Belfast Telegraph

Lough Neagh not for sale, angry earl tells MLAs

By Noel McAdam

The earl who owns Lough Neagh has bluntly told the Assembly: “It’s not for sale”.

The Shaftesbury estate also appeared to castigate MLAs for debating the lough’s future without previously informing him.

The criticism came just 24 hours after Stormont agreed to urgently consider taking the lough into public ownership to cash in on its tourism potential and help limit environmental decline.

Lough Neagh’s water has been classed as ‘Bad Ecological Potential’ — the lowest rating that exists.

On Tuesday, it was claimed in a Stormont debate about the ownership of the lough that some councils have banned water sports because of bacteria in the water, that wetland bird numbers are plummeting and that fish stocks are vanishing.

The Ulster Wildlife Trust said that the bad water quality is having a serious knock-on effect on wetland bird populations which once numbered in the tens of thousands.

For years, scientists have been scratching their heads about plummeting populations among Lough Neagh’s wetland birds. Diving ducks such as the pochard and tufted duck once numbered in the tens of thousands, but dropped to around the 9,000 mark a few years ago.

Conor McKinney, living landscapes manager with the Ulster Wildlife Trust, said: “Environmentally, Lough Neagh is not in a good way. Recent water quality surveys have given the lough a classification of ‘Bad Ecological Potential’, which is the lowest grade possible.

“In turn, the poor water quality has had a significantly detrimental impact on the wildlife in the area, as evident from the recent decline in wader populations.”

A multi-departmental working group is now to be set up to rescue the country’s biggest waterway from current management practices which one MLA labelled a “shambles”.

The earl’s reaction could force Executive ministers to go down the road of compulsory purchase

of the land-locked lough from which Northern Ireland gets 40% of its water supplies.

In a statement yesterday, the 12th earl, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper (left), revealed that the decision of the Assembly on Tuesday was “unexpected”.

The Shaftesbury estate said it had “no plans” to put the Lough — which has had an estimated value put at between £3m-£6m — up for sale. The owners, however, also held out an olive branch by agreeing to assist the working group in its examination of the declining waterway.

Responding to the statement, Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill said she would raise the issue at the Executive — and still plans to press ahead with the ‘working group’.

Ownership of the lough by the Shaftesbury family dates back to the 1880s, and to this day it leases out parts of the shore to local authorities, sporting organisations and wildlife activists.



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