“Lough Neagh’s Complex Ownership and Environmental Challenges”

Blue-green algae is toxic to animals and can cause illness in humans (file image)

Introduction: After a summer marked by blue-green algae blooms, bathing bans, and environmental issues, Belfast City Council has joined the call for Lough Neagh to be publicly owned. But the ownership and management of this significant water body are far from straightforward.

Lough Neagh is home to significant native species such as eel, trout and pollan

“Lough Neagh’s Complex Ownership and Environmental Challenges”

The Importance of Lough Neagh:

  • Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the UK, supplies 50% of Belfast’s drinking water and 40% of Northern Ireland’s overall water.
  • It hosts Europe’s largest commercial wild eel fishery and has a long-standing history of sand-dredging.
  • Lough Neagh and its surrounding area support various ecosystems, including native species such as curlews and barn owls.
  • The peatlands around the lough serve as a potential carbon sink, aiding in the fight against climate change.
  • The water from Lough Neagh flows downstream and affects coastal areas.
Ownership of and responsibility for Lough Neagh does not sit with any single department or group

Environmental Challenges:

  • A summer blue-green algal bloom caused problems along the lough, affecting beaches, businesses, and angling.
  • Factors contributing to the algal bloom include settled weather, invasive species, and water pollution, mainly from agriculture.
  • Excess fertilizers from fields wash into the water, carrying growth-stimulating nitrogen and phosphorus.
  • The introduction of zebra mussels in the lough further complicates the situation, as they filter water and contribute to eutrophication.
  • Silt build-up and invasive pondweed pose additional challenges.
  • Rising water temperatures indicate the impact of climate change.
Swimmers at Ballyronan on the edge of Lough Neagh were warned against entering the water in June© BBC

Complex Ownership and Responsibility:

  • The Shaftesbury estate holds ownership of the lough bed, soil, banks, sand extraction rights, and wildfowl shooting licenses, dating back to the 17th century.
  • Multiple entities, including the National Trust, councils, charities, and the Department of Agriculture, Environment, and Rural Affairs, own areas around the lough.
  • However, no single entity or government department is responsible for the entire lough, its water, or the inflow and outflow.
  • Numerous organizations and community groups have emerged to protect and restore the lough, including the Lough Neagh Partnership and the “Save Our Shores!” Facebook group.

Efforts to Address the Challenges:

  • Scientists are advising farmers through the Soil Nutrient Health Scheme to strategically apply fertilizers to reduce pollution.
  • Northern Ireland Water is upgrading its treatment facility at Ballyronan to enhance water quality.
  • Calls for public ownership of Lough Neagh have been ongoing, with a recent motion by Belfast City Council supporting this idea.
  • The Lough Neagh Partnership is conducting an economic appraisal and business proposal to assess future ownership and management.
  • A government-led taskforce is suggested to reverse the “neglect” of statutory agencies over the past two decades, but this would require a functioning Northern Ireland Executive.

In conclusion, Lough Neagh’s complex ownership, coupled with environmental challenges, calls for collaborative efforts and comprehensive solutions to safeguard this vital water body for future generations.

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