New Countryside Survey underway

DAERA has revealed a major new field survey is set to provide a unique and comprehensive picture of the ecological state of Northern Ireland’s countryside.
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Funded by the Department, the Northern Ireland Countryside Survey tracks changes in the countryside, plants, habitats and land cover, by periodically re-visiting a set of randomly selected one quarter of a km2 squares.

Dave Foster, DAERA’s Director of Natural Environment Policy Division, said this will be the fourth such survey to take place since it first began in the late 1980’s.

“The survey collects a wide range of information on habitats, field boundaries and plant species to help us understand how our local countryside and natural resources are changing over time. Field surveyors collect the information from 288 sites that were randomly selected at the very start of the survey. This long term data set taken in the same way from the same land over a long period of time is priceless.

“All of the information being collected will help us to understand how land management and land use has affected our landscape since the previous survey in 2007/2009. And will also help us to develop policies to manage the countryside sustainably,” he added.

The survey, which will for the first time, include soil sampling, applies a statistically robust, standardised methodology, so that countryside change can be objectively tracked over time.

The NI survey is led by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH), in collaboration with the Agri-food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) and Queen's University Belfast (QUB) and is linked to the GB Countryside Survey, enabling a unique picture of long-term countryside change at a UK scale.

“All this complex ecological information will be carefully analysed, providing a consistent, long-term dataset on the effects of policies, pressures and drivers of change on the countryside. It will also form part of the monitoring and evaluation of the Environmental Farming Scheme, inform a range of policy development and reporting obligations relating to the environment,” Mr Foster added.

Dr Lisa Norton, UK Centre for Hydrology and Ecology, said: “UKCEH is delighted to be working with AFBI and Queen's University on a repeat of the Northern Ireland Countryside Survey funded by DAERA. This type of countryside survey is vital to understand how our landscapes are changing over time. Teams will be out across NI this year (2023) and next (2024), visiting sites last surveyed in 2007/2009 to record habitat and species changes and take soil samples.”

Dr Suzanne Higgins, AFBI, said: “The work being undertaken in the countryside survey will help us understand how soil health varies across a wide range of NI habitats. Ultimately, this will help facilitate greater understanding of the links between soil quality and vegetation. The survey will be conducted across a representative sample of the NI countryside providing a valuable picture of change since previous surveys.”

Professor Mark Emmerson, QUB, said: “Globally, biodiversity is in decline, and the current survey will help us understand any trends in biodiversity changes Northern Ireland and aims to assess how well agri-environment schemes help prevent these declines.”

Dave Foster concluded: “Our thanks to all landowners and managers for granting access to their land for the work. Your help is very much appreciated with enabling this important survey work that will benefit our countryside for years to come.”

The results of the survey are due to be published in 2026.

The British Society of Soil Science will host the second day of its conference on Soil Management and Monitoring at the Assembly Building Conference Centre in Belfast today. The annual event was introduced by DAERA's Brian Ervine and includes presentations on DAERA Soil Nutrient Health Scheme.

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