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”.
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.