Northern Ireland

Mournes MP calls for funding to tackle damage to protected habitats caused by quads and scramblers

Funding for a ranger service that helped reduce criminal destruction of uplands was withdrawn

Damage caused by quads and scramblers to protected habitats in the Mournes

The MP whose constituency includes the Mourne Mountains has called the reinstatement of funding that was used combat damage to protected habitats caused by quads and scramblers.

Chris Hazzard said a ranger engagement service run by Mourne Heritage Trust had helped reduce what he termed “antisocial and criminal behaviour”.

Around £100,000 of funding for the trust’s ranger scheme from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) was withdrawn last year.

Mourne Heritage Trust chief executive Martin Carey told The Irish News that the damage caused to protected habitats by the recreational use of quads and scramblers was “significant”.

Much of the Mournes is designated an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI).

Sinn Féin MP Chris Hazzard. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

It is a criminal offence to intentionally or recklessly destroy or damage an ASSI, while enforcement is the sole responsibility of Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and NIEA officials.

Last month the PSNI asked Mourne Mountain Rescue Team to assist a man whose quad had become stuck in what was described as a “less than accessible location”.

It is understood the rescue, which involved an eight-wheel all-terrain vehicle, took place in the Western Mournes & Kilfeaghan Upper ASSI. No action was taken against the man who was rescued.

Mourne Mountain Rescue Team's Argo all-terrain vehicle was used in the rescue of a man whose quad got stuck in a bog in the Mournes

Mr Carey said quads and scramblers had caused “significant damage to fragile habitats in a number of areas in the Mournes”.

He said the damage was particularly acute when the ground was wet and that the designated peatland flora and habitats “do not recover easily, if at all, from the sort of erosion that these vehicles can cause”.

“There can simply be no place for recreational use of motorised vehicles in the Mournes and, accordingly, it is prohibited by landowners,” he said.

The Mourne Heritage Trust chief executive said that between 2021 and early 2023 a piloted engagement ranger had “built up an understanding of the patterns of this type of misuse along with working relationships with relevant authorities, including the PSNI” but that NIEA funding was withdrawn.

“We believe a comprehensive boots on the ground ranger service is essential to address the various pressures on the Mournes, providing landowners and relevant authorities with the eyes and ears needed,” Mr Carey said.

Mr Hazzard has written to Agriculture and Environment Minister Andrew Muir and Justice Minister Naomi Long urging them to make “multi-agency funding”, including from the Assets Recovery Scheme, available to Mourne Heritage Trust.

The Sinn Féin MP said that since the Covid pandemic visitor numbers to the Mournes had increased significantly, creating additional pressures on the landscape.

“So the engagement ranger service established by the Mourne Heritage Trust in 2021 was a fantastic initiative in meeting these challenges in a proactive manner that not only assisted visitors to the Mournes with general queries and advice; but undoubtedly helped reduce antisocial and criminal behaviour,” he said.

“Bearing in mind the historically poor record of government agencies; the PSNI; and the wider criminal justice system in dealing effectively with environmental crime, a preventative community initiative like this was a positive development in protecting one of Ireland’s most sensitive natural areas.”

Daera and the Department of Justice have been approached for comment.