Ulster Wildlife Trust: “we are now totally cynical as to whether government ever intended to meet its obligations”

The BBC NI environment correspondent, Mike McKimm, has an update on his August 2010 report on the Northern Ireland Executive’s failure to protect and restore a special habitat, of [protected species] horse mussel beds, in Strangford Lough – a designated Special Area of Conservation, an Area of Special Scientific Interest and a Ramsar (protected wetland) site.  And it’s not good news.

Eight years after first drawing attention to the problem, and six years after a formal written warning was issued from the European Commission, the Ulster Wildlife Trust have made a second formal complaint alleging a “systematic and deliberate failure” to protect and restore the special habitat. 

In January 2009, the then-ministers concerned did manage to summon the press for a photo-opportunity on the issue.  But that’s about the only activity we’ve seen – despite evidence that the NI Department of Environment, at least, is aware of the potential for EU fines.  From Mike McKimm’s report

…the trust said in its complaint, six years after the [habitat restoration] plan’s formulation “little, if any, action has been taken by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development”.

It is the government department charged with restoring and protecting the reefs.

In an attack on the department’s integrity the complaint states: “We believe that this scenario reflects the department’s disregard for its commitments to the European Commission and the [European Habitat ] Directive in general.” [added emphasis]

Heather Thompson, chief executive of the Ulster Wildlife Trust, told BBC News Online: “With the restoration plan having been put in place to stave off potential action from Europe in 2005, we are now totally cynical as to whether government ever intended to meet its obligations.”

…..

“It seems ludicrous that our charity has to go to the European Commission again to get such an important and special site managed and protected properly,” said Ms Thompson.

“The lough has been given numerous legal protections and designations due to its special features and ecology and our local government is responsible for ensuring we manage the lough properly.”

As well as being an SAC, Strangford Lough is an Area of Special Scientific Interest and a Ramsar (protected wetland) site, making it one of the most protected parts of Europe.

In their letter to the Commission, the Trust pointed out that after six years there is still no “total protection” for the remaining or damaged reefs, anchoring in the areas has not been stopped and that pot fishing is still not controlled properly.

It also pointed to vandalism of research sites and said that none of the restored sites had been returned to “Favourable Conservation Status”.

On the question of dysfuntional, or incompetent, the BBC report adds

An added problem is that the Department of Environment who police the lough, cannot force the sister Department of Agriculture to comply with the Habitats Directive.

In effect, the DoE is powerless to act – a quirk of the hurried legislation that set up the current Northern Ireland government.

If the Department of Agriculture refuses to comply with the directive it will be left to the Northern Ireland taxpayer to foot what could be a very substantial fine of millions of euros.

Never mind… we can just add it to the large, and still growing, EU bill that the NI Department of Agriculture is amassing.

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  • Cynic2

    I assume the mussels were Unionist and therefore didn’t warrant protection?

  • I think that comment is in line with your moniker. If an attempt at humour, it falls flat with me.

  • Toastedpuffin

    “If an attempt at humour”

    If? You think it possible it’s a serious comment on the political views of horse mussels? It raised a wee smile for me, but moving on…..

    …. is the level of incompetence of the NI exec not something that needs some serious muther-effing addressing? We’ve got heavy elected representation in this part of the world, and not much value for money to show for it.

  • Costing us money to Europe through incompotence, giving money back to Europe because its rules mean the money provided can’t be used, and now ignoring Europe because…. whatever.

    Is DARD itself alone?

  • The yokel

    It is my understanding that it has been impossible to get the agreement of local fishermen to stop destroying the mussel beds. The agricultural lobby is the most powerful and organised special interest group in NI and have, in my view, an undue influence on government. In the olden days they used to call the Dept of Agriculture’ the Ulster Farmers Union branch in government’ – this goes back a long way.

