Grants freeze may threaten future of up to 150 thatched cottages across Northern Ireland
Exclusive: Yet more projects hit by government cash freeze
The preservation of up to 150 thatched cottages across Northern Ireland could be under threat amid an end to crucial government funding.
Many traditional picture-postcard properties - some around 200 years old - now face an uncertain future following a freeze on listed building grants used to maintain their fragile roofs.
Owners have a legal obligation to maintain the upkeep of the listed buildings, with major work required every seven to 10 years.
But the work - which can cost up to £10,000 - has up until now been heavily assisted through listed building grants from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), in order to help preserve some of Northern Ireland's most important heritage properties.
However there is now a freeze on such grants, with no funding set aside for projects in the current draft budget for 2015/16.
It comes after it was revealed a £12m project to turn the listed Scottish Mutual building in Belfast into a luxury hotel could be the first major project hit by the freeze.
It could mean an end to such government grants, often required to undertake 'sympathetic restoration' work for such listed buildings.
According to the draft budget for 2015/16, no funding has been allocated for a number of grant programmes from April next year on.
Nichola McVeigh, chief executive of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, said the case for protecting such important buildings, including thatched cottages, was "now at a critical point due to their rarity and fragility".
"The proposed budget cuts will have a devastating impact on their future," she said.
She said once left unoccupied or unmaintained, thatched buildings deteriorate rapidly and often end up on the NIEA's 'buildings at risk register'.
"The cessation of listed building grants will impact on projects from country houses to cottages, particularly those with thatch," she said.
Anna Benjamin is one of those owners who may no longer be able to maintain her Grade B1 listed property.
Built between 1820 and 1835, Rose Cottage outside Derrylin in Co Fermanagh was restored by Ms Benjamin and her family several years ago.
Nichola McVeigh said Ms Benjamin was "indicative of many owners who will now find it difficult, if not impossible to protect these rare structures into the future".
There are currently 18 thatched properties awaiting a decision on grant assistance through the NIEA's grant-aid scheme, according to the Department of the Environment.
Asked whether there was concern that an area of Northern Ireland's heritage could be lost without this financial assistance, a spokesman said: "The draft Executive Budget 2015/16 indicates that the Department of Environment budget will be significantly reduced.
"This would include the termination of a wide range of grant and other support programmes that are aimed at supporting key environmental programmes."
"The department encourages all affected parties to respond fully to the ongoing consultation on the 2015/16 DoE draft budget proposals and also to the consultation on the NI Executive draft budget for 2015/16."