Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly pays tribute to the heroic efforts by those emergency service personnel from across these islands and the local community who responded to the recent wildfires in the Mournes; notes the importance of preserving the natural environment for improving air quality, biodiversity, carbon capture and combating the climate emergency; further notes the importance of both rewilding and protecting peatlands in tackling the climate emergency; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to produce fully resourced strategies and implementation plans to protect, preserve and enhance our peatlands and woodlands without further delay. — [Mr McGrath.]
Before I begin, I apologise to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for not being in my place to ask my question of the Minister of Education. I hope that you and other Members understand that that related to the choreography of getting here and the limited numbers allowed in the Chamber. My sincere apologies.
With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will briefly mention the inquest outcome that found the Ballymurphy victims innocent. I pay tribute to their families on the vindication of their campaign, and my thoughts are with them.
The point has been made many times, but I will further emphasise it: we are facing a climate and ecological crisis. Northern Ireland's unique natural environment is under significant threat. I have asked a number of questions on the issue, both questions for written answer and in the Chamber. Last week, I met the Mourne Heritage Trust to discuss the matters that are the subject of the motion. Although we commonly refer to "wildfires", as was said to me during that meeting and has been on other occasions, those fires are not wild. As the Minister said in response to questions on his statement a couple of weeks ago, for the most part such fires are caused by human bad practice, and we should reflect that when we speak on the issues.
Ammonia levels have risen by 22% in Northern Ireland since 2010, compared with an increase of 5% in the rest of the UK. Some 98% of designated special areas of conservation (SACs) are exceeding critical key levels of pollutants. That can seriously impact on protected sites such as peatlands and woodlands. Northern Ireland has about 8% of tree cover, which is thought to be the lowest in Europe, and our forest cover is around 40% lower than the UK average. It is therefore hardly surprising to learn that our land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector, unlike that of Great Britain, is a net carbon source rather than a net sink.
Investing in peatland restoration and ambitious afforestation is critical if we are serious about a green recovery. The time to act is now.
We need to seize the many cross-cutting environmental and economic opportunities, such as rewilding and habitat restoration, in order to enable landowners in rural communities to diversify their income in areas where farming alone is no longer the only viable option. We need ambitious, long-term plans and concrete actions to restore our damaged ecosystems. We need to catch up with the rest of the UK and deliver a comprehensive recovery strategy in tandem with legislative change.
Last year, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced a fund of £640 million to plant more than 40 million trees and restore 35,000 hectares of peatland in England, with the Scottish and Welsh Governments also investing in similar schemes. The Irish Government have approved an allocation of €108 million for a bog rehabilitation plan. In Northern Ireland, we have made a significant start with the green growth strategy and the Forests for our Future, but more is required.
In Northern Ireland, our peatlands are under threat, with pressures such as overgrazing, drainage and burning causing damage to 86% of them. As a result, many of our peatlands are now net emitters of greenhouse gases. It is critical that we develop similar schemes here if we are to restore our natural carbon store.
The Alliance Party's green new deal, launched last month, outlines my party's plans to deliver large-scale biodiversity restoration and a continued urgent need for an independent Northern Ireland environmental protection agency. On behalf of Alliance, I support the motion and thank the Members for bringing it forward. The motion's purpose is to introduce strategies to protect our treasured natural environments, to encourage others to do the same, and to progress these urgent matters for the good of our people and our future. With my Alliance colleagues, I support the motion.
I support the motion. It is both a timely and necessary realisation that our peatbogs, wetlands and forests should be a priority for the Executive. The Executive need to pay more attention to the protection and enhancement of our unique environment.
I join other Members in highlighting the bravery and dedication of our emergency services and members of the community who battled the Mournes wildfire. Those involved put their lives at risk to bring that fire under control, and it is right that they are praised and recognised for their efforts.
While we are about to launch a peatlands strategy document, the primary challenge to peatland restoration is economic. We have spent decades draining peatlands, grasslands and wetlands, all at a cost. However, reversing that drainage also comes at a cost. Altering drainage patterns and local hydro-geography can be costly, but that cost must be met, and it is well worth the expense to the Executive.
The loss of species by wildfires like that on the Mournes can take decades to repair. We need a strategy to reintroduce species where necessary and to enhance the recovery of other species that have been displaced. Peatlands provide an important habitat for many species, and restoration efforts will also have important benefits for biodiversity. Despite the economic hurdles, the technical capacity for restoring peatlands already exists and could be brought in very quickly. <BR/>Yesterday, someone said — I think that it was Mr McGlone — that we should leave the environment in a better place than we inherited it. I agree. We owe it to our children and to our children's children to protect our environment. On that note, I conclude by saying that I support the motion.
Like others, I pay tribute to the women and men of our fire service who recently battled the wildfire in the Mournes and, indeed, those in Kerry too. My sister-in-law is a firefighter who has been involved in tackling wildfires, both in the glens of Antrim and the Sperrins, so I know from her the dedication and bravery required for that task.
Nobody could have watched the scenes from the recent fire in the Mournes on our TVs, listened to tales of the local community, or heard from environmentalists detailing the devastating impact of the fire and not have been moved. The environmental impact of such a fire is massive. Last year, in my own constituency of North Antrim, there was a similar wildfire — I take on board the terminology of John Blair, but I am not going to change my speech now, and it is in the motion — in Slieveanorra, between Loughill and the glens. Two years before that, there was another fire on the Craigs Road in my constituency, just outside Rasharkin, and in years gone by, the same on the grass side of Knocklayde Mountain in Ballycastle. Those fires are happening much too frequently. The damage and environmental impact that they cause are much too great.
