The development of evidence based biodiversity policy and practice in Northern Ireland
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Ulster
Unit of AssessmentEarth Systems and Environmental Sciences
Summary Impact TypeEnvironmental
Research Subject Area(s)
Environmental Sciences: Ecological Applications, Environmental Science and Management
Biological Sciences: Ecology
Summary of the impact
Research to quantify the ecological structure and spatial dynamics of
terrestrial habitats in Northern Ireland (NI), and to assess the effects
of recent land use change, has enabled the Northern Ireland Environment
Agency (NIEA) to develop and implement a science-based strategy for
landscape-scale biodiversity management and conservation. It has directly
facilitated the integration of NIEA and the Department of Agriculture for
NI (DARD) biodiversity management strategies and their monitoring of the
implementation of European Community biodiversity legislation (and
The science information-base and time-series change models developed from
the research have allowed NIEA to lead inter-governmental department
discussion on biodiversity and land use issues. It has also guided the
development of an NI habitat biodiversity management strategy.
Specifically, the statistically structured field and analytical methods
developed by the research for assessing terrestrial habitats at the
regional landscape-scale have been adopted by NIEA as key to reporting on
the biodiversity outcomes of implementing the European Community
conservation Habitats Directive.
The research has provided a common ecological framework within which
NIEA, DARD (including Forest Service) and non-government organisations
(Ulster Wildlife Trust and Northern Ireland Environment Link) have been
able to discuss and agree on biodiversity and agri-environment management
practices in designated statutory conservation sites and the farmed
countryside. It has also been key in guiding a NI assessment of the
socio-economic value of habitats (ecosystem services).
In 1986 Dr Alan Cooper, a lecturer / senior lecturer at the University of
Ulster from 1974 - 2012, began a statistical sampling-based field
ecological study to assess the types, structure, species composition,
extent (spatial structure) and management of terrestrial habitats in the
Mournes Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) (Cooper et al., 1996).
The aim was to quantify and understand environment/land use interactions
and contribute to the development of the AONB management plan. The
research, which became known as the Northern Ireland Countryside Survey
(NICS) was extended to all four AONBs in NI, two Environmentally Sensitive
Areas (DARD funded) and then, in 1992 (NI Department of Environment
funded), to the whole of NI (Cooper et al., 2003). It contributed to the
development of the then growing field of European landscape-scale ecology
and its applications to countryside management (Cooper et al., 1996).
In 1998, a second NICS (NIEA funded) assessed the extent of change and
showed that the main land use drivers were agricultural intensification,
industrial forestry and rural development (Cooper et al., 2003). For the
first time, a NI scientific evidence base linking land use change to
terrestrial habitat biodiversity loss in NI was available to
policy-makers. The research also showed, again for the first time, that
habitat sampling intensity influences the structure of numerical habitat
classifications and that area-proportional sampling design linked
explicitly to landscape structure is required to avoid biased
environmental decision-making based on such classifications (Cooper et
A third phase of NICS, initiated in 2007 (NIEA funded), developed
hypothesis-based habitat monitoring and completed a 20-year time-series
data set quantifying trends in habitat biodiversity and ecological
condition (Cooper et al., 2009). Key findings were that seminatural
habitat conversion to agricultural grassland and forestry, the
scrubbing-up of marginal farmland and the removal of hedges and earth
banks had occurred and that there had been a large increase in the rate of
rural building over a wide range of seminatural habitats. (McKenzie et
al., 2011). The research demonstrated the over-riding influence of
land-use practice on terrestrial habitat biodiversity and showed that the
European-wide trends of land use intensification in the farmed countryside
and land abandonment in the marginal uplands also applied to NI.
Methodological developments of the NICS research programme (Rogers et al.,
2012) were landscape-scale field survey, recording and analysis techniques
as well as field survey equipment and associated GIS and statistical
analytical procedures based on cost-efficient, pragmatic and flexible
electronic hand-held data logging PDA (personal data assistant) equipment
loaded with a real-time global positioning system (GPS), an Ordnance
Survey NI vector map and colour aerial photographs linked to a
laboratory-based GIS (geographical information system).
References to the research
*1. Cooper, A., McCann, T., & Meharg, M.J. (2003). Sampling
Broad Habitat change to assess biodiversity conservation action in
Northern Ireland. Journal of Environmental Management, 67,
*2. Cooper, A., McCann, T., & Bunce, R.G.H. (2006). The
influence of sampling intensity on vegetation classification and the
implications for environmental management. Environmental Conservation
*3. McKenzie, P., Cooper, A., McCann, T. and Rogers, D.
(2011) The ecological impact of rural building on habitats in an
agricultural landscape. Landscape and Urban Planning, 101 (3). 262 -
*4.Cooper, A. (1996). Land cover change in the Mourne
Environmentally Sensitive Area. In: Ecological and landscape
consequences of land use change in Europe. Eds. Jongman, R.H.G.
European Centre for Nature conservation, pp. 184-195.
5. Cooper, A., McCann, T. and Rogers, D. (2009) Northern Ireland
Countryside Survey 2007: Broad Habitat Change 1998-2007. Northern
Ireland Environment Agency Research and Development Series No.09/06.
6. Rogers, D., Cooper, A., McKenzie, P., and McCann, T.
(2012). Assessing regional scale habitat area with a three dimensional
measure. Ecological Informatics 7,1-6.
Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland. (1991-1994).
Northern Ireland Countryside Survey. (£316,865).
