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Northern Ireland Assembly

23 January 2001 (continued)

Mr A Doherty:

I recommend support for the motion, particularly since it seeks to augment the work already set in motion by the Environment Committee. As the Chairperson said, the Committee has actively engaged with the Department on this matter since November, when I drew attention to concerns expressed by members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and others.

Support for the motion should not be taken as criticism of the Department or of the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS). Much good work is already being done and if time allowed I could provide some details. However, I am sure the Minister will not miss the opportunity to reassure us of the Department's good intentions.

11.30 am

The motion is timely. The Department has acknowledged that there are a number of weaknesses in the present ASSI legislation, but it has yet to establish a firm, timetabled action plan. In its response to the Environment Committee's initial enquiries, the Department said that it intended to begin the ASSI consultation process "in the near future". The motion may encourage the development of a more precise programme in the very near future.

The motion refers specifically to areas of special scientific interest, but the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 goes much further than that. It is worth reflecting on the intentions and consequences of the Act. In a press release dated 13 June 2000, the UK Environment Minister said

"We want AONBs to be recognised for their national importance and the enjoyment they provide for many visitors. We must also ensure the full involvement of local people, those who live and work in the Areas or manage the land. These measures will improve the conservation and management of AONBs, boosting their role as part of our living countryside. We will continue to ensure that Government funding is available to work alongside local authorities in managing AONBs in partnership."

We should note the reference to the importance of partnership in the development of management. We should also note the promise of Government funding. Mr Meacher referred to the almost threefold increase in funding over three years, from £2·1 million to £5·9 million. Can our Minister give an equivalent guarantee that adequate funding will be available?

The legislation that is necessary to ensure that desired objectives are met must strike a balance between several competing rights and responsibilities. I have the privilege of living in Magilligan on the north coast. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty with a number of coastal and highland ASSIs. I appreciate the need for legislation to protect sensitive habitats and rights of access, and to ensure effective action against anyone who abuses or damages protected areas. However, we must remember that all land will be in public or - more likely - private ownership and that, therefore, legislation must also protect the rights of landowners to proper use of their land.

The farming community has many concerns that require our sympathetic consideration. Some of those concerns were expressed last July in the Ulster Farmers' Union's comprehensive reply to the European Commission on the subject of environmental liability. Paragraph 23 of its response urged the Commission to

"ensure that the Natura 2000 sites are designated and established prior to the implementation of an environmental liability regime. It would be unacceptable to impose a liability scheme dealing with damage to biodiversity while the sites are still in the process of being proposed and agreed."

I am sure that the Minister will take account of such concerns and that he will agree to take a staged approach to amending legislation to ensure that similar anomalies do not occur. That would be in accord with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which has "rural proofed" policy, notwithstanding some of the reservations that have been expressed. That point was made by Ewen Cameron, chairman of the Countryside Agency in a speech delivered on 18 January 2000. He warned that both local and central government must take greater account of the needs of rural areas and populations when drawing up policies:

"For too long, the Departments of State have developed their policies and initiatives from the perspective of the majority who live in towns. It is extremely heartening that the committing itself to encouraging a more inclusive approach. By working together, across the political spectrum, to improve the understanding of rural problems and opportunities, I am certain we can make a long-term difference to those who live and work in the countryside, as well as those who visit."

Mr Wells:

I support the motion. We are extremely fortunate to have some of the jewels of United Kingdom wildlife in the Province. Rathlin Island is an outstanding area for its seabird colonies, maritime heathland and high density of nesting birds of prey. Strangford Lough, some of which lies in my own constituency is internationally important for several species of waterfowl, including the brent goose and knot. Of course, no debate would be complete without a mention of west Tyrone and the raised bogs in the Fairy Water area near Omagh. We have some outstanding habitats, and they are in urgent need of protection and conservation.

I was heavily involved in the consultation process on the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 and on the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. Indeed, I hold the dubious distinction of having suffered the heaviest defeat ever inflicted at Stormont when I moved an amendment to that legislation, which lost by 56 votes to one. Things are getting better. In those days I was a voice in the wilderness. That is why it is so encouraging today to hear so many people supporting what I was saying 15 to 16 years ago.

