Lough Neagh is vast. It's the largest wetland in either Britain or Ireland. And it's bigger than Malta. Resting in the middle of Northern Ireland, it's light-heartedly thought of as the seventh county.
Lough Neagh is a natural wonder open for us all to enjoy. It's a haven for wildlife – including birds such as whooper swans, tufted duck and goldeneye.
This abundance of beauty deserves its special status. It's a globally important Ramsar site, a European Special Protection Area, and a Northern Ireland Area of Special Scientific Interest.
In these islands no nature reserve is bigger and better protected than Lough Neagh.
Or so we thought.
The giant is in a bad way. Beset by multiple problems, it is showing signs of collapse: falling fish populations, vanishing bird life, deteriorating water quality. We must act quickly to understand the causes and the cure – or we'll rob the next generation of something irreplaceable.
It's time to take stock, find out what's really happening to this vast treasure – and why.
In practice it means suspending unlawful industrial activity so that proper environmental assessments can be done.
Lough Neagh needs space to breathe.
Dredging and Lough Neagh
At least 1.7 million tons of sand are being extracted from Lough Neagh every year. This activity is breaking the law. It has no planning permission. And it's taking place in the middle of a protected nature reserve.
If we don’t bring this unlawful sand extraction under the rule of law, none of our special places will be safe from exploitation.
Scooping up the contents of a nature reserve removes an irreplaceable habitat. Dredging is a risk to waterfowl, fish populations, water quality, the wider local environment and the history buried in the bed of the lough. It can also cause the shoreline to erode.
The scale of extraction is immense. In just one year, the sand removed from Lough Neagh could fill over 10,000 volleyball courts. Up to 100,000 lorry movements per year help make this unlawful activity possible.
Lough Neagh in decline
Despite its special status Lough Neagh is a shadow of its former self. A massive drop in wildlife is damaging the fishing industry, and hampering the growth of tourism and recreation.
In the past 20 years Lough Neagh has lost up to 100,000 wintering birds.
It's still a magnet for birds that breed in the high Arctic, but they are in serious decline. In the past 20 years Lough Neagh has lost up to 100,000 wintering birds. It's a staggering demise for a place that once held the largest number of wintering birds of any nature reserve in these islands.
The lough is also the biggest inland fishery in Europe, providing eels for Billingsgate fish market. But the fish too are in decline. The water quality is poor because of nutrients released by farming and the discharges from septic tanks and sewage works.
Because of the lack of effective management for Lough Neagh – Northern Ireland doesn't have a system of national parks, for example – there are lots of things we don't know.
We don’t know with scientific certainty what damage is being done to the archaeology. The lough's changing shoreline and bed are rich in ancient history: artifacts such as dugout canoes have been recovered from the bed. We don't know what damage is being done to fish spawning grounds, feeding areas for birds. We don't know what the effects of sand are on people’s health. We don't know what heavy traffic is doing to quiet rural communities near the lake.
And we will probably never know. It is impossible to retrospectively assess, with scientific certainty, the environmental and social impacts of unauthorised development: by definition, such projects don't have environmental assessments – so there is no record of the damage.
But we can stop it getting worse – if we allow the Lough space to breath.
The government department that is meant to be regulating Lough Neagh has been using sand from the unlawful operators for many years.
We do know that the person who gains most is the Earl of Shaftesbury. He is paid a royalty for every ton of sand extracted from the biggest unauthorised activity in the history of Northern Ireland. His main residence is in Dorset.
Lough Neagh is part of a global sand crisis
Illegal sand extraction is now a major problem facing the planet. Unscrupulous companies are attracted to it because it's easy to mine and hugely sought-after. Sand is one of the main components of concrete, for which there is an insatiable global demand. Yet sand is a finite resource.
It’s likely that sand unlawfully dredged from Lough Neagh will be used to build a road, damaging another part of the protected site.
The mining of sand has been described as ‘the global environmental crisis you have probably never heard of’ and 'the largest environmental crime on Earth'. We don't know the full extent of the damage but it is happening in our most cherished nature reserves – sand extraction mainly takes place in wetland habitats.
We also know that people are losing their lives to protect these vulnerable places. ‘Sand wars’ – real conflict over access to sand – are now common. Killings of people trying to protect sand have been reported in many countries including Kenya, Cambodia and India.
If we can’t protect Lough Neagh then nowhere is safe
If we don’t bring this unlawful sand extraction under the rule of law, none of our special places will be safe from exploitation. Places like a Special Area of Conservation, Ramsar site, Special Protection Area, Area of Special Scientific Interest. Anyone at anytime could take it away, sell the habitat, turn it into concrete, roads or paving slabs, and the government won't have to act. Our most precious places sacrificed for no legitimate reason.
