OEP Investigates DAERA over Special Protection Areas for Wild Birds

The OEP is investigating the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) over possible failures to comply with environmental law in relation to Special Protection Areas (SPAs), for wild birds it announced today (18 March, 2024). 

The investigation will seek to determine whether DAERA has failed to comply with environmental law relating to SPAs on land. This includes possible failures to implement recommendations given by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and other conservation public authorities on the classification and adaptation of SPAs and in respect of its general duties to protect and maintain wild bird populations. 

SPAs are legally designated sites that protect rare and threatened wild birds, such as whooper swans, puffins, and light-bellied brent geese found in Northern Ireland. SPAs are internationally important areas for breeding, overwintering, and migrating birds. They have also been shown to deliver positive outcomes for wider biodiversity.  

Populations of wild birds continue to decline across Northern Ireland, with recent studies placing a quarter of birds found on the island of Ireland on the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List1. Rathlin Island, the Antrim Hills, Strangford Lough and Lough Beg and Lough Neagh are some examples of SPAs, with the latter being the largest SPA in Northern Ireland. 

The JNCC and other conservation public authorities have carried out reviews of SPAs in Northern Ireland that focus on land and coastal sites, in doing so, they then make recommendations to DAERA on the creation of new SPAs and adaptation of existing SPAS in order to protect and maintain certain wild bird populations. 

The OEP will also be investigating the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Natural England over possible failures to comply with environmental law in relation to SPAs. At the same time, Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS) has also launched an investigation today (18 March, 2024) into similar issues in Scotland, with the Interim Environmental Protection Assessor for Wales (IEPAW) undertaking work that includes SPAs, with shared concerns over them - marking the first time this coordinated action has taken place.  

As part of its wider work the OEP will also seek to understand the progress of SPA reviews in the marine environment.  

Natalie Prosser, OEP Chief Executive Officer (CEO), said: It is significant that today (18 March, 2024) marks the beginning of three investigations in three different countries, on the same important environmental issue.  The ESS’ investigation in Scotland, our own investigations in England and Northern Ireland, along with the concerns of IEPAW, demonstrates this is a UK-wide issue that requires our attention. 

SPAs play a key role nationally and internationally in protecting populations of wild birds that are currently in regrettable decline. 

“Our investigation will seek to establish whether the recommendations of previous SPA reviews, such as one that was published in 2001, have been fully implemented and if not, the reasons why. The background to our investigation is that recommendations from another review carried out between 2015 and 2017 have yet to be published. Another step in that review, which will include classifications of new SPAs and the adaptation of existing SPAs, has yet to begin.” 

The CEO added: “We do not know yet what our investigations will find. However, the implementation of reviews like these are important so SPAs can work to protect and maintain wild bird populations the way they are supposed to.  

“We also believe SPAs will play an important part in Northern Ireland’s Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP), when it is published, as they will likely support the achievement of goals relating to protected sites, as well as protecting, restoring, and managing natural ecosystems. 

SPAs in Northern Ireland will also factor in meeting the UK Government’s international commitment to protect 30% of land and ocean for nature’s recovery by 2030. A commitment that DAERA has endorsed themselves.” 

This is the OEP’s second investigation in Northern Ireland. Its first was launched in May last year into DAERA’s advice on ammonia emissions, known as the ‘Operational Protocol’, which councils relied on in making planning decisions. In December DAERA announced it had instructed Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) to cease using the ammonia advice following legal pre-action correspondence from the OEP. 

If an investigation finds a failure to comply with environmental law the OEP will aim to resolve any non-compliance through co-operation, dialogue and agreement with public departments and authorities.   

However, where a satisfactory outcome cannot be reached through these means, the OEP can use its other enforcement powers including, if necessary, commencing court proceedings. 

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