Life sentence prisoners manage sanctuary within jail walls to help endangered lapwing nest
One of the world's most threatened birds has found a sanctuary within a prison used for housing the most dangerous inmates in Northern Ireland.
Life sentence prisoners helped create the habitat for around 20 pairs of breeding lapwings which have made their home at HMP Maghaberry on a marshy no-man's-land dominated by razor wire and lookouts behind reinforced glass.
The six acres of waste ground are between the perimeter fence and wall of the jail, near Lisburn, Co Antrim, whose prisoners include dissident republicans, sex offenders and murderers.
A combination of swampy, short grass because of the clay ground left over from the prison's foundations and a lack of predators like foxes has created ideal conditions the ground-nesting waders, retired prison guard and gardener Denis Smyth said.
He added: "Once they are big enough to fly, over the fence they go."
Lapwings are globally threatened and their population has declined by 50% in the last 25 years because the growth of farmland has led to the drainage of their traditional breeding grounds.
They represent the RSBP's highest conservation priority, needing urgent action. The Northern Ireland breeding population was about 1,700 pairs in 1999, but has declined since, says the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
Mr Smyth was a warder at Maghaberry and tended the prison gardens, an oasis of green inside multiple locked gates.
About 10 years ago he began cutting the grass where lapwings nest from spring, near the perimeter fence.
He then enlisted life prisoners who have been judged nearly ready for release in creating the right conditions. Grass was cut and shallow ponds dug, the area protected from development. The clear domed roofs of the wings overlooked the grassland, an oasis beside an industrial sprawl of concrete walls and steel bars.
The inmates helping him had been there for 10-15 years but were being readied for release and spending more time outside their cells.
Mr Smyth said: "We have to work together as a team, the prisoners and myself, we have a very good relationship with them and there is never a problem."
Three years ago the Department of the Environment designated it an Area of Special Scientific Interest. A total of 60 breeds of bird use the habitat.
Lapwings lay four eggs and often nest in colonies like at Maghaberry.
Mr Smyth explained: "I am a farmer by trade, I have always loved birds. Whenever you see the chicks running about you could not help but be hooked."
He said the fence was what made the place exist.
"That height... has protected them from predators."
Mr Smyth received the MBE from Prince William last year.
Not enough was known about conservation work at the jail, Mr Smyth added. "People don't know what is going on here because of it being such a high-security prison, it's nice for people to know that there are good things going on here and that this is a very good nature reserve."
Also known as the peewit in imitation of its display calls, the lapwing's proper name describes its wavering flight. Its black and white appearance and round-winged shape in flight make it distinctive, even without its splendid crest. This familiar farmland bird has suffered significant declines recently and is now on the Red List of endangered species.