Like others, I support the motion. Who could argue against the importance of preserving and protecting the natural environment? As the motion states, we need to do so in order to positively impact on air quality, biodiversity and carbon capture and, ultimately, help to combat climate change. We need to rewild and protect peatlands. Uplands are an important part of the ecosystem. As it has been pointed out, peatlands are an excellent carbon sink. The South and other regions on these islands have peatland strategies. It is imperative that the Minister publishes a strategy as soon as possible that deals with peatlands and woodlands and is resourced properly to do so.
I have said many times in the Chamber how privileged I am to live in and represent the constituency of North Antrim, easily the most beautiful part of Ireland.
I nearly got agreement from my constituency colleague there.
Leaving aside the internationally renowned heritage sites and beauty spots, it is a part of the world that is blessed with some of the most beautiful environmentally rich places, including peatlands and woodlands. Forests and woodlands play a key environmental role, but they also act as key locations for tourism and recreation. In 2019, it was estimated that almost 9 million visits were made to forest estates during an eight-month period.
During last year, under the circumstances of the pandemic, many more people, including me, will have reacquainted themselves with the natural environment. I feel lucky to have been able to exercise by running through the Slieveanorra and Garvagh forests or to go for walks and introduce my newborn granddaughter to the beauty of the Glenariff and Portglenone forests on many occasions during the past year. I suspect that, even when normality returns, those are habits that I and many others will keep up. It was compelling to witness individuals using forests and woodlands to exercise, walk the dog and meet up safely with family and friends in outdoor settings as the restrictions allowed.
I have no doubt that, when he gets up to speak, the Minister will find some way to negatively connect the motion to the positive advancement, yesterday, of the Climate Change Bill's moving to Committee Stage. He will have to get over that and accept that the majority of MLAs in the Chamber want to see more ambition on the climate and environment than that to which he has, thus far, been prepared to accede. Yesterday's vote proved that. I hope that he takes note of that.
I will accept the first part of the Member's assertion. Yesterday, everybody stated that we cannot achieve climate progress without the custodians of the environment, who are the farmers. However, the Bill is not about the decimation of rural communities; it is about protecting those rural communities and the role that farmers in those communities have for future generations beyond the current one.
I was just talking about the vote yesterday. I suppose that the Minister's mind is on another, upcoming vote. Maybe, after Friday, he will find himself in a different position. Time will tell. Either way, there is plenty of time left within the mandate for him, if he remains the Agriculture Minister, to proactively and progressively bring forward a strategy on the issue in the motion and many other strategies that would set the course to protect and advance environmental policies in the North for the benefit of all citizens.
At the outset of my remarks, I want to take the opportunity to join other Members in paying tribute to the many agencies and individuals who fought the recent fire in the Mournes. The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and Forest Service, alongside the UK and Irish coastguards and the council all played a role. I wish to echo the words and thanks that have already been given.
It is sad to say that the recent fire in the Mourne Mountains has caused untold damage to the biodiversity, wildlife and natural habitats of the area. Without the dedicated and professional efforts of everyone who was involved, the devastation could have been even worse. It will take time to assess the scale of the damage that has been inflicted on the environment.
I know that the Minister has already outlined his commitment to work with the relevant stakeholders to rebuild, restore and, most importantly, learn from this tragic event.
We must all engage in seeking to prevent any recurrence of the scenes that we witnessed, with the silhouette of the blazing Mournes countryside against the night sky. Prevention must be our key focus as the work commences to repair the environmental damage. Greater enforcement and targeted legislation are required to deal with the problem. We cannot afford to take our environment for granted, particularly given its importance to tourism and local communities.
Mention has been made of the need for the greater use of firebreaks to limit future damage in light of the sheer size of the area affected by the recent fire. That must be seriously considered for the future. The addition of 2-metre firebreaks could significantly protect heathland and limit future risk. I am aware that the Minister is committed to working closely with the National Trust, which has responsibility for a considerable part of the upper Mournes, to identify the scale of the damage, establish a recovery plan and ensure that funding is provided to allow the roots of recovery to take hold as soon as possible. I welcome those commitments.
The Department has also recognised that Northern Ireland's density of woodland lags behind the rest of the UK and other jurisdictions. That recognition has been evident in the initiatives that the Minister has recently commenced to tackle the problem. The Forests for our Future scheme is one of those initiatives, and I was delighted to hear this week that 670,000 trees have so far been planted as a result of that programme. Of course, that is a component of the green growth strategy being spearheaded by DAERA, of which the development of a peatland strategy will be an important strand. Woodland creation is a simple, low-cost option to improve our landscape and remove carbon from the atmosphere to help meet the UK's net zero carbon target by 2050. It does not just provide economic benefits and incentives to farms: it enhances biodiversity in local areas and increases carbon capture.
The recent wildfires have highlighted the need for greater protection of our heathlands, peatlands and key environmental assets as a whole. The strategies that the Minister has committed to will no doubt result in further legislative underpinning and protections, which will be needed to ensure that we not only rewild those areas but protect them for the future, as, the motion rightly states, will be needed.
This morning, a Sinn Féin delegation led by Chris Hazzard, the MP for South Down, and including the Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, joined the National Trust to survey the damage caused by last month's devastating fire in the Mournes. I spoke to my colleagues prior to coming into the Chamber for the debate to get their feedback, and they spoke of the impact and the effect on our wildlife and sensitive habitats as apocalyptic. The motion acknowledges the heroic efforts by the fire and rescue services in tackling the fire in the way that they did. I reiterate my thanks and those of the people across South Down and beyond to the men and women who battled acres of blazing peatland with shovels in the most oppressive heat and in a gruelling location.
