Lough Neagh could be facing irreversible environmental damage unless it is urgently brought into public ownership.
The Assembly has now agreed to explore the option of taking responsibility for Northern Ireland’s largest lake, which is currently owned by the Earl of Shaftesbury.
If the lough was to be purchased and become publicly owned, hopes have been raised that it could be developed as a new ‘signature' tourism project, along the lines of the Titanic and Giant's Causeway initiatives.
But under its current management the lough is suffering continued ecological damage, while its commercial and tourism potential have not been properly exploited.
Stormont was told yesterday that the current arrangements for the lough are “a shambles”.
MLAs heard that:
- Bacteria in the water has led some councils to ban water sports;
- Eels once sold at top prices because they could be held for two months now last only 10 days;
- The lough is suffering from plummeting bird populations and the theft of fish stocks.
Speaking at Stormont yesterday DUP MLA Jim Wells said: “If we allow the present situation to continue the ecological quality and the tourist potential of Lough Neagh, and the economic benefits that would accrue to this society
from having it, will continue to decline.
“And we will be left with a large body of water in the middle of Northern Ireland that really is of no benefit to anyone. Surely we need to do something about it and try and restore Lough Neagh to its former glory, that everyone will benefit from.”
He added: “The reality is that that management hasn't worked. During the last decade there has been a fundamental decline in the ecological quality of Lough Neagh, in terms of fishing stock, in terms of its wildlife, and the planning around Lough Neagh, has been an utter shambles.”
A multi-department working group will now be set up. It will explore achieving public ownership through either compulsory purchase or an agreed sale. Estimates several years ago valued the lough at £6m but that figure is expected to have increased.
The lough land is currently owned by the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper.
The Belfast Telegraph attempted to contact the 32-year-old Earl, who is now resident most of the time in Dorset, to answer concerns from MLAs about the management of Lough Neagh.
He was not immediately available for comment.
Sinn Fein’s Oliver McMullan told yesterday's Stormont debate: “The main problem at present is that it is in the private ownership of the Shaftesbury estate.
“While that situation remains, public money will not be invested, because we have no control over development rights, pollution or water quality.
“Under public control, all the relevant departments would be involved. Up until now, because the lough is in private ownership, the Tourist Board has not been involved.
“At present, the lough supplies around 40% of Northern Ireland’s water.
“Can you imagine what would happen if ownership were to pass to the private commercial sector? We could be held to ransom over water supply.”
Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill told the debate: “There is a need to balance the varied interests of all the different stakeholders, which is why the working group is the key way to move things forward.”
We may own the water... but deeds for lake bed and shoreline held in Dorset
Northern Ireland appears to ‘own’ the water — but not Lough Neagh itself.
The land, including the shore and the lough bed, is the property of the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury who seems to spend most of his time now in Dorset.
The historical oddity came into sharp focus seven years ago when the 11th Earl passed away and there were considerable fears that a private company might be able to purchase the family’s rights.
That in turn could eventually have led to a company charging for water, sewage and access — or all three, with the potential knock-on effect of increased rates in the seven councils which surround the land-locked lough, the third largest freshwater lake in Europe.
At the time an interdepartmental Government email supported the suggestion that a private owner would have the legal right to draw water from the lough.
In the event, however, the lough remained in the Shaftesbury estate, although the ownership issue could arise again in the future.
The owners grant lease agreements to commercial operators on the lough, of which there are many, including the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative Society and sand extraction companies, and they also grant sporting rights to wildfowling clubs.
The then Water Council in 2003 identified the potential for the public to be charged in future for supplies from Lough Neagh and recommended it should be purchased on the public’s behalf.
While then Ulster Unionist minister Dermot Nesbitt examined the issue, the Executive did not go down that route.
Last year a report from NI Water reaffirmed that it abstracts up to 50% of the raw water that enters the water supply in the province from Lough Neagh.
The lough’s value has been estimated between £3m and £6m.
It’s hard to fix up a national asset when the owner refuses to play ball
By Jim Wells
In practically any other part of Europe, Lough Neagh would be a jewel in the crown of the community. It would be a tourist asset and a phenomenal nature reserve.
It would also produce huge economic gains to society.
However, the people of Northern Ireland have —for centuries — shamefully turned their backs on Lough Neagh.
The roads do not run along the shore of Lough Neagh, affording scenic views across the water; they run at right angles away from the shore.
The management of Lough Neagh is, quite frankly, a shambles at the moment. It is under enormous pressure.
The lough’s fish stocks have declined dramatically over the years. The water quality leaves an awful lot to be desired.
The numbers of wildfowl species such as pochard, tufted duck, goldeneye and scaup have declined dramatically over the past decade.
Something has gone very wrong ecologically with Lough Neagh.
And the planning controls around this vast stretch of water have been an utter fiasco.
Why anyone would want to visit some parts of the lough shore, given the way in which it has been ruined by unsympathetic development, beats me. We have huge problems.
During my time working for the Association of Lough Neagh Users, we tried to implement an effective management strategy for Lough Neagh.
However, we came across one fundamental problem: the person who owned it did not want to co-operate with anybody.
He controls the sand and gravel extraction, the wildfowling and fishing rights; he even has control of the bed of the lough.
It is very hard to manage a national asset if the person who owns almost all of the rights that are associated with it is not going to play ball.
I welcome the Stormont motion. It is not pledging the Assembly to compulsorily acquire the assets of Lough Neagh; the motion is saying that we should set up a group that will take a look at the issue.
It could be that Shaftesbury Estates will ultimately say that it is quite happy to sell the asset to the Northern Ireland Executive, so there may be no need for compulsory purchase of this important and rich resource.
Jim Wells is a DUP MLA
Questions to test your depths of knowledge
1 What does the name Lough Neagh mean?
2 When did Lough Neagh form?
3 What well-known structures were built using sand |extracted from Lough Neagh?
4 Which fish are only found in the Lough Neagh system?
5 Lough Neagh exports 650 tonnes of a particular foodstuff every year — what is it?
1 The name Lough Neagh means the lough of the horse-god Eochu, lord of the underworld, who was supposed to exist beneath its waters.
2 The lough was formed in the early Tertiary period when a fault line occurred and an area of land sunk, allowing it to fill with water and create Lough Neagh.
3. Sand from the lough was used in the surface of Croke Park and the mortar in Parliament Buildings in Stormont. Around 1.7m tonnes of sand is extracted from Lough Neagh annually and supplies a quarter of the construction industry in Northern Ireland.
4. The dollaghan, a huge trout, and the pollan, a small |freshwater type of herring, |are not found anywhere else |in the world.
5. Eels — the lough is home to the largest commercial wild eel fishery in Europe, exporting to outlets in Billingsgate, Holland and Germany.