The RSPB and farmers from across Northern Ireland have been celebrating the successful conclusion of the Halting Environmental Loss Project (HELP) which has helped to turn around the fortunes of threatened bird species.
Neal Warnock, Glenwherry project officer with the RSPB, spoke to Farming Life about the success of HELP in his project area and across Northern Ireland and how farmers have played an important role.
He explained: “The aim of the three-year project was to work with local farmers to boost the population of breeding waders (curlew, lapwing and snipe) in one of their last remaining strongholds in Northern Ireland.
“Nearly £1.5 million has been given to HELP from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) through the INTERREG IVA Programme, which is delivered locally by the Special EU Programmes Body.”
Neal continues: “In Northern Ireland the focus was on breeding waders such as curlew, lapwing, redhank and snipe with the project operating since 2011 at four sites in Northern Ireland being Lough Beg, Lough Foyle, Glenwherry and Fermanagh.”
The basis of the project, explains Neal, was to work on the ground as advisors to local farmers to help improve the management of the land for these endangered birds through one to one advice and training events. In addition to this the birds are surveyed every year to see what impact the work of the project has had in the areas.
He says: “The project has been a great success right across Northern Ireland.”
Neal says that a lot of credit for the success for the project is attributable to the farmers (more than 300 farmers were involved across 4,000 hectares by the end of the project) who took part in HELP
He says: “Personally speaking, at Glenwherry the RSPB has worked with local farmers for a number of years before the project so there has always been a strong relationship and that has only grown throughout the duration of the project.
“One of the main things about HELP is that the scheme has put farmers centre stage. All the success that we have enjoyed is thanks to our farming partners.
“They have worked exceptionally hard, often in difficult conditions. These are the farmers who a few years ago were so badly hit by the awful winter snow and they are also working on marginal lands, so I can’t praise them enough for their hard work and commitment to the project.”
Neal remarks that many of the farmers who took part in HELP did so because of a personal interest in the wildlife and birds of their area.
He says: “This has been a very large project and involved many farmers and they all had a personal interest in the wildlife that they saw on their land.
“I have been amazed by the knowledge that many of the farmers brought to the project.
“A lot of them would tell you the dates that they would expect to see birds returning to their land each year.
“And when you get the message across to them that these birds are endangered in Northern Ireland and that their land is one of the last strongholds for these birds its gives them an extra incentive to do their bit.”
He adds: “It is also clear that there is an admiration and love for these birds in the farming community and they want them to survive.”