What's at stake is whether our nature laws will be taken seriously and implemented. Many of these laws come from Europe. We and hundreds of thousands of people across Europe fought hard to defend them.
Now with Brexit, more than ever, we need to protect our nature laws. They need to be safeguarded in UK law to protect our environment in the future. And we need a strong watchdog to make sure they are applied consistently and for the purpose they were intended.
The government is legally required to take a precautionary approach.
The Precautionary Principle puts the onus on proving a process or development is not harmful. Without clear evidence, a precautionary approach must be adopted: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of harm. This is a crucial point of law that the Court of Appeal upheld. Yet the sand dredgers, and the Department for Infrastructure, have both failed to grasp it.
If they get the law wrong here, in our most precious wildlife site, then they will get it wrong elsewhere. If we can’t protect Lough Neagh, then nowhere is safe.
If they get it wrong here, who knows what will happen after we’ve left the EU? It's for the sake of our most precious sites, like Lough Neagh, that we have to ensure the Precautionary Principle is retained post-Brexit.
And the first step for Lough Neagh is to give it space to breathe.
This is a place where environmental crimes happen
For over 3 decades I have grown to love Lough Neagh. I want to see it restored to an abundant, thriving ecosystem.
The system failing Lough Neagh is failing the environment
What is happening at Lough Neagh highlights a wider problem. Northern Ireland’s environmental protection regime is failing. We have a planning system that fails to regulate extractive industries. We have a culture of compliance with vested interests. And we have a judiciary inexperienced in environmental law.
Northern Ireland has no independent Environmental Protection Agency, no National Parks, no Climate Change Act. What it does have is a planning system heavily weighted towards approving developments. Civil servants, facing pressure from all levels of politics and industry lobbies, take the path of least resistance.
A dysfunctional system is the result and the environment is the casualty.
There's no question that the sand extraction is unlawful.
To make matters worse, the Department for Infrastructure has been using sand from the unlawful operators for many years. This is the very government department that's meant to be regulating Lough Neagh. Perhaps this is why there is such a reluctance to act.
Ironically, the infrastructure department is also responsible for road building. It's building an upgrade to the A6. This new road will adversely affect the very same protected site – the wetlands of the Lough Neagh and Lough Beg Special Protection Area.
So it’s likely that sand unlawfully dredged from Lough Neagh, damaging one part of the protected site, will be used to build a road, damaging habitat that is functionally linked to the protected site. Some of the land where whooper swans feed will be turned into a road. It’s a vicious cycle of destruction.
What Friends of the Earth is doing about Lough Neagh
Friends of the Earth is seeking action through the courts and the Planning Appeals Commission. Although we've already tasted success in the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal we've had to take new court action against the Department for Infrastructure.
There is no question that the extraction is unlawful. And in our opinion the Department’s failure to issue a Stop Notice is also unlawful. However, the civil service, currently with no elected Ministers in place, has decided not to take action. Effectively they are allowing the damage to Lough Neagh to continue unabated.
This should stop. The lough needs space to breathe.
We want to see it managed as a place that unites people and nature.
A vision for Lough Neagh
Despite the odds, our efforts have achieved some significant progress. There are signs that regulation is beginning to happen and the dredging is now restricted to one area of the Lough.
We must build on this.
Lough Neagh should be the jewel in the crown of Northern Ireland. It should be a place of pride, thriving commerce and abundance. We should be celebrating its mythology, history and its unique sense of place. It should be our Lake Geneva.
We want to see it managed as a place that unites people and nature. With Lough Beg to the north, a landscape immortalised by the early poetry of Seamus Heaney, the entire wetland should be restored to merit the status of a World Heritage Site.
At the heart of a divided Northern Ireland the vast ecosystem has the potential to be a place for reconciliation, healing and the sharing of resources. Places for nature and places for all people can help build peace and heal divided communities.
It is in the interest of the sand companies to accept measures to prevent over-extraction and for society to regulate the extraction. Society needs to plan the use of finite resources for future generations.
Lough Neagh is a defining story of our time. This is about whether we're going to manage our finite resources or turn a nature reserve into a 21st century Klondyke – a lawless rush for, in this case, sand. It's about how we protect special places and whether our nature laws are worth more than the paper they're written on.
If we get this right, Lough Neagh could be a brilliant example of the opportunity we have to leave a better environment to the next generation.
This article features photos, including the image of trees at the top of the page, by Six Mile Images, a local Lough Neagh photographer. If like us you love how he's captured the lough, check out his Flickr page for more stunning shots.