What appals me is that the legislation giving the Department power to designate areas of special scientific interest (ASSI) came in 15 years ago, and we have still not completed the designation of all potential ASSIs in Northern Ireland. One hundred and seventy-nine have been designated, but at least another 50 are in the pipeline. I have to ask why it has taken 15 years and we still have not completed the process. There is absolutely no protection for habitats that are not declared ASSIs.

An enormous amount of damage is going on throughout the countryside and it is a worrying situation. I agree with Mr Jim Wilson when he says that we should not automatically duplicate the CROW Bill by simply tweaking it to suit the Northern Ireland situation. If he wants stronger legislation, then I say "Hear, hear" to that. I guarantee that I will be 100% behind even stronger legislation if that is the basis of his opposition.

We must have something on the table urgently. I ask the Minister to unshackle himself from his minders in the Department. I ask him to stand up here today and say "I am taking this matter by the throat, and I am bringing forward this legislation immediately so it can be discussed and debated by this House, the Committee and the general public." I do not know about other hon Members, but I have received a large number of letters from individuals throughout south Down - from some of the most surprising sources, I must say - who are deeply concerned about this issue and want us to act now. This is one of those measures where we, as an Assembly, can act in unison and come forward with something that all of the public will agree with.

I am deeply concerned that the present legislation is entirely negative in character when it comes to ASSIs. The Department tells individual landowners what they cannot do. There are good reasons for that, but I would like to see much more in the way of positive management agreements - a partnership - between landowners and the Department to protect these outstanding areas. I am also deeply concerned about the amount of third party damage to ASSIs throughout Northern Ireland.

How often have you driven down the roads in Counties Down and Armagh and seen small inter-drumlin wetlands being destroyed as a result of infilling by waste and rubble, and by other materials being dumped in these areas? The reality is that many of these sites do not, in their own right, have sufficient merit to be designated ASSIs, but taken together they are of inestimable importance to wildlife in Northern Ireland. One by one they are being ticked off as builders basically dump rubble and destroy them. That is a sad aspect of what is going on in Northern Ireland at present.

We must also introduce legislation that protects the wider countryside. ASSIs, even if they are all designated, protected and managed, will cover only 7% to 8% of the land surface of Northern Ireland. That still means that approximately 93% is left totally unprotected. We need to introduce policies that will protect the wider countryside. There are many species, such as the Irish hare, which will not be protected simply by the designation of ASSIs.

What would best come out of this debate would be for the Minister to give us a firm commitment on the date when the equivalent legislation to the CROW Bill will be tabled to the Environment Committee. We have raised this issue many times with the Department, and it has hidden behind words such as "We have plans to introduce". We want a date, and we want a date this morning. When will the matter come before the Assembly?

Mr McLaughlin:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Each of us can testify that this island is remarkably endowed with special conservation areas or areas of special scientific interest. Each of us can also testify to the level of interest. This is becoming a pressing issue. To some extent public opinion is in advance of the opinion of the Department and, thus far, the response of the Minister.

I urge support for the motion. I urge Members to consider the various ways in which we can promote the application of amending or new legislation to bring the Six Counties up to the same standards of protection as those enjoyed by other areas on this island or in Britain itself, or on offer through compliance with European Directives.

The issue is before us, and we must address the culture of complacency and lack of accountability in respect of this matter that has developed over the direct rule period. It has to be welcomed that the Environment Committee, of which I am a member, is already addressing this issue. The Minister will find that very strong representations will be made there. It is not beyond the Committee's ability to devise its own legislation or its own legislative proposal on the matter.

Either way, it will have to come before the Assembly for action. This situation demands that remedial action be taken urgently. It is not as if experience elsewhere cannot be applied here; it is not as if the templates do not exist; it is a question of resources and of the necessary prioritisation.

