Re-wilding Northern Ireland

12 May 2022 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 12 May 2022

Trees in Stormont Estate (photo by Joel Nevius on Unsplash)
Trees in Stormont Estate (photo by Joel Nevius on Unsplash)

Fixing Northern Ireland’s biodiversity issues requires active measures that will be difficult without an Executive.


The elections are over, no government is on the horizon, Stormont looks fated for a period of stasis.

But while politics might have stalled, the world hasn’t.

Ahead of the Assembly elections, many local organisations produced manifestos within their areas of expertise. These policy documents are just as relevant now as they were a week ago. Scope will look at several of them in due course. Today, the focus is on nature.

The Woodland Trust produced a paper calling for action on “two equally critical issues; climate change and biodiversity loss”. Ulster Wildlife drafted a youth-focused manifesto calling for action on the “joint nature and climate crises”.

Everyone knows about climate change.

The destruction of Northern Ireland’s natural forests and woodlands is less well known. It is an interesting, and terrible story. This whole island used to be vast forest, coast to coast.

And woodland isn’t the only story. Hundreds of local species are at risk of extinction, and ten times that number are species of conservation concern (which more or less means endangered).

So, what should be done to turn all this around?


The Woodland Trust’s paper is keen to point out that climate, nature and people exist in a harmonious rather than competitive relationship – so it is in everyone’s interests to protect and nurture the climate and natural world.

Its tentpole policy is rewilding of Northern Ireland, specifically using native tree species.

“Northern Ireland is one of the least wooded regions in Europe with just 9% woodland cover. This is lower than the Republic of Ireland (11%), the UK (13%) and European Union (38%).

“In 2006 the Northern Ireland Forestry Strategy set an ambition to double the area of woodland from 86,000 hectares in 50 years. In order to meet this target, more than 1,500 hectares will need to be planted every year.

“In 2020, the Forests for Our Future programme set an ambition to plant 9,000 hectares of new woodland by 2030. Whilst this is welcome progress, more work needs to be done to increase the rate of native trees and woods being planted.”

As well as proper implementation of the Climate Change Act, the organisation wants to see significant planting, with both a Land Use Strategy and a Tree Strategy to help with planning.

It says the trees we already have should be better looked after, noting that matured trees are the best carbon stores we have.

“Ancient woodland is scarce and in Northern Ireland it covers just 0.04% of the land surface. Centuries old, it has developed special communities of plants, insects and animals not found elsewhere. Around 13% of Northern Ireland’s ancient and long established woodland has been cleared since the 1960s.”

The manifesto calls for the restoration of all ancient woodland, investment in mapping of these woodlands “to support better land-use and planning policy”, an updated planning policy “to provide ancient woodland, veteran trees and other irreplaceable habitats with the same level of protection enjoyed by built heritage.”

The Trust also wants to see an independent Environmental Protection Agency to “oversee and enforce all relevant environmental legislation.”

Young people

Ulster Wildlife is not a youth organisation, but it has done a youth manifesto. The reason for this is made plain in the document:

“Young people have a unique role to play in addressing the environmental challenges we face in Northern Ireland. By virtue of our age, we have the longest period of time to drive forward and achieve the positive changes that are needed. But we also have the most to lose if we don’t take action now to protect and enhance our environment.”

It calls for green development to be intertwined with wider social and economic policies, saying that nature-friendly initiatives can “

The paper points out – as with the Woodland Trust - that Northern Ireland has proportionately less woodland than anywhere else in Europe, 80% of our peatlands are emitting rather than storing carbon, and local water quality is poor.

And, as with the Woodland Trust, the organisation is at pains to say that protections and mitigations are no longer enough. Active measures that rebuild what is lost are just as crucial.

“To achieve nature’s recovery, and in turn to mitigate climate change, it is no longer enough to think about slowing the loss of the natural world and protecting what remains of our wildlife. We need to stop and reverse the declines, and put nature into recovery, at scale and at pace.”

The manifesto calls for a range of actions, including:

  • Halting and reversing the systemic loss of nature by implementing a national nature recovery  network with at least at least 30% of land and 30% of sea protected.
  • New sustainable agriculture and fisheries policies that ensure fair returns for farmers and fishermen while also helping the environment.
  • Establishment of an independent Environment Protection Agency.
  • Rapid implementation of the Climate Change Act.
  • ‘Nature-based solutions’ to climate change e.g. peatland restoration, blue carbon solutions such as restoring kelp forests and sea grass.
  • A ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure in NI.

The document also calls for better education provision, to raise awareness of the need for natural and environmental protection.


Northern Ireland is unlikely to have a proper government any time soon. However, recent legislation allows for previous ministers to return to their posts in a caretaker capacity, where no big decisions can be taken.

This zombie period can continue for almost half a year. The DUP’s Edwin Poots was the last Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, and it is likely he will hold that position again soon.

In February, in response to a question asking what work is being done on rewilding projects in NI, he said: “My Department is aware of the growing interest in rewilding and re-introduction projects elsewhere in the UK and Ireland but is not currently formally engaged in encouraging projects in Northern Ireland. Developments in this area will continue to be monitored as to their applicability in halting biodiversity loss, building ecosystem resilience and providing wider ecosystem benefits in Northern Ireland.

“However, my Department is actively encouraging a wide range of related habitat restoration projects.  These include restoring and encouraging extensive management on designated sites and priority habitats (such as peatlands and grasslands) and encouraging woodland development through succession and planting native trees.

“To date, a limited number of species re-introduction projects have been considered and supported by DAERA, with the Red Kite being Northern Ireland’s first re-introduction of a previously extinct species. More localised introductions have also taken place to support populations of threatened species such as Red Squirrel, Freshwater Pearl Mussel and Wood Cranesbill.”

In short, ongoing habitat restoration and management can continue without an Executive. A greater commitment to rewilding, however, is trickier.

DAERA could only ramp up efforts in this area if it was able to argue that this is not a major decision or significant change of course.

Could this be argued? Maybe, but the likely success of such an argument goes up the smaller any project would be. Bigger and bolder plans are more likely to shelved.

And, without an Executive, that’s just the way it is.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.