Guest blog by Jane Clarke, RSPB NI Nature Protection Policy Officer  

Seal by Hazel Watson

Picture credit: Seal by Hazel Watson

From wintering birds on the shores of Strangford Lough to the seals at Murlough, and the blanket bogs of Cuilcagh Mountain in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland is home to an amazing range of species and habitats. However, nature is in crisis, even in the areas where it is protected by law. That’s why RSPB is working to develop best practice guidance for monitoring protected areas. Read on to find out more... 

Northern Ireland is famed for its stunning landscapes and diverse wildlife. Unbeknown to many, however, it languishes at 229th worst position out of 240 countries for the amount of nature it has left. You can find out more about how Northern Ireland compares to other countries here.

Our recent reports highlight the devastating fact that a quarter of bird species in Ireland are at risk of extinction, and that 86% of our peatlands, including uplands like the Mournes, have been damaged by a range of activities. We must act quickly to restore, protect and enhance the sites on which nature depends.

Curlew by Ian Francis (

Picture credit: Curlew by Ian Francis (

Although some areas across Northern Ireland are already protected by law, including Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs), Special Protection Areas (SPAs), Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), and Ramsar wetlands, they are not working for nature. Existing protected areas comprise approximately 10% of land in Northern Ireland, but shockingly just 20% of those are in a good condition for nature. The uncomfortable truth is that while many areas are labelled as ‘protected’, this is only by title. Many of our most precious and rare species and habitats are still being impacted by damaging activities such as inappropriate development and unsustainable farming practices.

Garron Plateau by Katy Bell

Picture credit: Garron Plateau by Katy Bell

What needs to change?

It has never been more important to ensure the UK government fulfills its commitment to protect 30% of land by 2030 to act quickly to restore, protect and enhance the sites on which nature depends. We welcome the Environment Minister's recent endorsement of this target for Northern Ireland. However, in the run up to the global Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) that will take place later this year, RSPB NI is campaigning for the NI Executive to show leadership and commit to effectively protecting 30% of land in Northern Ireland by 2030, and to the robust and effective monitoring of the special species and habitats in these protected areas.

We believe that one of the greatest resources in the fight to save nature is knowledge. Monitoring of protected areas is critical for ensuring that these sites are effective in safeguarding nature and for understanding how the wider landscape is changing. However, at the moment, the monitoring carried out by NI Environment Agency (NIEA) is inadequate. Insufficient resourcing has led to declining levels of monitoring and the deterioration of sites, while a lack of access to data and reporting means that it is extremely difficult for land-managers to know how to make improvements and where. It is clear that protected area monitoring must be dramatically scaled up, transformed and properly funded if we are to gain a better understanding of how protected areas are performing and to prevent them from regressing. It will also ensure that protected areas are joined to a network of nature corridors (Nature Recovery Networks) creating bigger, more connected spaces for wildlife to recover and thrive.

Marsh Fritillary Butterfly by  Patrick Cashman (

Picture credit: Marsh fritillary butterfly by Patrick Cashman (

To support this, the RSPB is developing a set of principles for a robust monitoring system across the UK. You can read more about them here. We will be sharing these principles with governments, agencies, land managers and stakeholders across the UK to start a more open discussion about how protected areas should be monitored. If you want to keep up to date on our progress, make sure you sign up as a Campaigner to receive our monthly newsletter. It will also give you news on our campaign to Revive Our World and secure targets in law for nature’s recovery by 2030.