The Mournes are an area of outstanding natural beauty. They are an iconic natural asset not just for this region but for the island as a whole. During the last year, they have taken on a greater significance for people, with many trekking and hiking in them and some people discovering their majesty for the first time. That is one of the only positives to come out of COVID over the last year. However, the Mournes are more than just a nice place to spend a day. Their peatlands and heathlands are special areas of conservation, and they are designated for their wildlife and habitats. Recently, I heard the Economy Minister encouraging people to holiday at home and take advantage of the natural assets that we have on our doorsteps. That is great — of course we want people to people to come to south Down — but the Economy Minister and her Department need to get real about the impact of increased tourism on places like south Down, Kilbroney, the areas around Carlingford lough and, of course, the Mournes. I call on her to make funding available from her Department to mitigate the impact that increased tourism will have.
Some 3 square kilometres of the Mournes were burned, including vital peatland. A large number of nesting birds were waiting on their young to hatch, and we have many other forms of wildlife that contribute to the delicate ecosystem that exists in the Mournes. As my colleague alluded to, peatlands lock away carbon, which is an essential function in helping Ireland and Britain to meet their targets in reducing greenhouse gases. Put simply, we just cannot afford to lose that amount of peatland. It was not a one-off event. The area has been burnt before, and we know that certain species simply have not recovered from the last event. Every time we have a wildfire, particularly if it is on the scale that we have experienced in the Mournes in recent years, we lose more and more vital plant life, animals, insects and, of course, peatland.
I cannot let the debate go by without talking about gorse fires and land clearing. We know that the latest fire in the Mournes was started deliberately. The Minister suggested at the time that it could have been a result of day trippers hiking up the Mournes in their flip-flops and lighting barbecues. Maybe it was, or maybe the more plausible explanation is that it was a result of land clearing. Certainly, the intent was to cause damage, but what we can all hopefully agree on is that gorse burning as a means of clearing land is not the way to do it and should not be incentivised.
I know that the relevant agencies are continuing their investigations. Hopefully, they will be successful in their efforts, but what will the punishment be? The judicial process for such matters is wholly inadequate. A small fine will probably be the result. The punishment for this type of arson should match the crime of destroying a natural asset.
The majority of farmers care greatly for the environment, but Governments North and South must work with farmers to enable them to transition to practices that do not necessitate such destruction. Governments must also manage and protect our areas of natural beauty instead of prostituting them for economic gain. There is a draft peatlands strategy gathering dust in the Department: let us get it off the shelf and get it published.
As I said in the Chamber a couple of weeks ago, £4·5 million has been spent by the Fire and Rescue Service on tackling wildfires, yet local management groups like the Mourne Heritage Trust receive only a fraction of that to manage and protect the Mournes. We have got our priorities all wrong with that, and something needs to change. I am delighted that, following his visit to the Mournes this morning, the Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, has pledged to make the necessary funding available to help repair the damage. We know that we will need expert ecologists and biologists to be brought in to assess the damage, and Minister Murphy has pledged that there will be no more looking down the back of the sofa for pennies to help repair the damage that has been caused. However, throwing money at it is not the answer. It will not be enough if we do not have a plan. We need a plan, and I call on the Minister to establish a task force and a round-table discussion immediately that will involve central government, councils and various agencies and landowners putting the necessary action plans in place to protect and repair our most precious environments.
As a representative from the SDLP and particularly as a South Down representative, I am honoured to put my name to the motion. At the outset, I, like other Members, put on record my thanks to the brave firefighters who stepped up in the recent wildfires in the Mournes and played their part in bringing that fire under control. The report stated that there were in excess of 100 firefighters and partner agencies from across the island involved in tackling the fires and bringing them under control. We owe all those individuals a huge debt of gratitude for the tremendous work that they did. It has to be said that that work was quite perilous at times. There was without doubt a sense that it was a major incident, and, as information rolled out across the community, it became abundantly clear that it was a major incident; in fact, I will quote the assistant chief fire and rescue officer, Aidan Jennings, who said about the fire that it was:
"undoubtedly one of the most challenging gorse fires Firefighters have ever had to deal with."
The firefighters, alongside their public service partners, have to be thanked.
We must also take a moment to thank the local community, which played its part in supporting those teams. I am sure that many Members will be aware of him, but I can think of one person who epitomises that public spirit, and that is young Charlie Thomson, aged 12. I understand that his dad is a lifeboat volunteer, so he comes from good stock and understands the roles played by volunteers and all those who work for our emergency services.
Young Charlie expressed to his mum his desire to do something to try to help the firefighters who were up there representing and helping all of us. In a very short time, he managed to raise, I believe, £1,900, which was used to bring snacks and water to the firefighters. As the flames rose to mighty heights on Slieve Donard and elsewhere in the Mournes, so, too, did that community spirit, and, to my mind, Charlie Thomson epitomised that. I thank Charlie and all the community representatives who played similar roles in assisting those who were helping us.
Peatlands, and fens and bogs in particular, create ecosystems with a unique quality. We need to understand their history. That landscape has evolved since the last ice age, so it is in our interests to ensure that we do everything in our power not only to sustain and protect it but to make sure that our life habits work in unison with it. It is unique, but it is a fragile type of landscape that requires our support. I, like many others, genuinely welcome the fact that many people have reconnected with outdoor spaces as a result of COVID. However, there is no denying that, as going to those spaces becomes more routine, we must all educate ourselves better on how we support and protect the very environments that we are enjoying.
South Down is, in my view, the jewel in the crown of Northern Ireland's outdoor offering. It is no surprise to me that not only people from south Down want to enjoy our beautiful natural environment. We want to build a tourism strategy that will attract people to the area. We must do that in a really sensitive way, appreciating that we have to make sure —.
I will indeed. We have to make sure that all policies, including the ones that the motion asks for, are developed in a way that protects those lands. Any policy must be fully resourced. We should go forward on the basis of that resourcing, which will have a direct effect on protecting the biodiversity that we inherited.
We are privileged to have the Minister with us. Before he inevitably moves on to higher things, I will use this short period of five minutes — hopefully six, if someone intervenes quickly — to ask him three pertinent questions about the motion.