There is a precedent of convergence of views and cross-party support. The only Act that the Nationalist Party got through the old Stormont Government was the Wild Birds Protection Act 1931. We should consider that as a very useful and welcome precedent and see what we can do for society today. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Davis:

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 was controversial when it was debated at Westminster. The Act, which comes into force at the end of this month, changes relationships between landowners and the public and, in particular, those who like to roam on open land.

The situation in Northern Ireland is not identical to that in England and Wales - where the Act applies. Northern Ireland's land law has evolved in a different way from that in England and Wales. In the early part of the last century, many of the great landed estates in Ireland were broken up, and tenant farmers became the freehold owners of their lands.

Farms in Northern Ireland are mainly small, rural and family-owned. Although many farmers will rent land, this is usually done on an annual basis. In this context, the question of roaming over areas of mountain, moor, heath and down, as the English Act describes, does not apply in Northern Ireland in the same sense as it would in England and Wales.

The term "registered common land" is unknown in Northern Ireland and reflects a time in English history when certain areas were retained for the use of the people, in contrast to the rights of those who occupied the manor house.

At some stage the Assembly may have to examine the right-to-roam situation in Northern Ireland, but at this point I am not aware of any general feeling of public deprivation as regards rights over open land.

11.45 am

In my constituency - Lagan Valley - it is possible to roam in many areas of outstanding beauty. The Lagan Valley regional park is an open area that welcomes the public, and future development of the Lagan corridor will further enhance its amenities. The Belfast hills are an area of high scenic quality. The Dromara hills lie to the south, just outside my constituency. The Mourne Mountains lie further afield. The whole of Northern Ireland is blessed with excellent areas for walking and recreation. The public is reasonably relaxed about the current situation. If demand for a change in the law should grow, we should tread carefully so as not to damage the good relationships that currently exist between those who own the land and those who wish to ramble.

In 1999 the environmental policy division of the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland issued a discussion paper on access to Northern Ireland's countryside. The paper raised a number of questions about the future of access and asked for comments. It pointed out that the Access to the Countryside (Northern Ireland) Order 1983 placed responsibility for the care and maintenance of countryside access with district councils. Under the Order, councils were permitted to appoint a countryside officer, and many have done so. Many have prepared and are preparing an access strategy or countryside recreation strategy for their area.

In this context, the widest possible consultation should take place before any motion is put to the House to bring forward changes. There are many matters to be resolved. The question of occupiers' liability is of great importance. The right of landlords to have protection for their livestock and crops must be to the forefront, and the possibility of damage to the environment must be monitored.

The second part of the motion refers to Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs). The CROW Act provides for greater protection of these sites to prevent damage, to provide positive management of the sites, and to enhance their status. In Northern Ireland, the Planning Service is responsible for the treatment of ASSIs. Present controls for ASSIs may be adequate, but the issue should be examined by the Planning Service when a full review of planning takes place.

Mr Ford:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. My reading of the motion is that it refers to the protection of ASSIs. The speeches made by the proposer and most other Members have been about the protection of ASSIs. Is it in order for the members of one party to talk about a matter which is not the subject of the motion (several of them at great length) - namely, the right to roam and access to the countryside? This is not referred to in the substance of the motion.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I note your point. It might be wise for Members to adhere more strictly to the terms of the motion.

Mr Bradley:

Mr Deputy Speaker, I note your previous comment and apologise at the outset. I cannot stick to that, because I will follow the same themes expressed by other Members who have concerns.

First, I want to confirm my full and absolute support for the protection of flora and fauna and the countryside's physical features. However, I have concerns. Only yesterday, it was clearly stated in the House that animal diseases can be spread by pedestrians going from farm to farm. There is every reason to believe that that is a real possibility. Indeed, some farmers are still in the habit of providing disinfectant trays at the entrance to their farms for casual visitors. There is a widespread concern that must be addressed.

I fear that the Assembly is seeking to introduce legislation that will provide more rights to the general public than to landowners themselves. I own a small plot of land in an area of special scientific interest (ASSI). If Members think that they receive a lot of bumf from the Assembly about the Committees that they are on, they should see the correspondence that one receives about ASSIs. There are mountains of rules and regulations.

