Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Be it ever so humble, there's no place like our lough

BBC television presenter Kate Humble was on a visit last week, extolling the virtues of Lough Neagh and its wildlife.

One of the faces of Springwatch and Autumnwatch, Humble knows a lot about nature and her endorsement of the Lough Neagh Wetlands Local Biodiversity Action Plan will do much to highlight the worthy cause of protecting local flora and fauna.

Even the casual visitor to the lough shores will see buzzards, kestrels, herons and a variety of smaller birds with little effort.

However, the odd thing about Lough Neagh is not how abundant the wildlife is, but how few people have actually been out on it.

Yes, there are plenty of weekend sailors and windsurfers, but if you do not have a boat and you do not know anyone with a boat, then you might find it more difficult to get afloat.

I have lived within a stone's throw of the lough for many years and have been out once on a family trip.

All my plans to get sailing lessons and a little dinghy have come to nothing. Not so much Captain Pugwash as Captain Washedout.

There are boat trips and they are in demand, but they are not as numerous as one might expect, given the size of the lough, the largest fresh-water lake in Ireland and Britain.

Put it this way, how many readers of the Belfast Telegraph have ever taken a boat trip on Lough Neagh?

Some, certainly, but not many.

Put it another way, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge has just been repaired.

It is a major tourist attraction and 230,000 people visited it last year.

I doubt very much whether 230,000 people paid to take a boat trip on Lough Neagh.

There are simply are not the services to cope with those numbers.

Yet, if 230,000 people walked across a very small rope bridge, then would those 230,000 people not also like to take a boat trip and see, say, the Sperrins?

When people here holiday abroad, we think nothing of taking a boat trip down some Italian lake or along the coast of Ibiza.

However, the idea that we might take a trip around Lough Neagh is something that would not occur to a lot of us.

Yet here is this wonderful area of outstanding beauty in our midst and we ignore it.

That is not to say that there are no attempts to market the lough; www.discoverloughneagh.com will give you some very useful information on the lough, including contact details for boat trips.

Of course, Lough Neagh is used for commercial purposes.

Eel fishing is a vital industry and the lough is also an important source of sand and fresh water for homes.

Perhaps that is part of the problem - we do not view the lough as a tourist attraction but rather a civic amenity, an aquatic work site. Can't it be both? Tourism, like charity, should begin at home.

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