DoENI, Environment and Heritage Service. (1998-2002). Northern
Ireland Countryside Survey 2000. (£300,731).
NIEA, Northern Ireland Environment Agency (2005-2012). Northern Ireland
Countryside Survey 2007. (£308,932.39).
Details of the impact
Adoption of the Northern Ireland Countryside Survey habitat research
methodology by NIEA across the whole of the rural countryside and upland
landscapes was key to the development by NIEA of regional biodiversity
management strategies1,2. NICS habitat monitoring protocols
were also adopted by DARD3,4 to assess the ecological status of
the Mourne and Antrim Glens Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA). This
research provided data on habitats for DARD to restructure their
guidelines (in partnership with NIEA3) for implementing
European Agri- Environment schemes5,6. Prior to this,
guidelines for habitat management were based largely on qualitative
assessments of the agricultural landscape guided by land use rather than
scientifically based habitat metrics and definitions.
Completion by Dr Cooper's team of the NICS research programme across NI7
gave a reliable time- series data on the types, structure, species
composition, extent (spatial structure) and management of terrestrial
habitats and habitat change. This enabled NIEA to develop (for the first
time) a scientific ecological basis and context within which structured
discussion with other government departments could take place on the
effects of land use (primarily agriculture, forestry, peat extraction and
rural building) on biodiversity, and on effective strategies for
biodiversity management at the landscape-scale5. The NICS
research also provided essential data that enabled NIEA to collaborate
with DEFRA on delivering UK biodiversity assessments8.
NICS research was a key source of information for the development, by the
NI Biodiversity Group (a consortium of non-governmental conservation
organisations led by DoE)9, of recommendations to government
for a NI Biodiversity Strategy (subsequently adopted by NIEA2).
The provision of reliable habitat data for the whole of NI, by NICS, was a
key element in NIEA implementation of the Biodiversity Strategy2.
Prior to this, information on habitats was available only for designated
statutory conservation sites, with ecologically limited data on
agriculture, forestry and built land cover across NI as a whole provided
by DARD and government planning authorities.
Evidence from NICS research also provided a common focus within which
NIEA could engage with non-government organisations (primarily the Ulster
Wildlife Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) on land
use issues and biodiversity management2. None of these
organisations previously had access to scientifically structured habitat
data at an NI scale.
By 2007, the NICS 20 year time-series dataset was used by NIEA to: a)
carry out evidence-based reporting on the NI implementation of the
European Habitats Directive5 (previously, data were available
only for statutory conservation sites; b) construct an NI assessment of
the socio- economic value of ecosystem services1 (previously,
reliable habitat metrics to enable this were not available); c) develop a
partnership with DARD to monitor the effectiveness of Common Agricultural
Policy agri-environment implementation (previously partnership was
constrained by reliance largely on agricultural land use data) and d)
develop a NI land management policy response to changing CAP3,4,6.
More recently, NICS data has facilitated the integration of NIEA and DARD
approaches to implementing European CAP reform through the 2014-2020 Rural
Development Programme. Effective progress on integration has focussed
assessing the biodiversity outcomes of implementing European Community
biodiversity legislation (in particular cross-compliance) in NI, with NICS
providing reliable time-series metrics of outcomes10.
The methodological developments from the NICS field and analytical
research programme (integrated field mapping and data recording protocols,
equipment and software programmes, associated GIS and statistical
analytical procedures) have been adopted by NIEA for in-house habitat
assessment, monitoring and audit, resulting in a lasting impact5,6.
The NICS stratified random sample archive of over six hundred
geo-referenced 25ha grid square field maps, linked in a GIS to the NICS
habitat database, will allow NIEA to carry out future biodiversity
monitoring more effectively by integrating field survey with remote
Sources to corroborate the impact
1UK National Ecosystem Assessment (2011). The UK National
Ecosystem Assessment Technical Report. Chapter 18. Status and Changes in
Ecosystems and their Services to Society: Northern Ireland, esp. pp
795-809. UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge. (Available at:
(Pages 795-809, 813, 814, 819, 827, 838.)
2DoE (2009). NI Biodiversity Group Report (Available at:
(Pages 3, 43, 46, 59, 60, 64, 68, 87)
3DoENI (2012). CAP reform and other issues.
Unpublished Position Paper. 10pp. Natural Heritage Directorate. Belfast.
4Wright, M. (2010). NICS2007 - Story so far.
Unpublished Discussion Paper. 5pp. Natural Heritage Directorate. Belfast.
5Corroboration available from Chair, Northern Ireland
Countryside Survey steering group, Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
6Corroboration available from Acting Assistant Director,
Northern Ireland Countryside Survey,
7DoE (2013). NICS Reports Repository. http://www.doeni.gov.uk/niea/biodiversity/nh-research/nicountrysidesurvey-2.htm
8Carey, P.D., Wallis, S., Chamberlain, P.M., Cooper, A.,
Emmett, B.A., Maskell, L.C., McCann, T., Murphy, J., Norton, L.R.,
Reynolds, B., Scott, W.A., Simpson, I.C., Smart, S.M., Ullyett, J.M.,
2008. Countryside Survey: UK Results from 2007. NERC/Centre for Ecology
& Hydrology, 105 pp., CEH Project Number: C03259.
9NI Biodiversity Group Report (2000). Recommendations to
Government for a Biodiversity Strategy. HMSO. Belfast. (Available
10Corroboration available from the vice-chair, Committee for
Nature Conservation and Countryside, Northern Ireland Environment Agency.