History of the Northern Ireland Countryside Survey

Baseline 1986-1992

The 1992 NI Countryside Survey baseline report (Murray et al., 1992) drew together results from a series of habitat surveys carried out between 1986 and 1991, in study areas across NI. Data was derived from 628 randomly selected quarter kilometre sample squares, covering 1.1% of the land area. The research was commissioned by the then Countryside and Wildlife Branch of the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland to contribute to AONB redesignation.

In the Mourne Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) study area, habitats and field boundaries were mapped in 60 sample squares (Cooper & Murray 1987). Surveys were subsequently carried out in 87 grid squares of the Antrim Coast and Glens AONB (Cooper & Murray 1987), 20 squares in the North Derry AONB (Cooper et al., 1988), 96 squares in the Sperrins AONB (Cooper et al., 1988), 165 squares in Fermanagh District (Murray et al., 1991) and 200 squares in the remaining Wider Countryside 1991 (Murray et al., 1992).

The Wider Countryside study area included the Slieve Gullion AONB (17 squares). Field survey was also carried out in the Mournes and Slieve Croob, in 1992, for the then Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland to monitor change (Cooper et al., 1993). In 1992, all 628 squares surveyed were brought together in a unified database covering 1.1% of the land area of Northern Ireland.  These were used to estimate habitat distributions for the whole region (Murray et al., 1992 and Cooper et al., 1997).

Sampling and Land Classification

The field sampling programme was a stratified random design based on the Northern Ireland Land Classification (Cooper 1986). This is a multivariate classification of kilometre grid squares that groups similar squares together on the basis of climate, elevation, topography, vegetation, hydrology, geology, soils and settlement patterns (Cooper 1986). There are 23 Northern Ireland land classes each consisting of grid squares characterising different types of landscape. A stratified random sample of each land class was recorded so that field survey was representative of the full range of landscape variation.

NI Countryside Survey 2000

In 1998, the University of Ulster was commissioned to carry out a full resurvey of all 628 grid squares of the NI Countryside Survey baseline using the same methods. The aim was to determine new estimates of the area and changes in habitats and field boundaries and to report the results as NI Countryside Survey 2000. This was linked to the Countryside Survey 2000 in Great Britain with the aim of producing a UK wide picture of land cover and habitat distribution. The survey consisted of two components: - field survey and land classification.

Field survey was carried out by a team of professional botanists and plant ecologists trained in the NI Countryside Survey habitat recording procedures. The Primary Habitats were mapped together with supplementary data on vegetation structure and management; the dominant plant species present; and associated land use. Mapping was at a 1:5,000 scale with a minimum patch-size of 0.01 ha and a minimum boundary length of 20m.

The results showed that semi-natural habitats in Northern Ireland had declined, and a corresponding increase in agricultural habitats, buildings and roads had occurred. It also showed that natural field boundaries such as hedges and earth banks were declining and the amount of fencing had increased.

NI Countryside Survey 2007

The University of Ulster was commissioned in 2005 to initiate work on NI Countryside Survey 2007.  Similar methods were developed, but this time more detailed field attributes were recorded to enable reporting on habitat condition and various other habitat classification types, e.g. Priority Habitats. Because of the increased detail recorded as part of the field process an optimised sample at 0.5% was used resulting in 288 sample squares.

Field boundary length estimates were derived from the 1998 and 2007 Northern Ireland Countryside Survey. The Field Boundaries Summary report (McCann et al., 2012) presents the length of field boundaries compared with NI Countryside Survey 1998 and gives transition estimates (losses and gains) between the different types of field boundary.

Quadrat surveys were carried out in 2009. The rationale behind quadrat survey is to supplement the habitat attribute data with a further assessment of species composition.

Northern Ireland Countryside Survey back catalogue:

Follow this link for a list of reports from NI Countryside Surveys: NI Countryside Survey reports repository

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