It has got to the stage where one can hardly look at the land, never mind go onto it. With that in mind, I would just say that the rules should be for everyone. If directives are laid down to protect an ASSI, the restrictions should apply to the landowners and public alike - there should be no difference. I am sure that the Committee and the Minister are fully aware of these points.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Mr Bradley, may I interrupt for a moment. I have taken some advice on answering Mr Ford's point, and I understand that the right of access and the right to roam are included in the Act referred to. It is therefore proper for those matters to be mentioned in the House.

Mr Bradley:

I agree with Mrs Carson and Mr Douglas, who referred to the issues of access and trespass.

The Committee and Minister will have to take those matters on board in future - there is no doubt about that.

I often wonder what level of reciprocation those who so energetically promote access to the countryside have in mind. Do they foresee the day when farmers and rural residents will be permitted to walk unchallenged through the gardens and lawns of north Down, for example, to admire the beauty within? We have heard about natural beauty. Is it planned to allow a farmer just to walk through a garden because it has beauty? Is that all part of their intention for the future? My closing words to those who are drawing up the legislation are "Tread carefully."

Mr Gibson:

First of all, I thank the proposer of the motion. Bearing in mind Mr Ford's warning about ASSIs, I will use the term "special areas of conservation" (SACs), as designated by the European Directive. In June last year the Minister wisely introduced 23 of those, making a total of 43 such designated areas in Northern Ireland.

I have three simple points. First, a number of people have quite rightly highlighted the rights of the current owners of property and, as Mr Wells has pointed out, the negative approach of some of the former Executive legislation. There is now an opportunity to achieve co-operation - for those who own the property and the lands, and those who own the turbary, to join with the Department in a form of eco-management.

It is very important that we now move on from the negative attitudes of 15 to 20 years ago into a new era of assisting those who own the land to form a new partnership in eco-farming, using the environment as a proper resource asset. Not only is it then protected, but it is managed and controlled. Bearing in mind that this is an environmental heritage that is ours to protect, it is not only ours to share but ours to care. Therefore it is very important that the Minister take on board that it is a golden opportunity, as part of the consultation, to make sure that there is a partnership involved, and that it is not negative as in the "Thou shall not"s of the past.

My second point concerns the issue of being able to share with those on the outside who wish to use, view, and enhance their own professional education in, the habitat that we have, with its varieties of fauna and flora. That has to be managed so that there is not abuse. However, we live in an age of litigation - people have become quite skilled at it - so those who own and manage land have got to be protected. That has been a concern in other areas - not just in eco-tourism, but in ordinary tourism where the right of the owner is challenged.

One good measure that was introduced by the Department of Agriculture was community forestry. However, that hit the buffers. Even though many farmers were willing to join and restore the natural forestry that once existed here, it was community forestry and other people had the right of access. Therefore the danger of litigation to the landowners became a threat. That threat stopped community forestry almost before it began - it was a stillborn idea.

I have heard about the difficulties of concrete jungles and the great haciendas that are being built on the Ards Peninsula. May I refer you to the unspoilt beauty of West Tyrone. It is an objective of the Habitat Directive of Europe that raised bogs be treated as a priority. I advocate that Crannagh Bog, Tully Bog and Tonaghbeg Bog - a group of raised bogs designated as ASSIs - become SACs. I also suggest that the Fairy Water SAC be extended to bring in Lough Envagh, the waterhills around Envagh and Ernasculpath raised bogs.

West Tyrone is rich in raised bogs, but they are now becoming a rare and important asset. The landowners have been careful about that. Bearing in mind that the present landowners have been the best caretakers of much of that rich heritage in the environmental sphere, I, as other Members have done, warn the Minister that the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 is not necessarily the legislation to use. However, I am sure that the Minister and the Department have enough ingenuity to draft legislation that will preserve an excellent heritage that we have every right to be proud of.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

We are running short of time, so to give sufficient time to the Minister and the proposer, Ms Morrice, I will call just one more Member. I am sorry to disappoint two or three Members who wanted to speak, but we have run out of time.