  • aquifer

    The farmers and fishermen produce our food and have to make a living, so they should not have to obey rules made by city folk and bureaucrats in other departments, especially when we are competing with foreigners. We like light touch regulation, that way we do not have to write long sentences, take advice from graduates, or shop our cousins. It is DARDs role to get cash grants from the EU or treasury or Stormont and hand them over to these productive economic sectors without very much fuss or checking. And if DARD get one over on the DFP or end up costing NI PLC another fatEU fine, that is OK really, as if the DARD people are caught on the worst that can happen is that they are back to the farm with a fat government pension, and what is wrong with that, farms are great. Greenies just get in the way.

    (Just thought I should spell out the bad attitudes that will get us another big fat fine.)

  • lamhdearg

    i may have seen someone digging for cockles down strangford way last weak (with his little girl in tow) this someone may have had little luck, and resorted to putting a few mussel and willicks in their bucket, was this scoundrel breaking and law.

  • Boglover

    The real underlying issue behind this issue is, as noted by several above, the role of DARD. It is a department that is caught on the horns of a dilemma; how to encourage and facilitate agriculture, fisheries and forestry, whilst still obeying the rules. These “rules” can be legislative, such as the recently amended Wildlife and Natural Environment Act, or contractual, as would be the case for monies received from Europe. In the former case, putting agri and environment in different departments (with the attendant problem of Ministers from different parties) is a major contributory factor.

    To be blunt, DARD sees itself as the farmer/fisherman/forester’s friend and so bends over backwards to facilitate them, often at the expense of wider societal interests such as water quality and protection of the environment. However, their view is encouraged by political representatives, who see the understandable electoral advantages in “standing up for the farmer”, to use an often heard phrase.

    IMO, these attitudes have their roots in a problem endemic to NI, brought about by the legacy of the Irish Land Acts (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Land_Acts). Rightly or wrongly, these Acts served to inculcate the Irish obsession with land (as evidenced by land prices several times higher than England) and also the commonly held view that the owner could do what he liked with the their land. NI’s average land holding is 45 ha (~105 acres) and, although conacre allows farmers to acquire more land to farm in the short term, the reluctance to sell pushes up prices for all, is a disincentive to investment and acts as a brake on farming efficiency. The inefficiency in turn encourages subsidy of the industry and hobbles its ability to compete nationally/internationally.

    As I write this, I am listening to the recording of the DARD Committee from last week’s meeting. The comments are a depressing demonstration of the extent our representatives fail to see beyond the short-term interests of some and so ignore the longer term costs to society as a whole.

  • thethoughtfulone

    “To be blunt, DARD sees itself as the farmer/fisherman/forester’s friend and so bends over backwards to facilitate them”

    To be equally blunt, that is total balderdash!

    The “ministry” is no friend of the farmer, nothing could be further from the truth, more like the scourge of the farmer if any generalisation applies. Just like all government departments DARD is primarily self-serving, the days when “the civil service” actually “served” anybody or anything other than itself are long gone (if they ever existed).

    Of all departments however DARD is easily the epitome of this situation for a couple of reasons. They mostly deal with farmers and farmers generally just like to farm, they complain a bit surely but tend not to go onto the internet and spend time reading the “our commitment to you” tab on the relative web-site, so when “the ministry” evitably make a bollocks of something, our farming friend just waits for it to be sorted in some form or another and then gets on with farming again. He’s not worried about why it happened, who was to blame, what has been done to the system to ensure it won’t happen again, etc, etc. So farmers don’t call them to account that much and secondly, anything they do very seldom affects the wider public so while health, education, transport, housing, water, all these things are constantly in the public eye, DARD usual staggers along under the radar only occasionally getting a little niggle from Mike McKimm or Brian Black that nobody really worries much about anyway.

    It should also be noted that the EU fines are not based around farmers being dishonest but DARD’s total failure to adequately apply the rules and regulations which go hand in hand with EU money. Some of this applies to SFP but there’s many other problems as well such as the nitrogen directive, sheep tagging, as well as compliance issues.

