Guest blog by Tabitha Newell, RSPB NI Campaigning Communications Officer

RSPB Portmore Lough, County Antrim

RSPB Portmore Lough, County Antrim. Photo credit: Antrim Lens

Restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly
It has been all systems go since the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and a key priority for RSPB NI has been to keep our campaign for ambitious Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Acts firmly on the agenda.

The UN has warned that we have until 2030 to make critical changes if we are to avert a global climate catastrophe. And Northern Ireland is no exception. Our unique species like lapwings, puffins and curlews are facing extreme pressures:

• One in five species is at risk of extinction
• Two-thirds of our rivers are polluted

Post Brexit, Northern Ireland has a significant opportunity to introduce legislation that can prevent further biodiversity decline and put nature at the heart of the solution to the climate crisis. But only if the Government acts now.

 

So, what’s been happening?
There have been second readings of the Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Bills in Parliament. These will replace the EU’s framework directives, Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy and introduce a new system of environmental governance.

Following these readings, RSPB NI and a coalition of environmental organisations were invited to give evidence on the bills to the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA) in Stormont. This was a landmark moment that gave RSPB NI the opportunity to campaign for crucial amendments, including clear targets, environmental governance and accountability. 

 
Curlew chick
Photo credit: Leslie Ballantines

The Agriculture Bill
Farmers can play a crucial role in helping Northern Ireland deliver:

• Cleaner air and water
• Healthy soils
• A countryside rich in wildlife

But to achieve this, we need an ambitious Agriculture Act for Northern Ireland that incentivises and rewards sustainable farming practices.

On 20th February 2020, RSPB NI, Ulster Wildlife and Northern Ireland Environment Link met with the AERA Committee to address the importance of transitioning towards sustainable agricultural policies. Evidence was given on the need to reform future payments to focus on ‘public money’ for ‘public goods’. That’s a system that would support farming for delivering public benefits such as water quality, clean air and biodiversity.

While the intensity of agriculture has led to environmental destruction, the team concluded that the introduction of a bespoke agriculture and land management policy for Northern Ireland offers an opportunity for farm businesses to thrive in a new landscape underpinned by sustainability.
 
 
Members of Northern Ireland Environment Link, Ulster Wildlife and RSPB NI giving evidence to the AERA Committee
Members of Northern Ireland Environment Link, Ulster Wildlife and RSPB NI giving evidence to the AERA Committee. Photo credit: RSPB NI

The Environment Bill
Intended to fill the legislative void left by the UK’s departure from the EU, the Environment Bill is a key piece of law designed to protect and restore nature. The Bill, in its current state, does not offer the same level of protection and accountability as the European courts.

On 27th February 2020, RSPB NI, The National Trust NI and Northern Ireland Environment Link gave evidence to the AERA Committee on the importance of introducing vital legislative framework to prevent further decline and improve our natural environment. This included:

• Time-bound targets
• Non-regression standards
• Robust improvement plans
• Long-term funding

The coalition also voiced concerns over how environmental governance would be possible without specific standards and financial penalties being enforced.

The solution? An Office of Environmental Protection and an independent Environment Protection Agency. While it was acknowledged that delivering a robust Environment Strategy to include both would require considerable resourcing, the cost of failure, for all of us, would be even greater.

Members of the Northern Ireland Environment Link giving evidence to the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs
Members of Northern Ireland Environment Link giving evidence to the AERA Committee. Photo credit: RSPB NI

The Fisheries Bill
Our lives are inextricably linked to the sea and its wildlife. We need resilient, thriving waters to support our health, wellbeing, culture and economy. But our seas remain under threat and a recent assessment has revealed that the UK is failing to meet 11 out of 15 marine health targets.

On 5th March, the Northern Ireland Marine Task Force and its lead members, RSPB NI and Ulster Wildlife, gave evidence to the AERA Committee on the Fisheries Bill, which aims to:

• Sustainably manage stocks
• Protect ecosystems
• Tackle climate change

While the coalition welcomed the ambitious approach, they voiced valid concerns that without any legal underpinning, the Bill will fail to deliver on its goals and that previous work (and future collaborations) with neighbouring countries may be put at risk.

The Fisheries Bill can play a vital role in helping restore our seas. But it needs adequate resources and a legal commitment to fish at a scientifically sustainable level if it is to deliver a world-leading fisheries management plan that will benefit the people and wildlife of Northern Ireland.

 
Members of the Northern Ireland Marine Task Force giving evidence to the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs
Northern Ireland Marine Task Force members giving evidence to the AERA Committee. Photo credit: RSPB NI
 
After Oral Evidence, what’s next?
The Committee is now in the consideration of evidence phase, after which,  Legislative Consent Motions will be taken to the Assembly on specific areas of the bills which require NI approval.  As each bill makes its way through Westminster, we’ll also be working across the UK to secure vital amendments, helping to ensure that these vital bills deliver for nature in Northern Ireland.

That’s why we need to keep up the pressure and make sure our local MLAs know we are still counting on them to push for ambitious, nature-friendly Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Bills. Our lapwings, puffins and curlews are counting on us.

Puffin on Rathlin Island
Puffin on Rathlin Island. Photo credit: Andy Hay
 
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