The scandal of Lough Neagh

Craig Bennett

16 August 2015

Lough Neagh has probably the biggest unlawful quarry in Europe, with 1.7 millions tons of sand dredged from it each year.

Growing up in Essex in the 1970s and 1980s, I didn’t know much about Northern Ireland – other than what was in the news all the time.

And, sadly, that wasn’t really about its natural environment.

But one thing always intrigued me; that huge lake right in the middle of this mysterious part of the UK. It was there for all to see on Michael Fish’s weather forecasts, looking a lot bigger than Hanningfield Reservoir (the largest water body in my part of the world).

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it was many years before I had the pleasure to visit Northern Ireland and learn that this lake, which I now knew as Lough Neagh, is one of the most important wetlands in Europe.

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

But some, clearly, couldn’t care less. Shockingly Lough Neagh has probably the biggest unlawful quarry in Europe, with 1.7 millions tons of sand dredged from it each year.

Can it be a coincidence that, 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?

Friends of the Earth is campaigning to get the Northern Ireland government to acknowledge this vandalism going on under its nose, and stop the illegal dredging.

In a further twist, the very laws designed to protect places like Lough Neagh are under threat, as part of a review of regulations by the European Commission. These laws, collectively known as the Nature Directives, protect some of our most famous places, and the plants and animals that depend on them.

In the UK, the roll call includes Dartmoor, Snowdonia, 56 species of bat and the large mason bee. In Europe, they’ve helped bring the brown bear and imperial eagle back from the brink.

Friends of the Earth is working with groups such as the RSPB to challenge the EU review, and have collected more than half a million responses to the consultation.

You can help us press home that our nature laws are not to be messed with by telling us about a nature place you love (even better, upload a picture too).

Tell us about a nature place you love

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