Dr Adamson:

In appreciation of yesterday's being as the Chinese New Year, may I say "Dor tse", which is Cantonese for "Thank you".

Mr Kennedy:

We will take your word for that.

Dr Adamson:

You can look it up.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

You speak Cantonese as well as your other languages.

Dr Adamson:

Yes, a little.

As an Irish peasant born and reared in Conlig, Co Down - near Jane Morrice's Bangor - I have great pleasure in speaking on the motion from a cultural viewpoint.

The countryside, with its beauty, traditions and lore, was the inspiration of our finest poets - the Ulster Weaver poets of the 1790s and early 1800s, who have given us a unique heritage. They were educated in Latin and Greek and achieved a higher level of culture than any section of the peasantry in western Europe.

They were not merely writing in appreciation of Robert Burns, whom we celebrate this week, but they belong to a tradition which went back to Allan Ramsay and beyond, in Scotland. From my own family came Uncle Ned - Edward Sloan, the bard of Conlig - but the most widely acclaimed of the Ulster poets was James Orr of Ballycarry, which is near the Ulster Unionist Party's Chief Whip's residence.

Like my ancestor, Archibald Wilson, James Orr was a radical thinker, patriot, United Irishman, New Light Presbyterian, and a humanist with a penetrating social concern for the poor. He was a contented weaver and a small farmer who never sought social elevation. Until his death, he continued to speak the Braid Scotch that we now know as Ulster-Scots. Archibald, my ancestor, was hanged outside our village for his part in the rebellion. My grandmother said that it served him right for entering politics. However, Orr survived and went on to write great poetry. In 'Rhyming Weavers' my old friend the late John Hewitt described some of Orr's poems as being far beyond the capacity of any of our other rural rhymers. Two of his poems, 'The Penitent' and 'The Irish Cottier's Death and Burial', can undoubtedly be described as major successes of our vernacular literature.


Mr S Wilson:

Is a rural rhymer one of the rare birds that we were talking about?

Dr Adamson:

They are getting rarer now.

The works of Orr provide us with the richest information that we have about social customs, traditions and everyday living in the Ulster countryside. Many of Orr's works are light-hearted and are intended to entertain rather than educate. My favourite is 'The Ode to the Potatoe' - "potatoe" is, of course, spelt with an "e", as it should be, although such spelling ruined a political career in America. The greatest export brought by the Ulster-Scots to America, apart from their music, was the potato. I shall read a couple of verses of his poem:

"Sweet to the badger, aft a lander
At day-light-gaun, thou'rt on the brander,
Brown skin't, an birslet. Nane are fander
To hear thee crisp,
Ere in some neuk, wi'goose and gander
He share the wisp.

The weel-pair't peasants, kempin', set ye;
The weak wee boys, sho'el, weed, an' pat ye;
The auld guid men thy apples get ay
Seedlin's to raise;
An' on sow'n-seeves the lasses grate ye,
To starch their claes."

Such poems form one of the finest records of the beauty of our countryside.

Thomas Beggs, another well-known folk poet, who was born in Glenwirry in 1789, called Orr "the Shakespeare of the plebeian train". Although many of his relatives were poor in material things, they had the rich resource of the countryside to sustain them. We must use every means in our power to nurture and protect that countryside.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

You have covered a lot of ground, Dr Adamson.

The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):

How can I follow that? The doctor is getting better as he matures. It is good that he has brought some lightness to what is an important subject. Many Members have put a great deal into our debate, and I welcome that. Indeed, the debate is very timely.

It is funny that there are different prospectives from across the Province. In Fermanagh, ASSIs are not popular at all, and people see them as a further planning obstacle. Opinions differ from one part of the world to the other. With regard to development, I have heard the cynical remark that a developer is someone who seeks a house in the woods, and a conservationist is somebody who has a house in the woods. I welcome the opportunity to outline to the Assembly what my Department has done and what it plans to do with regard to ASSIs. Before doing so, I shall set out the wider context.