Minister, do you accept that peatlands have the most enormous potential to mitigate climate change in Northern Ireland? Their proper use could overcome some of the issues related to reducing stock levels that were raised yesterday. Eighteen per cent of our land in Northern Ireland is peatlands. At the minute, peatlands are a net contributor to carbon emissions, but, if properly utilised, they could be a vast store for carbon. The Department is funding projects on the Garron in Antrim and Cuilcagh in Fermanagh. Can the Minister guarantee that those will continue? Can he explain why his Department still allows the destruction of peatlands when we know that they have such potential for carbon storage? Why are we giving planning permission for peat extraction and the development of peatlands when they have so much potential to store carbon? Why has the Department not completed the area of special scientific interest, special protection area and special area of conservation designations? The Act came in in 1985, and I am able to tell him how long ago that was because I was in the Chamber when it passed. Here we are, 36 years later, and we still have not completed our ASSI designation.
We still have not given protection to the habitats mentioned in the motion. That is question 1, Minister.
Question 2 is about afforestation, which is absolutely essential to the storage of carbon in Northern Ireland. Why, oh why is his Department giving grant aid and consent to using exotic coniferous species such as Sitka spruce, lodgepole pine and Norway spruce? We all read 'Farming Life', which is the official journal of the honourable Member for Newry and Armagh Mr Irwin. He is in it every week, and I think that he has shares in 'Farming Life'. He is certainly one of its major contributors. I read it every week just to find out what Mr Irwin is saying to me, and it is all good stuff. I read this week's article, which talks about a wonderful new scheme to plant 50 hectares of woodland in north Antrim. "Great," I said, until I read the text, which said that half of the first tranche would be foreign alien species, which do nothing for biological conservation and do very little for the sequestration of carbon. That is question 2, Minister.
Question 3 is this: when will his Department take fires in the Mournes seriously? I will use parliamentary privilege here, Mr Deputy Speaker. In May 2019, there was a serious fire on the Leitrim Road adjacent to Castlewellan forest park. The landowner, a Mr King, deliberately lit that fire. I believe that I have privilege: he deliberately lit that fire. Forest Service staff approached Mr King and said that, if he did not put the fire out, it would spread to Castlewellan forest park and cause a lot of damage to public land. He ignored them, and what happened? The fire then spread to Castlewellan forest park, causing enormous damage. I provided the name of the culprit to the police, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and the Department's Forest Service, but absolutely nothing was done. There was no interview, and nor was there any potential prosecution. Had an example been made of that individual, it would have sent out a massive signal to the community that we will not tolerate such actions.
As Ms Ennis said, those fires are not accidental. They are caused by landowners burning off vegetation in the spring to increase yields. Why do they occur in April and May and not in August? It is because there is no benefit in setting light to the mountainside in August; it is done in April and May. Before the Minister moves on to much higher things, his Department needs to deal with the situation immediately.
I thank the proposers of the motion; it is an important debate. I will have to recommend myself for disciplinary action because I find myself agreeing with Mr Wells far too much.
Of course I support the motion. I am one of those people who are affectionately known as "tree huggers". Like the Minister's colleague, my colleague in Strangford Jim Shannon MP, I have planted many trees, and I maintain a wildlife sanctuary on the Ards peninsula. If only we had more trees. However, as Mr Wells said, my commitment is to natural trees that are native to Northern Ireland, which should be protected. I agree with him that invasive external species should not be used here.
We have a vibrant biodiversity in Northern Ireland, but it is being harmed by red tape. While I absolutely agree with the Minister's planned Forests for Our Future project, I have a concern that, when planning permission goes forward through different councils across Northern Ireland, the red tape ties them up and they cannot proactively protect woodlands; in fact, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), which is supposed to look after our environment, is at times tied up with red tape. That is why I support the idea of an independent environment agency.
I agree with the RSPB, which has called for the need to resource fully a strategy to protect, preserve and enhance our peatlands and woodlands. As part of that resourcing and as part of the Minister of Finance's review of building regulations, I would like Minister Poots to take forward some further support with planners to ensure that woods can be protected. There is a quarry in my area that has been defunct for over 50 years. There is a woodland that a developer is trying to develop, and the planning officers say that their hands are tied.
I have to say that the destruction of wildlife that is happening is not on.
There is not as much peatland in my constituency as there is in others. I watched my neighbouring mountains in South Down burn. What a sight it was to see, just beyond the Ards peninsula, the sky lit up bright red that night. All that I could think of was the Fire and Rescue Service personnel, who, at that time, were batting down the fires with shovels and coping with all that smoke. It is really hard to imagine the nightmare in which they were working. It is amazing that they managed to get the fires out. We did not have rain over that time, unfortunately. It came a bit later the next week. How many people have to put their life in danger, however, before the issue is dealt with? I agree with Mr Wells that there needs to be stronger legislation in place so that, when people are found to be breaking environmental laws, more can be done. I absolutely support the Minister in taking something forward.
Minister, you said in your statement on 26 April 2021:
"We cannot afford to take our environment for granted." — [Official Report (Hansard), 26 April 2021, p10, col 2].
I do not think that you do. I know that you said that the £340 million associated with the European Union should be provided directly through Westminster and not via the Barnett consequentials, and I would love to see a strategy developed for how we can get that amount of money invested in our environment in Northern Ireland.
I know that a lot of farmers are concerned about the Climate Change Bill that is going through the House. They are the custodians of our environment. I live in a rural area, surrounded by farmers, and I know many farmers who are saying, "If we are part of the discussions on that, we can help and improve things". In fact, Jim Shannon MP said in the House of Commons:
"All types of moorland need some land management to maintain the protected and rare habitats and the species that thrive in them."
We will depend on our farmers to do that.
