Whooper swans arriving at Loch Leven, Scotland

Why roadbuilding pauses for whooper swans at Lough Beg

Chris Murphy is anxiously awaiting the arrival of migrating whooper swans at Lough Beg, Northern Ireland. Will they be disturbed by the building of a new road?
Celeste Hicks
By Celeste Hicks    |      Published:  05 Nov 2018    |      6 minute read

Chris Murphy refuses to be downbeat when he thinks about Lough Beg in County Derry/Londonderry.

Behind wire netting, bulldozers have eaten an enormous hole into the side of Aughrim Hill. On the floodplains of the lough, a thick muddy trail runs right through what last year was a prime winter feeding ground for whooper swans. The skeleton of a half-built concrete bridge straddles an empty field.

A6 under construction behind chainlink fencing and warning sign. Lough Beg and countryside in the background
A6 under construction with Lough Beg in the background
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

"It's not too late. I live in hope," says Chris, who moved to Northern Ireland from Liverpool in the 1980s to study breeding wader populations. "This is the finest freshwater site for birds in all-Ireland. We can still save it at any time until the moment that cars arrive on the road."

Roadbuilding gets underway

The plans to construct a 4 km section of dual carriageway on the A6 between Toomebridge and Castledawson have been hugely controversial.

Chris and other campaigners are at pains to explain that they accept the road is needed to improve the connection between Belfast and Derry/Londonderry.

But it's the route that's the problem.

This section of dual carriageway will cut right through Lough Beg’s floodplain. Lough Beg is joined via the Lower Bann River to the much larger Lough Neagh. The two loughs are designated as a single wetland of international importance protected by the Ramsar convention.

After a long battle to stop the construction of that route, bulldozers arrived on the site in summer 2018.

Map showing proposed A6 road skirting the edge of Lough Beg's floodplain in Northern Ireland.
Map showing the road skirting the edge of Lough Beg's floodplain
Credit: Ferguson McIlveen Scott Wilson

Seamus Heaney homeland

If the damage to the wetland was not bad enough, the new road will also go through fields close to where poet Seamus Heaney grew up. It passes within 100m of his childhood home Mossbawn, near Bellaghy.

It will damage the landscapes that inspired him to write some of his most beautiful poetry.

And he also loved swans. His poem 'Postscript' captures the wonder of coming across the huge birds feeding against the backdrop of the wild Atlantic Ocean. It describes the 'earthed lightning of a flock of swans'.

Framed photo of Seamus Heaney with quotation on wall. Plus a framed quotation and a framed poem.
Seamus Heaney words
Credit: Chris Murphy

In his lifetime Heaney spoke against the road and called the plans 'a desecration'.

But today the diggers can be seen slicing through the land on one side of Lagan's Road, which features in his poem To Edward Thomas on Lagan's Road. The dual carriageway will affect the sites which inspired other works including The Strand at Lough Beg and Aughrim Hill.

Country road with road construction starting on right of road. Lagan's Road Northern Ireland.
The site next to Lagan's Road
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

The campaign against the road has attracted a host of artistic and Irish cultural voices including the actor Stephen Rea, the Heaney family and artist Gordon D'Arcy.

Their petition against the plans can be found here.

The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit/
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads/
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.from 'Postscript' by Seamus Heaney

2 whooper swans on calm water swimming towards camera.
Whooper swans
Credit: iStock/ttretjak

The swan whisperers

Chris Murphy and his wife Doris Noe are considered leading experts on Northern Ireland's wetland birds.

They moved to the province in the 1980s and jointly organised the first winter whooper swan survey of Ireland. They discovered Ireland’s first breeding whooper swans, and Doris undertook the first ever breeding wader surveys of Lough Neagh and Lough Beg.

Lough Beg also attracts important populations of golden plover, whimbrel, black-tailed godwit, greylag goose, curlews and lapwings.

"I thought we'd found paradise," says Doris about her arrival in Northern Ireland. "In my native Germany curlews were already struggling to breed, but on Lough Beg and other wetlands it was just the most natural thing to see them."

Chris Murphy and Doris Noe. Middle-aged couple facing camera. Big hedge behind them.
Chris Murphy and Doris Noe
Credit: Mark Cocker

Prime whooper swan habitat

Whooper swans pair for life and return to Lough Beg each year after breeding further north in Iceland. It's thought that around two-thirds of the 30,000-strong Icelandic population will pass through the site on their way to other grounds in Lancashire and Norfolk.