As Minister of the Environment, I have as one of my main aims the promotion of a more sustainable way of living in Northern Ireland. Learning to make wiser use of our natural resources, including our countryside and wildlife, is an important part of that. We must try to meet our environmental, social and economic needs without harming the prospects for future generations. As the Executive have recognized, that is one of the keys to a more secure and prosperous future for the community.

We all enjoy the natural heritage that we have here. We all know of the quality of our countryside and the richness of its wildlife. The problem is that it is so easy to take such resources for granted and to underestimate the threats that they face, until it is too late and the damage has been done. I know that many people share my view of the importance of that heritage. For example, last autumn the biodiversity group produced a wide-ranging report on measures that should be taken to protect the variety of species and habitats that we enjoy. Moreover, many public representatives, interest groups and individuals have asked me to look at our legislation on the protection and management of ASSIs.

Several Members have put down Assembly questions on this during the last few months. I have also received a lot of correspondence from interested bodies and members of the public. Let me set out how I and the Executive as a whole are responding to this.

First, I am grateful for the additional resources made available in the recent Budget for work on environmental protection and nature conservation. While a large part of those funds will go on dealing with matters such as pollution control and waste management, wildlife and habitats will also benefit from additional funds from the management of designated sites and from payments to landowners, voluntary bodies and district councils. These will enhance our ability to encourage good conservation management at these sites.

Secondly, we are committed to producing a Northern Ireland biodiversity strategy this year. In that respect the advice of the Northern Ireland Biodiversity Group is most important. My officials will continue to take full account of the group's recommendations as it prepares that strategy.

Thirdly, my Department will continue to work closely with other Departments whose responsibilities have an important bearing on the natural environment. One important example is trying to integrate conservation into policies for the countryside and the rural environment.

Fourthly, there are a wide range of policies for which my Department is responsible which are contributing to a healthier countryside for both its people and its wildlife. It is important that we do not see the value of the natural environment only in terms of individual, rare species and small pockets of land which we preserve carefully, with everything in between being up for grabs. Maintaining and improving water quality, running educational programmes in country parks and working with other interested parties to look after major areas such as Strangford Lough and Lough Neagh are all part of this wider approach. In this there will continue to be an important role for protected areas, as is clearly seen by the proposers of this motion and by others who have spoken today.

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 applies to England and Wales only. In relation to sites of special scientific interest and the protection of wildlife, the Act's provisions introduce new and enhanced powers to improve the protection and management of SSSIs in England and Wales - for example, the development of management schemes to combat neglect, an increase in penalties for deliberate damage and the ability to order restoration of the damage to SSSIs, the power to refuse consent for damaging activities, and the authority for officials to enter land to monitor sites. These new powers have been considered necessary because it is evident that a significant proportion of SSSIs in England and Wales are in an unfavourable condition. Therefore the new legislation will create conditions in which sites can be more effectively and positively managed. Owners and occupiers will benefit from clearer procedures. They will also have new rights of appeal against the actions of the conservation agencies.

The equivalent sites are known as areas of special scientific interest (ASSI) here. My officials have been telling me that we have been experiencing similar difficulties with our ASSIs. We think that there are weaknesses in the current legislation and that those weaknesses are similar to those in other parts of the United Kingdom. The present legislation does not allow us to take action against persons who are neither owners nor occupiers but who are nevertheless engaged in activities which are damaging to the sites - in other words, third parties. There is also evidence that some sites are deteriorating as a result of inadequate or inappropriate management. We accept that this is very difficult to address within the current legislation.

In some cases, where ASSIs have also been identified as special areas of conservation or special protection areas, these difficulties are risking infringement of EC Directives. Consequently my officials have been working on a consultation paper on the protection and management of ASSIs. This paper raises a number of issues which I feel are crucially important to the safeguarding of these special places.

I am pleased to be able to announce to the Assembly that I will publish the consultation paper within the next few weeks. I am also considering, separately, if the Wildlife Order should be amended to strengthen the protection of certain species. I believe that the consultation paper on ASSIs will generate a constructive and wide-ranging debate on this important aspect of the conservation of our natural heritage.