Today's motion is calling for resources to ensure that our peatlands and woodlands can be protected, but that cannot be done just by the House. Rather, it has to be done in partnership with others, such as our councils and the NIEA. The Environment and Climate Change Committee in Westminster wanted to ban the burning of peatlands by 2020. Why can we not be that strident? Why do we not try to achieve something that forward-thinking? Our schools, our planning departments and our councils all have a role to play. Minister, I will support you to the hilt if you take that measure forward. We cannot stop looking after our environment because some people want to have planned burning, which risks so much of our habitat.
Members, at last week's Business Committee, it was agreed that, in some circumstances, the Speaker may add a little time to time-limited debates. I have decided to exercise that discretion today, so the remaining two Members who wish to speak will have five minutes each in which to do so.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The Minister will know the area that I speak of fairly well, as it is in a neighbouring constituency. I am from the townland of the Montiaghs, and some people may know that it takes seven Derries to make a Montiagh. The area in which I was born is called Derrymore, and "Doire Mór" means "big oak tree", but no one would know from where we get our place names, because of a lot of the woodland and native species have all but disappeared. Indeed, Mr Wells will know it exceptionally well, particularly Portmore Lough, where we have the excellent RSPB sanctuary. The preservation of the lowland around Portmore Lough is managed by the RSPB, which I commend for its efforts.
I join others in commenting on the courage and tenacity of the firefighters and, indeed, the local community on the evening of the fire in the Mournes. I also join Mr Blair in marking the fact that the 10 people who were murdered by British Army forces in Ballymurphy have been found innocent today. I pay tribute to them and to their families, who have not only restored their relatives' reputations but highlighted some of the truth of the past, which the Secretary of State seems determined to bury.
I will return to the debate in hand, I know that a number of Members have spoken about peatlands and woodlands and the importance of those environments for rewilding. In the short time that is available to me, however, I will touch specifically on a strategy that, hopefully, the Minister will soon publish and consult on, as well as on the importance of monitoring and reporting, which are key elements of any strategy going forward.
I also ask that that evaluation look at the greenhouse gas emissions inventories as well as reporting successes because we need to learn from best practice elsewhere. Indeed, I think that it was Mr Blair who referred to the investments that the other jurisdictions in these islands are making and the targets that they are setting. I implore the Minister to include similar asks in his strategy.
I also think that communication is important. It is only over the past few years, I have to confess, that I have learned of the importance of peatlands to decarbonisation, which Mr Wells highlighted. Where I come from, we call it turf rather than peat. In north Antrim, my father-in-law cuts peat, whereas my grandfather cut turf. I used to go with him when he was cutting the turf down in the moss. That is something that we would now frown upon, but, in those days, much of it was borne of necessity, as it provided a fuel that people could not otherwise afford and did not have many other options available to them.
First, I agree entirely with the Member. However, as we speak this afternoon, there are thousands of acres of this crucial habitat, which has the capacity to absorb vast amounts of carbon, being destroyed for horticulture, for fuel, for development or for drainage. Does she not accept that that is madness, given what we now know about peatlands?
It is interesting.
The Member is right. I know that the Minister is looking at the rural development policy and at how we invest in diversification. Special attention has to be paid to those whose livelihoods depend upon the peatlands. They have to be asked to rethink and to be guardians of much of the land that they own. Communication and education have to be at the centre of a peatlands strategy. I am only finding out about it, yet I grew up with it and loved it and knew about the native species such as the corncrake.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I am last but not least. Like others, I thank the emergency services and the local community for their actions in tackling the horrific fires that we all witnessed engulf the Mournes a few weeks ago. I also thank all those who heeded warnings not to go to the area to allow people to do their job and make the area safe. Thanks must also go to those NGOs that continue to fight the good fight against the effects of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss, delivering positive change.
We know how important our woodlands and peatlands are for our environment and the crucial role that they play as part of nature-based solutions. We have also been blessed with a disproportionate share of the world's scarce peatlands, but we have been, and continue to be, poor guardians of that precious resource. The cost of restoring our blanket bogs has been calculated to be less than the costs of dealing with the effects of climate change. Therefore not only can we reduce carbon emissions but we can lock it up, and we can continue to do so in the future, as well as filter our water, control flooding, provide niche habitats for wildlife and enhance our tourist offering. So, what is stopping us? As we have heard, peatlands provide significant natural capital benefits, including carbon storage, water purification, flood prevention, habitat restoration and improved air quality.
The all-party group on climate action, which I chair and of which, I am glad to say, Mr Wells is a prominent member, recently heard that, in England, a £640 million nature for climate fund has been established, with a significant proportion allocated to peatland restoration. The Scottish Government have allocated £250 million for peatlands over the next 10 years. The Welsh national peatlands action programme 2020-25 committed £1 million a year over the next five years.
In the Republic, too, €108 million is committed to rehabilitating former peat extraction sites. In the presentation that we were given, we were shown a table in which Northern Ireland had question marks beside it. I hope that the Minister can fill in some of the blanks for the House on exactly how much his Department is putting towards peatland recovery, as well as providing an update on where the Department's promised strategy is.
This is not just a job for DAERA. The motion must also extend to the remit of other Ministers, such as the Minister for Infrastructure, as we are dealing with ammonia pollution. Also, the power to grant large-scale peat extraction lies with the planning authorities. Properly addressing the issue will require buy-in from Finance, Economy, Infrastructure and Education, as well as local communities and NGOs. It must be joined up — joined-up thinking, policy-making and funding — to enable nature to start getting joined up again. As we know, nature is remarkably resilient and capable of regeneration, if we just allow it to happen and manage it properly.
