March 2020, where we made a case for the legal ‘teeth’ the Bill needs to achieve its ambition:

• Fisheries Management Plans for all commercially exploited and any other stock which falls below sustainable levels
• A strong approach to the sustainable management of shared stocks
• The introduction of Remote Electronic Monitoring with CCTV on any vessel fishing within UK waters

Northern Ireland Marine Task Force members giving evidence to the AERA Committee. Photo credit: RSPB NI
Northern Ireland Marine Task Force members giving evidence to the AERA Committee. Photo credit: RSPB NI
Even though the Fisheries Bill has been postponed as the NI Executive focuses resources on the tackling the pandemic, the Covid-19 crisis and the consequences of over-exploiting nature has served as a wake-up call for us all. 

We are committed to challenging the status quo and are currently preparing further evidence and proposals on how Northern Ireland can achieve the high level aims of the Fisheries Bills. Working with our Greener UK partners, we are continuing to engage with colleagues throughout the UK and are closely monitoring the evolving parliamentary situation and implications on the marine environment. We believe sustainability must be at the heart of the recovery plans for the environment, local communities and industries to thrive. By investing in the recovery of our seas and restoring the wildlife within our waters, we can secure our future prosperity.



Your voice for nature
With the return of some crucial legislation to parliament and the announcement of the Northern Ireland Executive’s approach to decision-making, it is more important that ever before that the plans put in place work in harmony with nature to recover our invaluable environment. We will need your support to apply pressure at the right time to achieve this change and secure a protected, thriving home for nature in Northern Ireland. Keep up to date with our monthly blog updates as we develop the story and reveal the actions you can take to push for change.   
Marsh harrier
Marsh harrier. Photo credit: Neal Warnock
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