Guest blog by Jane Clarke, RSPB NI Nature Protection Officer

Swan in polluted river

From fly-tipping, and noise and light pollution, to air and water quality, and protected sites and species; there are a variety of laws in place to protect nature across Northern Ireland. To ensure that individuals, businesses, and the Government are adhering to these laws, we need effective oversight or governance. That’s why RSPB NI is working to ensure that when environmental laws are broken, people across Northern Ireland can do something about it. Read on to find out more...

Nature has nurtured by many of us during this difficult past year. For me, time spent listening to the chatter of birds, and seeing plants change with the seasons has been a welcome relief from Zoom calls. I am not alone in this yearning for nature. Polling carried out by RSPB NI in 2020 revealed that 75% of people surveyed have appreciated access to local green spaces since lockdowns began. But when enjoying this beauty, it’s easy to forget, and many may not be aware, that nature across Northern Ireland is in trouble.

Northern Ireland has lost 50% of our wildlife and wild spaces, many of our iconic birds are threatened with extinction, our peatlands are damaged, and our protected areas are ineffective. These facts are devastating, particularly because there are a range of laws that are designed to protect nature. While there continues to be widespread failure to comply with these rules, the good news is, you can do something about it.

Felled trees

Who to contact when laws are broken?
If you are out and about, and you see environmental harm being caused or suspect that laws are being broken there are different bodies that you can report this to. This oversight role is commonly known as environmental governance and these bodies provide you with the opportunity to speak up for nature.

Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA)
NIEA focuses on breaches of law by individuals or businesses, including polluting rivers or fly-tipping. You can lodge a complaint with NIEA here. As NIEA is part of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), its powers are limited. That’s why RSPB NI is working to lobby the NI Executive to establish an independent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with the authority and autonomy to oversee and enforce environmental laws.

Pollution pouring into river

Office for Environmental Protection (OEP)
It’s not just individuals and businesses who can be charged with causing harm to nature; from January 2021, a new oversight body called the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) is being introduced and is responsible for holding the Government and other public authorities to account if they break environmental laws.

The formation of the OEP is a key part of the Westminster Environment Bill. Its purpose is to create a new system of environmental governance for Northern Ireland and England, replacing many of the functions previously carried out by the European Commission (although there are some exemptions including legislation within the Northern Ireland Protocol).

As the Environment Bill hasn’t completed the process of becoming a law, the OEP is not yet fully functioning and so an ‘Interim OEP’ has been installed to act as a temporary watchdog for the environment. You can learn more and lodge a complaint with the Interim OEP here.

Young person sitting beside lake watching wildlife

Why does this matter and how can I help?
Ensuring that people who care about nature, and organisations that work to protect nature, can hold individuals, businesses and the Government to account is a key part of my work as Nature Protection Officer. The Interim OEP, although temporary, is a welcome step towards this and I will continue working with cross-sector MLAs to ensure that the fully functioning OEP is in place by the end of 2021.

As part of RSPB NI’s campaign to Revive Our World, we’ll be asking for your help to ensure that Northern Ireland has both a well-funded and resourced OEP and independent EPA so that everyone can do their part to protect our precious wildlife and their habitats.

If you want to know more about our campaigning work or to keep up to date on nature protection laws in Northern Ireland, sign up to our RSPB Campaign Champion newsletter.