Belfast Telegraph

We cannot let cost-cutting destroy our natural world

The draft DoE budget spells disaster for conservationists with wildlife extinctions likely, warns Dr James Robinson

On Monday evening, I sat down to read the draft budget for the Department of the Environment (DoE). It was hot off the press. Although I had prepared myself for bad news, it soon became clear as I turned the pages that the impacts of these proposals would be disastrous for wildlife and our sensitive natural environment in Northern Ireland.

It was inevitable that the DoE would not escape the cuts, but many of the proposals put forward will damage frontline services provided by this body and its agencies.

There are plans to reduce the money spent on protecting our most important areas for wildlife, management of National Nature Reserves, efforts to help wildlife adapt to climate change, and other projects that are halting the rapid loss of wildlife in our countryside.

These cuts to already beleaguered areas of the DoE's work could lead to local extinctions of wildlife like the curlew and Irish damselfly that now rely on conservation action.

They would also lead to the damage of beautiful but fragile wildlife habitats like wildflower meadows and wild peat bogs. We have already lost many species, like the corn bunting and common scoter, in the past few decades together with vast areas of pristine wildlife habitats that are now gone forever.

The implications of the proposed plastic bag levy are perverse. The DoE has said that the protection of our marine wildlife, so long neglected, and restoration of our rivers and streams may be postponed or suspended in the coming years. The continuation of this important work will now be dependent upon huge numbers of environmentally damaging plastic bags being sold annually to fund these frontline environmental services.

In real terms this means the sale of £16m worth of plastic bags over four years. We need to reduce the use of plastic bags not use the scheme to hold other areas of the DoE's work to ransom.

The overall cut to the DoE's budget is over £15m a year, which is around 12% of the amount it spends annually. These cuts will not only result in environmental damage, they will also put Northern Ireland under threat of enormous European fines.

This is because the DoE and others will be unable to comply with laws from Brussels as essential work is curtailed. These fines will run into many millions of pounds.

We know the Commission is asking difficult questions of the DoE already and I expect their patience will soon run out.

There really isn't enough detail in the draft DoE budget to help anyone plan for present and future environmental protection.

As an organisation that spends over £1.5m annually on nature conservation, we have offered our support to help the DoE make the right decisions about funding the future of our environment.

We have solutions that could reduce expenditure while retaining the outcomes. For example, organisations like the RSPB have the skills to manage state-owned nature reserves, maximising volunteer help and European grants to support management of these special places.

The door needs to be opened so that we can use our expertise to support the Executive's next steps.

We were promised a White Paper on the environment at the time when the creation of an independent environmental protection agency was dismissed. Such a road map for the future of our natural world now seems more essential than ever.

In the meantime, the RSPB cannot, and will not, support any poor decisions posed by Government cuts which will damage our rich and wonderful natural environment.

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