Landscape Character Assessment in Northern Ireland.

Joyce McCormick

"Every part of the countryside has its own particular assets and its own value to the local people.  Each area has its own identity and it is only  through people recognising that identity of local areas that, they come to appreciate and understand their landscape.”"  

I have been asked to give you an update on the landscape character assessment that is going on in Northern Ireland and also to refer to the legislative framework position for landscape management.

When I spoke to you three years ago about our great variety of landscapes in Northern Ireland , I said that they are far better than you have down here.  I would always say that we have in Northern Ireland paid far too much attention to recognising scenic landscapes, just by way of areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) and just designating them as such.  Recognising scenic landscapes and designating them as such but not really paying enough attention to managing them

So in our review of our AONBs we came to recognise that what we should be paying far more attention to was local landscape character areas and effectively taking all of the countryside on board, not just areas of outstanding natural beauty, because beauty is only one aspect or only one of the assets of the countryside.  Every part of the countryside has its own particular assets and its own value to the local people.  Each area has its own identity and it is only through people recognising that identity of local areas that we come to appreciate and understand their landscape.

So that is the process through which  we are now working towards good effective landscape management..

By way of background I would note that we commenced the process with the Mourne AONB where we recognised local landscape character areas within it, then we took County Fermanagh , and recognised sixteen local landscape character areas within it.  Then we got those local landscape character areas incorporated and recognised within the area plan and policies attached to them, particularly tourism policies.

We began to explore how we could use local landscape character areas, not just recognising them, but rather to see how we could get them used in policy formulation by government bodies.

We looked at County Derry and County Tyrone , but we looked there at the local landscape character types more so than landscape character areas, but found that landscape types approach was not satisfactory, because it was not recognising sufficiently the local identity of particular areas. 

So when we looked at Belfast City Region, we looked at local landscape character areas throughout the region.

Now we are bringing all that together, for all of Northern Ireland and we have come up with  some 130 local landscape character areas for Northern Ireland . 

Because they must mean something to local people, we are trying to name them because local communities have a very strong sense of attachment to every local landscape character area otherwise it has not been recognised properly and that has been our approach.

In that process we have now just produced the leaflet, which is available here today. We will also publish and make available documents relating to each district council area so that we will have 24 documents indicating local landscape character within those districts, and as well as looking at dividing those districts into their local landscape character areas we have done a landscape analysis of the districts.  The analysis must pick up key features, such as areas of local scenic value, prominent scarp slopes, critical green wedges and all sorts of features within the countryside. We are trying to pick up all the critical features within the countryside that we think should be recognised in the area plans.

This process was applied throughout the countryside within Northern Ireland .  But then even more critically, we have also looked at the setting of settlements within Northern Ireland, we have looked at virtually every small settlement in Northern Ireland, and asked what is critical to the setting of that town - is there a critical woodland or what is there, what is the pattern of growth and the setting of that particular town, because really if we don't pick up those kind of landscape area nuances that should be influencing growth, then we don't think we will be successful in trying to influence planners.

This is all in the process of being published and as I have said there will be roughly twenty four documents by the end of this year together with an overview document.

I can give you the main comments from the Belfast City Region, but  our next challenge is how to integrate our assessment into the management process.

In Northern Ireland at present a regional  strategy is being prepared and we are advocating that it should not just recognise habitats directives and so on, we are saying that landscapes must be recognised, we must get landscape assessment recognised within the regional strategy, and again within the area plans.

Already within the area plans there is a planning policy statement which says that for every area plan there must be an appraisal of landscape assessment, there must as well be an appraisal of the setting of all the towns and there must be an appraisal of the pressures in the landscape and all of that must be put together in judging how you influence the growth of settlements.

So the work we are doing, on all of this landscape survey work is already being blended into the area plans and the regional strategy.  So that is an early product of our work.

Of course the regional strategy is only a draft document and we have some 108 new Assembly members who might turn it upside down in the next few weeks or months.  We will have to see how that is taken forward, but already we do have all of these policy statements, which are really influencing the preparation of development plans.