    To just label this as cheating farmers is not only unfair but totally inaccurate.

  • The Raven

    But sure, isn’t this just all part of the wider environmental problem in Northern Ireland, when for years it was a case of one of the following options – build on it, knock it down, kill it – or don’t kill it, if you can’t be bothered, throw a bungalow on it, etc, etc.

    Only this summer, I was present when a member of the farming community was in earshot of a comment about badgers appearing on his land – and within a week an entire acre of whin and other trees was cleared, scorch marks appeared and cement was thrown into every opening on the ground.

    On the day when the UWT is throwing open a call for funds to the tune of £10k to try and save the barn owl, one wonders why the EU bothers…

  • thethoughtfulone

    “But sure, isn’t this just all part of the wider environmental problem in Northern Ireland, ”

    With respect, I think you have it the wrong way round and Northern Irelands wider environmental problems are due to the ineffectiveness of government departments.

    What I said in my initial post shouldn’t be misconstrued as meaning that DARD lack authority. There is a long standing tradition among the vast majority of farmers that even you don’t like it or agree with it, you don’t go against the “ministry man”. So lack of control of the vessel is definately a case of poor seamanship rather than faulty steering or errant crew (if you want to give the farmers themselves a role!)

    Again, as proven by the nature of the EU fines.

  • The Raven

    No, Thoughtful, I really don’t.

    There aren’t many DARD staff (actually, that reads incorrectly – I believe there’s a member of DARD staff for every farm in Northern Ireland…) who let slurry run off into rivers; who slap bungalows on green belt without permission; who felled TPO-d trees for tractor access; who use “sludge cake” as fertiliser; who let slurry tanks overflow; who bury animal carcasses instead of incinerating them; who access rural development money for “self catering cottages”, before selling them off as houses as soon as the letter of offer runs out; who “lend” land for a small stipend for unofficial landfill sites; and I could go on, but I have a non-agricultural job of work to do.

    I’ve seen all of this and more from the sidelines over the past 15 years. No, Thoughtful, I’m not mistaken. They’re only guardians of the countryside when they’re paid to be so, and there’s no greater commercial interest. It’s part of the wider problem.

    Environment vs Man – whether it be public sector or commercial interests – environment always get the shaft.

  • thethoughtfulone

    “No, Thoughtful, I’m not mistaken.”

    Fair enough, but I just wonder then how your view from “the sidelines” happens to pin the blame for the subject of this thread on those shamefully unscrupulous farmers?

    It seems your mind is pretty much set and no amount of evidence to the contrary will change it but I feel I must point out a few things. The main polluter of water courses in Northern Ireland is the DOE, very few farmers have a second career as a property developer, the use of sewage sludge should actually be a sound basis of an organic farming system but the quality of it as a fertiliser is ruined by all the drugs and chemicals put into it by every household in the country, and finally regarding the non-agricultural job thing, ……………me too!

  • Pete Baker

    Guys

    Could we bring the focus back to the actual topic?

    DARD’s inaction over protecting the Special Area of Conservation, Area of Special Scientific Interest, and Ramsar, that is Strangford Lough. Particularly the horse mussel beds.

    As the BBC report notes,

    In their letter to the Commission, the Trust pointed out that after six years there is still no “total protection” for the remaining or damaged reefs, anchoring in the areas has not been stopped and that pot fishing is still not controlled properly.

    It also pointed to vandalism of research sites and said that none of the restored sites had been returned to “Favourable Conservation Status”.

  • The Raven

    Pete, while I welcome your intervention, and the initial thread, my point actually is: did you expect any different, from your initial reporting of this some time ago? This is only one of many sins committed by the statutory sector and the wider general public.

    I work in an area with over 20 special designations – the fight is endless, between farmer, DARD, general public and indeed in some cases, the very people supposed to police it. I understand that the marine part of NIEA has three staff – how would anything have a chance of restoration or recovery…?