We need to plant the right trees in the right places, and there must be a strategic approach to woodland creation that is integrated with other land use considerations. That will involve, crucially, as Ms Armstrong has said, local councils, as part of local development plans and community planning, and other organisations in our communities that are leading the way. Rather than the scattergun approach of offering grants for planting spruce, for example, there needs to be a tree and woodland strategy for Northern Ireland to ensure that the right trees, the native species, are planted in the right places. Of course, peatland and woodland strategies must be part of a nature recovery network.
The debate further shows the need for an independent environmental protection agency for Northern Ireland, and we in the Green Party have consistently called for that New Decade, New Approach commitment to be honoured. The Assembly has even voted in favour of a motion calling for its establishment, but that promise has been kicked down the line to, perhaps, the next mandate. Again, on a crucial matter, the Executive fail to deliver. The need for an IEPA has never been greater. Northern Ireland is the most nature-depleted part of the United Kingdom, which is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. We cannot continue like this. I support the motion.
A significant wildfire started in the Mourne Mountains on Friday 23 April and lasted until Sunday 25 April. I visited the scene on Saturday 24 April and saw at first hand the invaluable role of our emergency services. I took the opportunity to speak to the personnel at the site and saw up close the extremely difficult terrain and the challenging conditions in which they had to work. I also note the practical support provided by the community and businesses to the emergency services.
I gave a detailed oral statement to the Assembly in response to the wildfire on 26 April. In that statement, I paid tribute to the emergency services involved in the response to the wildfire, Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and PSNI, in particular, for the outstanding dedication, professionalism and bravery of the firefighters, who put their health, welfare and, potentially, their lives at risk. I acknowledge the exceptional work of the emergency services to get the fire under control. I also pay tribute to the Forest Service, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the UK coastguard, Irish Coast Guard and Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, and I acknowledge the practical support provided by the local community and business. I extend my thanks to and acknowledge the role of the National Trust, Mourne Heritage Trust and Sky Watch NI in assisting with the response to the fire and supporting the emergency services.
Sustainability is at the heart of my Department's thinking, and we need to have a balance in utilising our natural resources to provide much of our food and wood, while not overexploiting that finite natural capital. The Mournes are an excellent example of a natural resource being used for a multitude of purposes for everyone's benefit. It provides farmland, forestry and other employment. It is also an important resource for recreation, tourism and general employment. The Mournes contain areas of peatland that are in a good ecological state, soak up carbon and assist in combating climate change. That is a key challenge for both DAERA and the Executive generally, and we are taking forward a green growth strategy. Peatlands can alleviate flooding and are an important habitat for many species. Actions that degrade our peatlands, including wildfires and erosion through overgrazing or by walkers, can happen within a relatively short time. People must take responsibility for their actions, and we cannot overestimate the impact that reckless behaviour can have on our environment.
I recently highlighted my concerns to the Minister of Justice, as well as the need for enforcement, legislation and greater cross-departmental working. Unfortunately, it could take several decades of careful management to restore those habitats to a good ecological condition. Given the time it takes to restore habitats, we need a new approach to firebreaks. Prevention is much more effective than cure. On the balance of risk, we must look at policies around controlled burning or flailing of heather etc to create firebreaks. Do we sacrifice, for example, 10 hectares of habitat to save 1,000 hectares of habitat? Those are not, as Mr Hazzard described them, arsonists. They are people who know and manage the environment in an extremely good way.
Another way of managing this is appropriate grazing management. That would help to reduce the amount of fuel available. I highlight the excellent work that my Department has carried out at the CAFRE hill farm at Glenwherry. I encourage any Member to visit that facility and see what is going on there. Since 2008, CAFRE's hill farm has used a gamekeeper to contribute to the management of heather moorland through an annual process of up to 20 controlled small-strip burns, each of up to 0·1 hectare. Using a flail to create a wet firebreak allows an accurate and fast cool burn and results in a habitat mosaic of different heather heights, which is particularly useful for ground-nesting birds. That process has also been used to create protective firebreaks against pockets of tall vegetation on neighbouring land and coniferous forests.
We are aware of Glenwherry, but that is not what is going on in the Mournes and elsewhere in Northern Ireland. People are not using controlled burning, and they are not using controlled burning outside the nesting season. The first period of hot weather they get, they go out onto the moor and they deliberately set fire to the moor in order to produce the regrowth of grass that they desire. Then they walk away, and it burns all of their land and a lot of other land. That is what we need to control, not what the Minister is suggesting, which, of course, we all welcome.
At this moment in time, anybody burning is breaking the law. From mid-April — I will consider bringing that date forward — they are breaking the law and should be prosecuted. I have raised the issue with NIEA, which has that responsibility. When I was visiting the Mournes, I was taken to a site at Tollymore where an extensive fire had taken place. It extended into other property and did considerable damage, as Mr Wells identified, at Castlewellan in the previous year.
Getting back to the issue, proper controlled management can make a real difference, and we need to ensure that that is available. Peatland management with appropriate grazing — not overgrazing or under-grazing — works much better than wilding, as evidenced in Scotland. When many crofters left the hills, biodiversity decreased. Cutting will not be a reality for many areas. Wetting is a necessity — a necessity — to capture carbon in our peatlands. I hope that Members, when we bring forward the proposals to wet peatlands, will not be coming to me representing constituents, saying, "You can't do it in this area, you can't do it in that area". I suspect that some people will maybe eat their words at that point. Appropriate management, as demonstrated at Glenwherry, has led to an increase in ground-nesting birds across a range of peatland species, including snipe, curlew, lapwing, hen harriers and red grouse, as well as a recovery in Irish hares.
I want to note the investment in our environment, habitats and wildlife via a range of environmental schemes. Only last week, I announced tranche 5 of the EFS. I also announced the opening last week of the environmental challenge fund of £2 million, which will deliver for the environment in respect of habitats and species improvements. We will continue to build on that progress, but we must be honest: we need to deal with the minority of people who do not respect our natural habitat. Whether they be farmers who burn inappropriately or people who leave disposable barbecues or campfires, they can undo all the good work of others.