Mr Wells:

The Minister used the phrase "within the next few weeks". Can he be more specific and tell us on what date he hopes to table this consultation document for the perusal of the Assembly?

Mr Foster:

It is difficult to name an actual date, but I estimate that it will be within the next six weeks.

I am also considering separately whether or not the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 should be amended to strengthen the protection of certain species, as I said. I believe that the consultation paper on areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs) will generate a constructive and wide-ranging debate on this important aspect of the conservation of our natural heritage. I will be particularly looking for comments and responses from organisations representing landowners, farmers, fishermen, industry, environmentalists, recreational pursuits and many others, since I consider that we will achieve much more by working in partnerships.

The potential of partnerships as a way of achieving management is well illustrated by Ballynahone bog at Maghera, which I learnt about in the autumn. We set up a partnership to manage this national nature reserve, involving the Environment and Heritage Service of my Department and the Ulster Wildlife Trust. What pleases me most about this arrangement is the commitment shown to it by the third partner, the locally based Friends of Ballynahone Bog. Having successfully campaigned to save the bog, the Friends are not stepping aside but taking an active role in plans to look after it.

When we have considered the responses to the issues raised during the consultation I will make specific proposals for changes to the legislation and any changes required to current procedures. My objectives throughout this process will be to secure improvements in the procedures for notifying sites; to achieve better protection for sites from development operations which damage the special interests and from deliberate damage; to secure better management of designated sites by both public and private landowners; and to get better value for money from payments to landowners to protect and manage sites by requiring conservation benefits.

A few questions have been raised. I will try to answer some of them.

Dr McCrea referred to the resources of the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS). An additional £2·5 million of programme money will be allocated to conservation and biodiversity, the management of designated sites, and meeting our obligations under European Directives. The EHS will also benefit from additional staff to do this work. In the coming year 12 new posts will be created in this area of work alone, and other new posts will be established in the relocated areas of pollution control and waste management.

Assembly Members Carson, Douglas, Wilson and Davis were worried about the provisions in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. The consultation that I have announced will not include the access provisions. Responses to the 1999 consultation exercise on access to the countryside pointed up the importance of the issue of occupiers' liability. My Department, in conjunction with the Countryside Access and Activities Network, has commissioned a study into occupiers' liability as it pertains in Northern Ireland. The initial findings of that study will soon be circulated through the publication of a leaflet, and the consultant appointed will be holding two public seminars in the near future. My Department expects that a report on the public response to these findings will be published in June.

Assemblyman Ford was concerned about hare coursing. The regulation of hare coursing is a matter for the Department for Social Development, while permits to take live hares from the wild are issued by my Department. These permits are issued subject to certain conditions. Permission to take the hares must be obtained from the relevant landowners. The permit also requires that the hares be released back into the area from where they were taken. I am advised that there is no strong case for withholding permits on the grounds of conservation.

However, my Department recently published a biodiversity action plan for the Irish hare. This plan was put together with help from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Ulster Wildlife Trust. Although the number of hares has declined markedly in recent years, coursing is not identified in the plan as one of the principal threats to their survival. However, the plan does propose that the legislative protection of the Irish hare should be reviewed, and we will be looking at that over the next year.

Mr Ford:

Will the Minister confirm that two hares were taken on Rathlin Island for last autumn's coursing and were not returned to the island, in contravention of the licence under which they were taken? They should be released back into the wild in the same area.

Mr Foster:

Somebody reported at one time that 70 hares had been taken from Rathlin Island. I do not know where they got that from. I can confirm that two hares were taken from Rathlin Island, but as I understand it - and I will confirm it - the two hares were returned. If I am wrong, I will give a written reply. Nevertheless, it is an important issue and I take the point.

12.15 pm

Mr Jim Wilson referred to planning control. He was very concerned about the need for better planning control to protect the countryside. That is a good point. I am determined to look at the implications of that for our planning control system.


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