Over 500 whooper swans were seen at Lough Beg in winter 2018. There are also about 40 resident birds, and in 2017 there were 6 nesting pairs – more than on any other lake in the world.

The swans love wet grasslands, usually near marshes, where they can graze and nest safely. There has been some draining of Lough Beg in recent years which has in fact helped the swans, but has negatively affected the populations of other birds.

Lough Beg is the single most important wintering site for whooper swans in all of IrelandChris Murphy

"Whooper swans need real tranquility, and can't live close to humans," says Chris. "The fact that Lough Beg is not easily accessible means they've had little disturbance for many years. That will all change with the road."

View from shore of Lough Beg and distant bushes.
Lough Beg
Credit: @damasuerte

Stopping the bulldozers

But the diggers are in fact currently silent.

When the proposals were given the go-ahead, mitigating measures were put in place. These include the construction work being suspended for the 6 months that the swans are present.

Work ceased at the site in September this year. When I stopped to take photos, construction workers jeered from a passing lorry, perhaps in acknowledgement of the inconvenience.

Just as the machines fell silent, the swans began to return. By mid-October at least 200 birds had arrived back at their home, although there are some unconfirmed reports that the number of juveniles seen this year is below average.

"It is such a privilege to be able to watch and listen as the whoopers make landfall after a 40-hour journey at heights of up to 27,000 feet," says Chris. "You can sense the parents' relief at having safely guided their pale grey offspring on their maiden flight to Ireland."

A yacht sails on Lough Neagh with 2 swans in the foreground, set against a dramatic purple skyline and incredible sunset.
Swans on Lough Neagh, which is connected to Lough Beg via the Lower Bann river
Credit: Six Mile Images

Legal challenges to road-building

With the construction of the road underway, other people may have become despondent by this point.

But Chris and Doris are continuing a long, lonely legal battle to save the swans' habitat. They're grateful for the ongoing support of their children, Tim and Kate.

Having seen a similar road scheme in Scotland dramatically affect the local whooper swan population, Chris decided to challenge the A6 route in the Northern Irish courts.

Representing himself, he claimed the Northern Ireland Executive did not carry out the correct environmental and habitats assessments. He lost in the Northern Ireland courts and the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. No further legal challenge is allowed under UK law.

Lough Beg floodplain in Northern Ireland. Half grass, half water.
Lough Beg floodplain
Credit: Chris Murphy

But Chris has one more trick up his sleeve.

The presence of the swans is one of the reasons Lough Beg has been designated a European Special Protection area.

In February 2018 Chris and Doris lodged a complaint at the European Commission. They claim that the lack of a proper environmental assessment is a breach of the UK's commitments under the European Habitats Directive. Chris also believes it undermines the precautionary principle, which underpins much European environmental law.

The Commission has launched an investigation and Chris is hoping the results will come before the roadbuilding begins again in the spring.

Make space for nature

The swans carry on arriving from the north, oblivious to the legal battles in their names.

For this year, Chris thinks they'll be fine. He believes they will largely ignore the silent bulldozers and continue to forage the rich wetlands.

But within 3 years, this could all have changed. Will the wetlands be restored and improved as pledged in the mitigating measures included in the planning application? Will anyone continue to monitor the swans' numbers?

Once the habitat is gone, it's gone.

I want others to experience the wonder of witnessing this migration, and I want the magic to last forever. I wonder how the older swans feel as they arrive today with their offspring to discover the lay of their ancestral land is not how it is imprinted on their memory. Chris Murphy

Swans on Lough Neagh, which is connected to Lough Beg via the Lower Bann river in Northern Ireland.
Swans on Lough Neagh, which is connected to Lough Beg via the Lower Bann river
Credit: Six Mile Images/Johnny McKee

Earthmovers awards

Chris's hard work and dedication to protecting the swans and Seamus Heaney country has been recognised with an Earthmovers award from Friends of the Earth.

Congratulating Chris on the award, Friends of the Earth's Lucie Gagniarre says: "Chris brought together a huge movement of artists, environmentalists, and locals, to bear witness to, and challenge the proposal to put this road through one of our most precious habitats."

Chris is grateful for the support, saying "Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland is the only environmental organisation backing calls for a high-level investigation in Brussels."

Roadbuilding and climate change

With major roadbuilding schemes threatening other national treasures such as Stonehenge  and wetlands in Oxfordshire, it's time to ask the government to stop building more roads.

Covering the countryside in tarmac is not the solution to transport woes. Car journeys may increase and along with them dangerous greenhouse gas emissions.

There is an alternative. Will you help us to campaign for better investment in public transport for everyone?