In the 'New Decade, New Approach' document, all political parties in Northern Ireland:
"recognise the need for a coordinated and strategic approach to the challenge of climate change" and the loss of biodiversity. It was accepted that:
"Actions and interventions will be required across a wide range of areas in order to address both the immediate and longer term impacts of climate change" and loss of biodiversity
" in a fair and just way."
It is in that context that peatland restoration offers a major opportunity for safeguarding biodiversity — so the answer to Mr Wells's first question is yes — increasing carbon storage and sequestration, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the Northern Ireland peatlands strategy.
I hope to announce that strategy very soon.
In addition, a large body of evidence exists that demonstrates the value that peatland restoration has on enhancing the delivery of ecosystem services. I mentioned flood attenuation, food production, providing areas for recreation and an understanding of our cultural heritage, all of which provide a significant return on investment. The publication in the near future and the implementation of the Northern Ireland peatland strategy will offer a framework to guide the conservation and restoration of semi-natural peatland habitats in Northern Ireland. It will also reflect the commitments of the 'UK Peatland Strategy', which was published in 2018. Implementation of the strategy will also play an important role in the Department's work on climate change and the wider green growth agenda.
I have no doubt that, had the Assembly not been crashed by Sinn Féin for three years, we would have a peatland strategy, but it was, and we do not. The Department is considering new CAP policies, including agri-environmental policies and support for peatland restoration. Capital works and ongoing management will be considered as those policies develop. Wetting is by far the best means of restoring the peatland habitat.
I am glad that the Member mentioned the Minister for Infrastructure. Mr Wells raised a number of points about planning, extracting peat and so forth, but those questions should not be directed to me. They should be directed to the Minister for Infrastructure. I encourage him to lobby that Minister on the issues that he raised. I am not sure what time I have left, so I will move on.
Planting woodland in order to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is a cost-effective way to contribute to the offset of emissions while providing many other social and environmental benefits. In order to support an increase in the rate of afforestation, I launched Forests for our Future, which aims to plant 9,000 hectares of new woodland by 2030. That is in line with the recommendations in the Climate Change Committee's report 'Reducing emissions in Northern Ireland', which was published in 2019. To date, 670,000 trees have been validated under the Forests for our Future programme.
I will comment on an issue that Mr Wells and some others raised about indigenous species only. Yes, I want to see as many indigenous trees planted as possible, but the Sitka spruce and other coniferous trees have the capacity to capture carbon. When they are young, they capture carbon in a very substantial way. They are harvested and reused for pencils, fencing posts and all sorts of wood. That is not a bad thing. We will encourage as much planting of indigenous trees as possible, but that does not mean that we will not accept any planting of other trees, because they have and serve a purpose. Whilst they will be harvested and replanted, they will continue to engage in carbon sequestration, so it is not all bad, even though I have a preference for the native species.
I recently published the findings of a forest visitor survey that was conducted in 2019. It showed that annual visits to forests increased from 4·7 million in 2014 to almost 9 million. Forests provide many opportunities for people to meet, exercise and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. During the last year, Forest Service and its partner organisations experienced a further increase in visits to our forests due to the significant investment that has been made in forestry recreation facilities in recent years and as a result of people wanting to enjoy our countryside while living under COVID-19 restrictions.
Northern Ireland's forests and woodland face many threats. Some of those are related to the natural environment and, therefore, are interrelated in complex ways. Others are due to the behaviour of people. Protecting forests and woodland requires careful planning and collaborative working across effective partnerships. My Department continues to implement surveillance and monitoring plans for the most damaging pests and pathogens of trees and reviews the pest-specific response plans in the event of a finding. Work continues on importing controls in order to maintain protected zone status and horizon scanning for new and emerging threats. In response to the risk of fire, the Department's Forest Service annually reviews and implements its emergency fire plan. That was operated effectively within the SLA arrangements with the NI Fire and Rescue Service, and it proved to be effective in the operation to control the wildfire in the Mournes and a significant forest fire in Knocks forest in County Fermanagh during the same weekend.
I am pleased to note that the domestic and world demand for timber construction, fencing and packaging products remained strong through the pandemic and that the Northern Ireland wood-processing sector continues to build on its competitive market position. That is ongoing and necessary. Much has been achieved, and much more is to be achieved. I will not be behind the door in ensuring that we do that work to restore our peatlands.
Rightly, Miss Woods indicated what is going on in the Republic of Ireland. We did not have the same level of industrial harvesting of our peatlands. There has been some but not on the massive scale that it happened in many areas in the Republic of Ireland. We have to meet this challenge. We have to recognise that our tree planting must be in the right locations as well. We should not be planting trees in peatland areas where there is the potential for the trees to take away the moisture and water, thereby causing further drying of the peatlands. We know what needs to be done.
I am delighted that Ms Ennis, on behalf of the Department of Finance, announced that Mr Murphy is to provide substantial funding to me. I look forward to receiving the letter, and my Department will ensure that the money is properly and appropriately spent. I am glad that she made that announcement today.
As I said earlier, it is like trying to hit a moving target as the Member moves on to greater and higher things. He said that he did not have time to take an intervention, but there are a few seconds left. One point that he needs to deal with, and the House is, I think, unanimous on this today, is that he must not use taxpayers' money to promote the planting of exotic foreign species in Northern Ireland. By all means, if people want to plant Sitka spruce, they can, but not by using his money, the Department's money or taxpayers' money. That has to be the way forward.
I thank all who contributed for their input into a very thoughtful debate. A number of key themes ran through it. The first was specific to the fire on the Mournes, the recklessness of those who caused it and the damage done. Members spoke about the damage to the future environment and how that can, in some way, be redeemed by strategies down the line. Multiple Members thanked the various services involved — rightly so — including DAERA, the NIEA, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service in particular, the police, community groups, local farmers and landowners, and, of course, young Charlie Thomson, who was mentioned a couple of times by Sinéad Bradley.
