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Jail sanctuary for threatened bird

Published 20/04/2015

Lapwings have found a sanctuary within Maghaberry prison
Lapwings have found a sanctuary within Maghaberry prison
The no man's land within Maghaberry prison has become a sanctuary for lapwings

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 lies between the perimeter fence and wall of a jail, near Lisburn in County Antrim, more familiar as a holding centre for 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 the lack of predators like foxes has created the ideal conditions for breeding chicks, retired prison guard and gardener Denis Smyth said.

He added: "Once they are big enough to fly, over the fence they go."

Lapwings, as big as pigeons but much more rare, are globally threatened, the RSPB said, and population numbers have declined by 50% during the last 25 years because of the growth of farmland and other habitation.

They represent the highest conservation priority, needing urgent action.

The Northern Ireland breeding population was estimated as about 1700 pairs in 1999 but has declined since, according to the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

Mr Smyth worked as a warder at Maghaberry, which holds Northern Ireland's most notorious inmates including dissident republicans opposed to the peace process. He tended the gardens inside the prison, an oasis of green inside multiple locked gates.

About 10 years ago he began cutting the grass where lapwings nest from spring time, close to the perimeter fence.

He 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 inmate workers had been there for 10-15 years but were being readied for release back into the community and spending more time outside their cells.

Mr Smyth added: "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 Northern Ireland's environment department designated it an Area of Special Scientific Interest. A total of 60 different breeds of bird use the habitat.

He explained his motivation for his work.

"I am a farmer by trade, I have always loved birds."

Mr Smyth added: "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."

The chicks have fragile beaks and need access to the insects which populate the boggy breeding ground to survive.

Mr Smyth received the MBE from Prince William last year.

He said: "It was an amazing day I spent at the Palace."

Not enough was known about conservation work at the jail, Mr Smyth added, saying: "People don't know what is going on here because of it being such a high security prison, it is nice for people to know that there are good things going on here and that this is a very good nature reserve."

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