Government should have stopped sand-dredging at 'wildlife jewel' Lough Neagh

We win our legal challenge to protect one of Europe's vitally important wildlife sites – Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland.
  Published:  28 Jun 2017    |      2 minute read

The Northern Ireland government acted unlawfully by not stopping sand-dredging at one of Europe’s most important wetlands - and one of our most precious natural habitats.

That was the ruling of the country's highest court – the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal. And it was a crucial victory for Friends of the Earth who brought the case before the judges.

The only legal option now open to the government is to stop the sand dredging.

Dredging has been taking place on a huge scale at Lough Neagh without planning permission and other authorisations.

Biggest ever unauthorised development in Northern Ireland

Up to 2 million tonnes of sand is sucked up from the bed of the lough every year. Yet this vitally important wildlife site is supposed to be protected under local and international law. There is no bigger unlawful mine anywhere in Europe in a Special Protection Area.

The sand barge “Libertas” discharging her cargo by grab. Lough Neagh, Northern Ireland
The sand barge “Libertas” discharging her cargo by grab. Lough Neagh, Northern Ireland
Credit: Albert Bridge

Lough Neagh is Europe’s biggest wild-eel fishery. In the 1980s it supported the UK's largest concentrations of overwintering water birds – like scaup, pochard and tufted duck. This was why it was designated Northern Ireland’s first Special Protection Area (SPA) in 1999. It was done so under European-wide legislation known as the Birds Directive.

Over the past 30 years, local bird populations have declined by more than 75%, water quality is at breaking point and fish populations are a shadow of what went before.

Information board showing the birds of Lough Neagh and Lough Beg
Birds of Lough Neagh and Lough Beg
Credit: Kenneth Allen

Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland Director, James Orr said:

“It’s a scandal that the Northern Ireland government has taken so long to understand its legal obligations. It shouldn’t be left to groups like Friends of the Earth to ensure environmental law is followed, and people shouldn’t have to force the authorities to protect special places like Lough Neagh.

“This ruling by the highest court in Northern Ireland sends a powerful signal to the government to take our environment seriously, and to safeguard precious natural jewels like Lough Neagh."

The only legal option now open to the government is to stop the sand dredging.

James Orr, Friends of the Earth

Proper protection for nature

The Northern Ireland government should now manage the lough and its resources sustainably. This is in everyone's interests: the sand industry needs to know how much sand is left – and the government needs to understand the damage the extraction is causing.

Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, said the decision has implications for the protection of all our precious nature areas.

“The case today was won because of EU law and demonstrates how vital these are in protecting our environment," he said.

When it leaves the EU the UK must adopt strong nature laws and ensure these are enforced everywhere. The public wants proper protection for nature.

Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth