Putting Nature into Recovery in Northern Ireland

Putting Nature into Recovery in Northern Ireland

Curran Bog

With the COP26 global climate change conference now over and the COP15 Biodiversity Conference just around the corner, our Nature Recovery Networks Project Coordinator Nina Schönberg explains why we need to talk about nature recovery and climate change together, and how we urgently need to move from ambition to real and transformative action in Northern Ireland.

We need nature and nature needs us

It probably doesn't need repeating that we are living in unprecedented times, being faced with not just one but two human-induced crises: one on biodiversity loss and one on the changing climate. Not only did we break our all-time temperature record three times within the span of a week this summer, but recent research by the Natural History Museum and the RSPB put Northern Ireland 12th worst out of 240 countries when it comes to biodiversity loss, largely driven by the loss and fragmentation of habitats. Moreover, there is a clear link between nature and public health – both mental and physical – with access to nature one of the defining factors of our individual experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is clear that we need to nature, but we are failing to protect it.

Action to tackle the nature and climate crises are inextricably linked, something which was recognised for the very first time during the COP26 conference in Glasgow. It has been estimated that nature-based solutions (NBSs), such as peatland restoration, have the potential to deliver as much as 37 per cent of the cost-effective climate mitigation to ensure that our global warming is kept below two per cent, by 2030, yet, while global leaders congregated at COP26, Northern Ireland remains the only country in the whole of Europe with no climate change legislation. Our decision-making in Northern Ireland around biodiversity conservation and tackling climate change continues to not meet the necessary level and speed of impact. To effectively address the nature and climate crises in Northern Ireland, and to contribute towards global goals, we need a transformative step-change in how we do things and to move towards effectively managing and actively restoring nature and at a landscape scale.  

To effectively address the nature and climate crises in Northern Ireland, and to contribute towards global goals, we need a transformative step-change in how we do things and to move towards effectively managing and actively restoring nature and at a landscape scale.  

Our actions need to match our words

On the surface, there is strong political and public support for nature’s restoration in Northern Ireland. A recent study by RSPB NI highlighted that 70% of people here support the introduction of new laws to better protect nature and stronger oversight of environmental law. But while members of the NI Assembly have declared a Climate Emergency and pledged to halt and reverse the decline of nature, and the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has endorsed the target of protecting 30 per cent of Northern Ireland’s land and seas by 2030 (also known as the 30 by 30), this ambition remains to be translated into real transformative actions to benefit nature, climate and ourselves.

One of the key actions needed is creating More, Bigger, Better and more Joined-up spaces for nature, through what we call Nature Recovery Networks (or NRNs in short), as was recently recognised by the UK’s five statutory nature conservation bodies’ Nature-Positive 2030-report.  NRNs are a strategic, long-term approach to managing, creating, restoring, and enhancing habitats and landscapes, linking together ecological processes across protected areas and the wider landscape, while highlighting the link between the status of our natural world and human well-being. By legislating for and adequately financing NRNs (eventually becoming established and self-sustaining Nature Networks) in Northern Ireland, we could put nature onto the path of recovery, and deliver far-reaching benefits to society, including contributing towards the tackling of and adaptation to climate change.

As a member of the Landscape Partnership, Ulster Wildlife, alongside RSPB NI, Woodland Trust and National Trust, is currently involved in an innovative project, funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, to build capacity to deliver Nature Recovery Networks in Northern Ireland. This project is bringing together the wealth of expertise from the individual organisations and through working with stakeholders, is mapping out a path for nature’s recovery in Northern Ireland.   The Landscape Partnership has launched a suite of briefing documents (you can see them at the bottom of the page here) to introduce Nature Recovery Networks and what we need to do to make them a reality in Northern Ireland.

These briefing documents come at an important time for our nature and climate. Not only are there big global conferences underway and coming up, but as Northern Ireland prepares its Climate Change Bill and future strategies to protect its environment, we need to ensure that nature’s recovery, and nature-based solutions, play an integral part in these. 

The advice from the UK Climate Change Committee (UKCCC) to Northern Ireland already highlights the important contribution woodland expansion and restoration of our peatlands could make in climate change mitigation. To a large extent, we know what we need to do and how to do it. The outputs of this project, such as the habitat network maps, should contribute towards the evidence-base for action and ensure the right action is taken in the right places. 

NRN Graphic (c) Scottish Wildlife Trust

A strategy for the future of our environment?

The Landscape Partnership welcomes DAERA’s recent launch of the Environment Strategy consultation, which is open until January 18, 2022. While the draft strategy makes important commitments, including several provisions for the introduction of NRNs, it fundamentally lacks binding and time-bound targets to ensure delivery. Alongside other policy developments, this all-encompassing Environment Strategy has the potential to make a real difference in providing the framework for effective protection and enhancement of nature, so we need to make sure we get it right. Ulster Wildlife, alongside the rest of the Landscape Partnership, will continue to engage with the consultation more widely as part of the Nature Matters -coalition.

While the Landscape Partnership and other initiatives continue to push for and lead the way in restoring nature and tackling climate change, to scale this up it needs to be supported and coordinated from the top. This means bringing together expertise, creating a statutory requirement for nature’s recovery and climate change, and supporting this through long-term funding.  Nature has an incredible ability to recover, and act as our ally, but only if we give it a chance. We simply cannot delay action as the longer we wait, the more costly it will be, in all the senses of the word.