The main conclusions of the study in Northern Ireland were that the key features that are affecting the countryside and the landscapes of Northern Ireland are: - the impact of new buildings, the loss of the distinctive settings of settlements, the direction of growth is being lost, the erosion of distinctive rural landscape patterns and features, the impact of infrastructural developments and improvements, pressures for tourism and other recreational developments, the neglect of public open space; damage to the setting of historic monuments and archaeological sites and the threat to semi-natural habitats. 

That is a summary of the threats, which we observed in the course of carrying out the landscape survey. 

We now have a wealth of material and information on our landscape, which we hope will guide future policy and development plan formulation.

Thank You

Q & A Session

Noel Foley, Forest Service:  It wasn't clear in your presentation how much public consultation took place in the management strategies.

 Response:  On Saturday of this week I will be talking to all of the community groups in Northern Ireland , the community groups were consulted during the area plan stage.  What we are producing is a subdivision of the countryside and this landscape analysis, but that landscape analysis and sub-division has to be taken forward into area plans and it's through that process that the public are consulted.  But at the same time the community groups within Northern Ireland (and we have a lot of them) have also pressurised the planning services through acceptance of what we have done to actually amend plans as a result.  So it has been a two-way process.

Unattributed: How did you manage to gather the data?

Response: Some of this we did ourselves in-house and for much of the rest we used consultants.

Unattributed: What methodology did you use to distinguish the various landscapes?

Response: In local areas for example we judged where the drumlin countryside, where the hill countryside occurred – using topographical or geological data and looking at all the features of the countryside, using information on nature conservation and historical features and surveying the landscape from particular points throughout the countryside and making up our survey analysis sheets on that basis.

Unattributed:  Do I understand that  the local people agreed with your definitions/distinctions and the divisions you decided on the basis you describe?

Response:   The local people had no problems whatsoever.  When we took the Mournes for instance, and the Fermanagh through the Area Plan stage there was no problem.  People accepted that we had drawn the correct areas. 

Unattributed: How many landscape areas are there in the Mournes?

Response: Seven or eight, if I remember correctly. Obviously stone wall countryside in one area, the high Mourne peaks in another area, hedge countryside and so on, so you had very distinct differences.  In Fermanagh you had parklands in some areas and in other areas you had limestone topography and so on.  So there were quite distinct differences which local people accepted.

The methodology that we used is a standard method for landscape assessment, which has been accepted by the Countryside Commission in England , which is also being used in Scotland .

Andrew Croft, archaeologist:  I was wondering how much regard was given to past landscape use in defining present landscape character - how people have dwelt and lived in landscapes before  - was that used as a factor in determining landscape character. Because it seems to me that what are in fact coherent landscape systems or ways of living from the valley bottoms up to the hillside are being separated and defined as very different, when in fact they have been used as exactly the same for centuries – they are part of one way of living – they are not separate entities.

Response:  The first thing you have to do is to understand the landscape and to understand each landscape we need to get the archaeological, the geological, nature conservation and other information.

Andrew Croft:  The problem is that it is all being separated out and you are trying to understand all these separate entities, and not the holistic landscape.

Response: They are put together as the overall character area which you see today, because you have to understand the processes that they have been undergone, which have influenced the landscape that you see today. I am not sure if that answered your question.

Brian Rogers:  To add to the discussion on boundaries of character areas or the subdivisions, a lot of energy goes into wondering, if the bio-regions and biotopes and indeed county boundaries perhaps (though not as likely), but certainly newspaper distribution areas and so on, all these different regional subdivisions, if overlaid on one another, I wonder if they will actually cohere in the future.

Response:  We have paid no attention to any administrative or other boundaries, local landscape character areas cross boundaries, and another very interesting thing we found was that towns are generally at the junction of several landscape character areas and each local landscape character area generally has a community that is attached to it. Those are two significant features that became apparent  from our work.

Annie Brennan:  This is not directed to Joyce, but is in response to a comment in an earlier discussion, I would like to make everyone aware that Teagasc do have trained personnel in landscape horticulture. I work on the Horticultural course at the Botanic Gardens, and both myself, and a colleague at ‘An Grianan’ college deliver courses on landscape design.

Mrs Joyce McCormick is a Geographer and professional Town Planner, specialising in rural planning, she has had a varied career in both the Planning and Environment Services as well as in Local Government.

“We have no prairies

To slice a big sun at evening –

Everywhere the eye concedes to

Encroaching horizon.”

Seamus Heaney  Bogland