Northern Ireland

Rathlin island: Tourism fears over bird centre closure

View from seabird centre Image copyright BBC David Maxwell
Image caption Visitors use the view from the centre to watch the thousands of birds that breed on the island

Concerns have been raised about the potential economic impact of a decision to close one of Rathlin island's main tourist attractions for a year.

The seabird centre at the west Lighthouse attracted 12,500 visitors last year.

Viewing platforms around the lighthouse allow visitors to get up close to the thousands of birds that breed on the island in the spring and summer months.

Rathlin hosts Northern Ireland's largest seabird colony.

The centre is run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) but the building is owned by the Commissioners of Irish Lights (CIL), which plans to upgrade the lighthouse and visitors centre as part of a major tourism project called the All-Island Lighthouse Tourism Trail.

Five lighthouses will be improved in the first phase of the European Union-backed project.

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Media captionMichael Cecil says he was surprised no alternative was proposed while the lighthouse is closed

The investment has been universally welcomed, but due to the potential for building work to commence during the summer months the RSPB has made the decision to close the seabird centre and not recruit seasonal staff and volunteers.

30,000 visitors

Michael Cecil from the Rathlin Development and Community Association (RDCA) said the decision to close without an alternative in place has come as a surprise.

"Obviously we are concerned that it will impact on island life, so we are spending the next few weeks getting various agencies around the table trying to put some mitigation in place - we want to make it very clear that Rathlin remains open."

Image copyright BBC david Maxwell
Image caption Work on the West Lighthouse is due to be completed by March 2015

The RDCA estimates that the island welcomes about 30,000 visitors every year. It is an influx that many islanders depend upon for their income.

Richard Green used to skipper one of the boats that brings visitors to Rathlin.

"I would be very concerned that it would affect the tourism - I certainly wouldn't like to see that… nearly every person on the island has a connection directly or indirectly with it," he said.

"I can understand that they probably want to refurbish it or upgrade it which is good, but I am very concerned that it might put some people (who want to see the birds) into difficult and dangerous areas to get a viewpoint."

Peter Harper from the RSPB said the charity has to plan its activities well in advance and made the decision to close for a variety of reasons.

"It's unfortunate that we have to close but we have to be sensitive to the health and safety risks for visitors, for staff, for volunteers. It's also a chance for us to maybe review aspects of the operation and gear up for what will be an extended visitor offer when the new centre opens."

'No consultation'

Island representatives have requested a meeting with CIL, RSPB and other government agencies at the end of this month to explore possible alternative viewing areas.

Image copyright BBC david Maxwell
Image caption Rathlin has about 30,000 visitors a year, says the island's community association

Moyle councillor Joan Baird (UUP) said the decision has come as a bolt from the blue and has not come before the council.

"It has not come up at council, there has been no consultation and very little consultation even with the people concerned on the island… it has very wide implications not just for the island but for the wider Glens and Causeway coast area," she said.

The work on the lighthouse is due to be completed by March 2015.

Mr Cecil said the RDCA and island businesses are working hard to find ways of filling the gap left by the closure of the seabird centre.

"Existing businesses will be doing as much as they can to facilitate tourists.

"There are about 20 miles of public walks on the island, there is lots of natural scenery and beauty, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency are a major landowner at the site, we are hoping they will step up and open some of their land so that people can still have access to the bird cliffs."

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