- By Niall Glynn
- BBC News NI
The past year has been difficult for the environment and conservation in Northern Ireland.
Images of blue-green algae in Lough Neagh and other waterways will be etched in many people’s memories.
The State of Nature report concluded that 12% of species assessed across Northern Ireland are under threat of extinction.
Alongside the larger and better-known conservation groups fighting this situation, there are a growing number of localized volunteer groups.
‘We want to keep these species protected’
In Northern Ireland, 50% of birds of prey (raptors) that regularly breed or winter are red or amber listed due to declining populations or distribution.
The Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group was founded in 1991. It has 44 registered members and hundreds of supporters.
Its volunteers visit breeding and wintering sites to record the status of each species.
They also search for and document new sites.
“We want to keep these species protected so that all members of all communities and all parts of society can enjoy birds of prey,” said Dr. Eimear Rooney of the group.
“We want to build a lasting mechanism of a network of citizen scientists to protect birds of prey for current and future generations.”
Dr Rooney said the group’s work was producing a number of tangible benefits for the raptor population.
“For example, we have seen the stabilization of the peregrine falcon population, no doubt due to 24-hour surveillance in locations at risk of illegal persecution of these birds,” she said.
“We inform the Environment Agency about the population status of species in Special Protected Areas, we inform the Forest Service about harvest plans to avoid disturbing our most vulnerable species, and we help planning authorities make informed decisions about the location and protection of vulnerable breeding or wintering sites.
“Suspected stalking incidents – shooting, poisoning, trapping, destroying nests, stealing eggs and chicks – are reported to the PSNI and the information gathered by volunteers is vital to our awareness of such incidents.”
‘What could we do to help?’
There are also smaller groups dedicated to specific birds of prey in Northern Ireland.
One of these is the Lough Neagh Barn Owl Group.
“We are four local lads, we live in the Lough Neagh-Crumlin area and all our lives we have been interested in conservation and the native wildlife we have,” said Ciarán Walsh from the group.
He estimates there are currently just 50 to 60 breeding pairs of owls across Northern Ireland.
Walsh and his fellow volunteers carry out a series of practical measures to try to help the birds.
“It’s basically building nest boxes, putting up nest boxes or having farmers leave some rough ground on their land so the mice have a place to live and that will attract the owls to the mice,” he said.
“It grew slowly over the years and we started with a nest with a little owl in the wild and built on top of that.
“Last season we had a total of six nests – two of the nests failed – but the other four sites produced 15 owls a year, which is a huge number for us.”
Thwarting badger baits
The Northern Ireland Badger Group was set up in 2006 by volunteers who wanted to do everything they could to prevent such crimes.
Four years ago, together with the USPCA, it set up Operation Brockwatch.
“We work with the landowners, we install cameras in the burrows and signage to protect them,” said Peter Clarke, from the group.
“We currently protect around 30 badger clans across the province and this is continually growing.
“Some of the settlements date back hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Brockwatch is currently operating in five counties in Northern Ireland.
Clarke said almost all of the stumps he monitors are on farms and he works closely with landowners.
“With the signage in place, people don’t know where the cameras are, so this would also act as a deterrent to fly-tipping and all sorts of things like farm theft,” he said.
Clarke said criminals involved in badger baiting could face prison and a fine of up to £20,000.
“We’ve started testing live cameras so people can send live photos directly to their phones,” he said.
“So if there is anyone involved in criminal activity, we can notify the police immediately.”
Restoring Red Squirrel Numbers
Although gray squirrels are becoming an increasingly common sight in Northern Ireland, the same cannot be said for the red squirrel.
Various groups have been set up across Northern Ireland to try and do something about it.
Daniel McAfee is part of the Glens Red Squirrel Group, based in the Glens of Antrim since 2008.
“We were the second group of red squirrels in Northern Ireland, now there are 14,” he said.
“Part of the work that our volunteers do is go into the forests, set up feeders, put up cameras so we can see what’s coming, whether it’s red squirrels, gray squirrels or martin pine.
“We do lots of educational visits to schools, walks and conversations with people who really listen to us to highlight and promote red squirrels, our natural environment and local biodiversity.”
Volunteers have also planted trees – with permission from landowners – in places including a two-acre field in Glenshesk.
“This is forward-thinking. It’s OK for us to feed the squirrels, but they’re going to need a habitat that will sustain them for the next 10, 20, 30 years,” McAfee said.
Another difficult part of the group’s work involves removing and culling gray squirrels, which can starve red squirrels from an area and also spread disease to them.
Because grays are an invasive species, it is illegal to release them once they have been captured. Since 2011, the group has removed about 600 gray squirrels from the area it covers.
County Fermanagh is now considered gray squirrel-free after the pine marten was restored to the area.
McAfee said the group’s efforts are producing results.
“We’re seeing populations of reds that we didn’t have before and we’re seeing the reds that are in the Glens really expanding and moving into new areas,” he said.
The groups say they are filling a gap in conservation in Northern Ireland by focusing on smaller, localized areas.
Dr Rooney, from the NI Raptor Study Group, said the dedication of the volunteers was “humbling”.
“The amount of unpaid time and expertise dedicated to recording our surrounding environment by citizen scientists in Northern Ireland is incredible and cannot be underestimated,” she said.
“The existence of voluntary groups is simply critical.”