The final key theme was the need for cross-departmental strategies as a way forward for peatland protection, tourism promotion and the educational requirements contained in those strategies. My colleague Colin McGrath described the beauty of the Mournes and their tourism potential, and he outlined what was required to protect the flora. He mentioned the input of local organisations and the support that farmers require to preserve the habitats. He referred to the international seminar on wildfires that took place in Newry. He talked about the frequency of those wildfires and the damage to the flora and fauna. Like many others, he recorded his support for the emergency services. <BR/>Supporting the motion, William Irwin also referred to the blaze in the mountains and the efforts made by local people. He expressed his gratitude to the emergency services. He referred to the woodlands resource and the Minister's strategy for tree planting. He talked about the publication of a peatland strategy, which the Minister later referred to, and its importance in tackling climate change.
Likewise, Declan McAleer, Chair of the AERA Committee, thanked the emergency services. He referred to the important environmental aspect of habitats and especially to the problem of the damage done by these fires — whether deliberately or by accident — in his constituency, which placed a risk on biodiversity or, indeed, eliminated biodiversity in those areas. That biodiversity may not be restored, or it may take a long time to be restored. He also referred to the implications of the compensatory amounts to assist farmers with the burden of the cost of repairs and to the risk to life, property, farm businesses and natural habitat.
Rosemary Barton, in favour of the motion, spoke about the heartbreaking sight of the fire in the Mournes and thanked all those who were involved in at least trying to stop it and to retrieve some grounds that otherwise would have been jeopardised and deeply at risk. She referred to local community groups and the need for the preservation and protection of areas. Of course, as I expect her to, she also called for education to be part of the process so that people who use those beautiful locations behave responsibly and are aware of the environment around them.
John Blair brought us to the realities and practicalities of Governments putting their money where their mouth is. He talked about the restoration of 35,000 hectares in England. Similarly, Rachel Woods referred to the investment in Scotland and Wales and, likewise, about €108 million for restorations in the Republic and for the schemes to bring about new environments in areas that were bespoiled or likely to be at risk. That is very important.
Maurice Bradley looked ahead to the future of the environment and talked about the preservation of the planet when he referred to giving our "children and our children's children" a better environment. Being an experienced and seasoned fisherman, he knows the implications that that has for some of our waterways. Philip McGuigan referred to problems in localities in his constituency, between Loughguile and the glens, where fires caused environmental carnage. He spoke in favour of rural communities being custodians of the environment.
Harry Harvey painted a picture of the blazing Mournes against the night sky. In some circumstances, that would be regarded as poetic or picturesque, but it was far from it; the reality was the damage being done on the other side of the vista. He referred to greater use of firebreaks, funding for the required recovery and the need to meet net zero commitments. Likewise, Sinéad Ennis referred to meeting the National Trust, along with her colleagues. She acknowledged the efforts of the Fire and Rescue Service and the local communities. She called on the Minister for the Economy to increase investment in tourism and job creation in the Mournes area. She referred to the storage of carbon in peatlands. She also referred to the common theme of whether the gorse fire was started deliberately and about the need for protections and a draft peatlands strategy.
Sinéad Bradley thanked the firefighters for bringing the fire under control and talked about the challenges that local communities face as a result of the fire. She referred to the fact that, while this last 12 months has been a very sad period for many due to COVID and the problems arising from it — I have been in touch with a number of families — it has nevertheless allowed many people to reconnect with nature and to become more aware of the nature around them. She spoke about the need for education. Some people have been self-educating and have been to places that they have never been to before. Others need to be educated so that they are aware of the risk that they can potentially bring with them.
Mr Wells, in very sharp and clear form, referred to the need for peatlands, which can be a vast store for carbon. He questioned the issue of ongoing planning permission for peatlands. He referred to afforestation and, of course, made the point that the use of foreign exotic alien species should be avoided when public money is being used.
He queried why, in situations in which DAERA is involved, along with emergency services such as the police, and allegations have been made about someone being a culprit or being responsible for, in effect, arson, that matter is not taken further. He also called for stronger enforcement measures from the Department in cases in which blazes have been started deliberately.
Kellie Armstrong referred to herself as a committed tree hugger, and, again, her contribution had that awareness of the importance of nature and our surrounds. She outlined her party's stance — ours is similar — on having an independent environment agency. There is the whole question of woodlands' import for planning. With those woodlands, where there is planning permission, it may not fall immediately within the Minister's remit, unless the NIEA has a crossover role there. I am not quite sure. Woodlands need to be protected as part of the planning process, however. She paid tribute to the Fire and Rescue Service.
My colleague Dolores Kelly referred to Doire Mór. County Doire, where I am from, was, in fact, once upon a time, covered with those large oak trees. They have been removed. That was many, many centuries ago. Nevertheless, it will be useful to see at least a modicum of regrowth and rebirth of those woodlands in many areas.
I am sure that, like with everything else, the Minister will find a way in which to raise that issue at the Joint Committee, at which all such relevant issues are supposed to be raised. I wish him well in that. I am sure that many of the issues will be resolved through that mechanism, because that is why it was set up in the first place.
— was very welcome news. He also referred to planting woodlands.
In conclusion, I thank Members for their support for the motion.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly pays tribute to the heroic efforts by those emergency service personnel from across these islands and the local community who responded to the recent wildfires in the Mournes; notes the importance of preserving the natural environment for improving air quality, biodiversity, carbon capture and combating the climate emergency; further notes the importance of both rewilding and protecting peatlands in tackling the climate emergency; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to produce fully resourced strategies and implementation plans to protect, preserve and enhance our peatlands and woodlands without further delay.