Northern Ireland prides itself on its natural heritage. For a relatively small region, it has an amazing diversity of habitats providing home to a wide range of species of flora and fauna.
This natural bounty has been recognised through the creation of 54 Special Areas of Conservation, which are areas afforded special protection under EC regulations.
These are strict guidelines to ensure that modern life does not adversely affect the plant or animal life.
But for a region with a reputation for unspoiled natural beauty, the revelation that 38 of the Special Areas have fallen below acceptable conditions – although five of them are recovering – is quite shocking. Essentially it appears that no one has been keeping a close enough eye on these areas to see if regulations are being adhered to.
Admittedly the regulations are tough, taking in account the level of grazing, the burning of vegetation, water levels, water quality and the spread of invasive species. However, given the potentially fragile nature of the areas in question, it is unforgivable that so many have been allowed to decline. There could even be financial penalties from Europe as a result.
Many might question the assertion by Environment Minister Mark H Durkan that the decline in these areas is not the fault of a systemic failure by his department, although he conceded that resources may not have been allocated as they should. This sounds like government-speak for penny pinching and taking a collective eye off the ball.
Maintaining a robust biodiversity is a delicate balancing act, which has to take into account the needs of the farming community and other industries which might impinge on the natural habitats and species. But failure to reverse the decline in the standard of these areas could not only be disastrous for the plants and animals but also to the image of the region as a tourism destination.
Mr Durkan needs to form a plan of action swiftly, provide resources and put in place a monitoring system to ensure our natural heritage will pass on to future generations.