To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what steps have been taken by the Environment and Heritage Service of the Department of the Environment to (a) measure the decline of saltmarsh on the shores of Strangford Lough and (b) develop a strategy to prevent further declines in this habitat. 
The Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) of the Department of the Environment has in place a monitoring programme covering Strangford Lough which assesses the condition of all the habitats and species of national and European importance. As part of this programme, the quality and quantity of saltmarsh is monitored. The information currently available to EHS does not indicate that there is any significant decline in the extent of saltmarsh around Strangford Lough.In September 2002, the Department launched a voluntary management scheme to maintain and enhance the habitats and species of Areas of Special Scientific Interest. This scheme is aimed at land managers and will play an important role in, among other things, helping to prevent any further decline of saltmarsh by ensuring that inappropriate management and potentially damaging activities are discouraged.
To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what plans the Environment and Heritage Service of the Department of the Environment has to designate special protection areas to conserve the habitat of the Hen Harrier. 
No sites have yet been selected in Northern Ireland for the Hen Harrier under the UK Special Protection Area (SPA) Review. There have been several reasons for this. There has been limited information until now about the geographical distribution and continuity of breeding site use in relation to the species. Moreover, much of the relevant nesting habitat is commercial forest, whereas the Department's policy has been to select as SPAs only areas of natural and semi-natural habitat. Nevertheless, some sites with habitat suitable for the Hen Harrier have been designated as Areas of Special Scientific Interest and/or Special Areas of Conservation, one such example being Slieve Beagh, although none of these sites lists the Hen Harrier as a selection feature.
However, EHS now plans to review the position based on analysis of new data on geographical distribution and breeding site use. This will be used to determine whether any site merits designation for its breeding Hen Harrier population. In arriving at this decision, EHS will take into consideration a number of criteria, including the proportion of the all-island breeding population held at the site, the density of breeding birds and the history of occupation. The process will also take into account if the southern portion of sites that straddle the border that have been identified as significant for this species by the Republic of Ireland authorities.
It is planned to complete the review during the current financial year and, depending on the findings, to undertake public consultation thereafter.
In the meantime, Hen Harriers and their nests continue to be afforded fall protection under the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. Furthermore, they are listed as a Northern Ireland priority species of conservation concern, and EHS intends to publish a Species Action Plan in the near future to address their conservation needs.
To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what steps the Environment and Heritage Service of the Department of the Environment has taken to implement the recommendations of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on Areas of Special Scientific Interest. 
The Department of the Environment is still considering the Report on Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs), which was published by the Comptroller and Auditor General on 27 March 2003. However, the Department had already identified a number of the issues which that report addressed: and steps had been taken to deal with them.Among these actions were, firstly, the introduction last year of the Management of Sensitive Sites scheme to provide financial incentives to landowners to encourage the proper management of ASSIs; secondly, the enactment in February this year of the Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 to strengthen the Department's powers to protect and manage ASSIs; thirdly, the allocation of additional resources to the Environment and Heritage Service of the Department in the 2002 Northern Ireland Budget, for the designation, management and protection of ASSIs.These actions deal with key aspects of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. The remaining conclusions and recommendations of the report are under consideration.
To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what plans the Environment and Heritage Service of the Department of the Environment has to eradicate the Ruddy Duck in Northern Ireland. 
The establishment of the American Ruddy Duck as a breeding species in Europe has been widely acknowledged as a threat to the native European White-headed Duck. The UK Government accepts in principle that the Ruddy Duck should be eradicated as a wild species in the UK and the rest of Europe, in accordance with Article 8 of the Convention on Biological Diversity. In practice, the Government is investigating alternative methods of controlling the population.Great Britain, with around 5,800 birds, holds by far the largest population in Europe. Northern Ireland's population is thought to be about 125. The Ruddy Duck is currently protected under Northern Ireland legislation.As Ruddy Duck are known to be elusive, I have asked the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) to confirm the scale of the problem in Northern Ireland by undertaking a survey of small water bodies in the area where they are known to occur. I have also asked EHS to investigate and advise me on the possible need for a change in the legislative status of the species. As well as undertaking these studies, EHS will monitor research taking place into the most efficient and humane method of eradication, and advise me on how these findings might be applied in Northern Ireland.
To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what plans the Environment and Heritage Service has to establish a formal enforcement policy for the protection of areas of special scientific interest as promised in the EHS Corporate Plan for 1996–97. 
In November 2001, the Department of the Environment published for consultation proposals for legislative changes to strengthen the management and protection of ASSIs. These took account of comments received during earlier public consultation in March 2001. The proposals were given statutory effect in the Environment (NI) Order 2002.The Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) of the Department already has in place a policy for addressing issues of compliance with the legislation on areas of special scientific interest by landowners and occupiers. The policy was ratified in November 2002 and implemented with immediate effect. I am arranging for a copy of the document, entitled "Compliance Policy and General Guidance" to be placed on the EHS website (www.ehsni.gov.uk), and it should be available by the end of May 2003.Additional policy guidance on the protection of ASSIs is contained in:
Guidelines for the Selection of Biological ASSIs;
The Habitats Regulations: A Guid for Competent Authorities; and
Planning Policy Statement 2: Planning and Nature Conservation:
The first two documents are also available on the EHS website; the third is available on the website of the Department's Planning Service (www.doeni.gov.uk/ Planning/).
To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what steps have been taken to protect and manage the Ballynahone Bog Area of Special Scientific Interest. 
On 13 September 2000, the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) of the Department of the Environment declared a large portion of Ballynahone Bog Area of Special Scientific Interest as a National Nature Reserve (NNR). Management as a NNR strengthens the protection of the nature conservation features of the site. It is managed jointly by the Ulster Wildlife Trust and Friends of Ballynahone Bog.EHS owns some 70 per cent. of the land within the ASSI. It has also offered to acquire the interest of most of the other landowners within that area with the specific aim of extending the NNR.