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The unsung heroes of Northern Ireland’s best loved parks and green spaces were today encouraged to continue making space for nature at the annual Green Flag awards. Keynote speaker, wildlife cameraman, Colin Stafford-Johnson, whose rewilding of his childhood garden captivated audiences on BBC Two last autumn, said that he is no longer interested in planting anything but native species. Stafford-Johnson, who has worked on landmark series like Planet Earth, and whose father, Barney Johnson was Ireland’s first TV gardener, said that things are changing and people are now seeing the beauty and ecological value of wild spaces that would once have been regarded as ‘untidy’.

Parks receiving Green Flags at the ceremony included old favourites like Belfast Botanic Gardens, Kilbroney in Rostrevor and Carnfunnock in Larne as well as community spaces like Rathfern Activity Centre, Newtownabbey and Toome Linear Park in Antrim. There were also some impressive new entries such as from Ark Community Gardens in Newcastle.

This year also saw the very first special Pollinator Award category for parks which had achieved green flag status but were also implementing habitat creation and restoration measures for pollinating insects which will, in turn, benefit all wildlife. This was achieved in a number of ways including pollinator friendly planting schemes, no mow meadow areas, introducing native hedgerows and native tree planting, eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicide, providing signage on the importance of sites for pollinators, and engaging with the wider community.

Ninety-three parks and open spaces have been recognised with a Green Flag Award for 2022, including 18 community managed sites and 8 heritage award sites.

The winner in the category that recognises sites managed by larger, formal organisations (organisation category) was Castle Park and Walled Garden in Bangor, and the winner of the community pollinator award was Clotworthy Courtyard Garden, managed by Friends of Antrim Castle and Gardens.

Three other awards were given to Billy Neill MBE Country Park which was Highly Commended, and Queens University Belfast and Grange Park, Omagh which were both Commended.

The Green Flag Award is an internationally recognised certification for environmental quality management for parks and open spaces and is increasingly sought after in Northern Ireland since the local programme opened in 2008.

Dr Ian Humphreys, Chief Executive of Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful which manages the local Green Flag Awards programme, said;

“Urban parks are one of the Victorian era’s great achievements and their relevance and importance continue today. Communities across the country value their local parks enormously and their potential to support biodiversity is being increasingly recognised. They’re not just spaces for us, they’re spaces for nature. When you visit a Green Flag site you can be reassured that the location is being managed to a really high standard as they’ve been through a rigorous judging process that assesses sites across a range of issues including their horticultural standards, cleanliness, biodiversity and safety. It’s so encouraging, this year, to see councils, organisations and communities implementing such a wide variety of measures to help our pollinating insects which are severely under pressure. Some of the initiatives are bold and some are subtle, but all show great commitment to working with nature for the benefit of the environment and us all; and at time when many people’s finances are under pressure, it’s important to highlight the fact that all Green Flag spaces are free to everyone.”

Environment Minister, Edwin Poots, MLA, who attended the event, commended the good work being done by so many park managers to improve conditions for pollinators, saying;

“It’s very encouraging to see the growing awareness about the importance of pollinators and biodiversity generally within our local communities. The huge interest in my department’s pollinator grants, which were aimed at schools and community groups have undoubtedly helped to spread awareness about this important issue. Parks are where many of our citizens go for outdoor relaxation and exercise and there is huge potential for these spaces to set aside wild areas in which nature can thrive. I commend the work of all of our Green Flag award winners.”

If you are interested in finding out more about the Green Flag Award or other programmes run by Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful (Blue Flag, Eco-Schools, Live Here Love Here) please e-mail us on enquiries@keepnorthernirelandbeautiful.org call us on 028 9073 6920 or visit our website www.keepnorthernirelandbeautiful.org.