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The Future of Lough Neagh: Ownership and Management Challenges


Following a summer marred by issues such as blue-green algae, bathing restrictions, and boat navigation problems, Belfast City Council has officially joined the chorus advocating for Lough Neagh's transition into public ownership. But unraveling the complexities of its current ownership and management is no simple task.

Significance of Lough Neagh

As the UK's largest freshwater lake, Lough Neagh plays a pivotal role in supplying 50% of Belfast's drinking water and 40% of Northern Ireland's overall water needs. It also boasts the largest commercial wild eel fishery in Europe and has hosted sand-dredging operations, albeit controversial, for more than a century. Moreover, the lough and its surrounding ecosystem have been home to various species, including the curlew and the barn owl, though their numbers have dwindled over time. Lough Neagh holds multiple environmental designations, including special protection areas, special areas of conservation, areas of special scientific interest, and Ramsar status.

Challenges and Recent Troubles

The blue-green algal bloom during the summer wreaked havoc not only in Lough Neagh but also extended to Northern Ireland's north coast. Runoff from Lough Neagh carries pollutants to the Atlantic Ocean, causing bathing bans on several coastal beaches. These bans had negative repercussions on local businesses, with some traders attributing their downturn to the restrictions. Anglers have been advised to practice "catch and release" due to the risk posed by algae-contaminated fish. The algal bloom resulted from a combination of stable weather conditions, invasive species, and water pollution, primarily stemming from agricultural runoff carrying nitrogen and phosphorus into the lough. Additionally, the invasion of zebra mussels nearly two decades ago added to the ecological challenges.

Ownership and Responsibility

Understanding the ownership of Lough Neagh is intricate. The Shaftesbury estate owns the lough bed, soil, banks, rights to sand extraction, and shooting licenses for wildfowl—a historical ownership dating back to the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th Century. Various entities, including the National Trust, local councils, charitable organizations, and the Department of Agriculture, Environment, and Rural Affairs, own parcels of land around the lough, including national nature reserves. However, no single entity holds ownership of the lough itself, its water, or the water flowing in and out of it. Consequently, numerous organizations and community groups have emerged to safeguard and restore the lough.

The Quest for Public Ownership

The idea of bringing Lough Neagh under public ownership has been a recurring topic, though its execution remains complicated due to the multitude of stakeholders. A recent motion by Green Party councillor Brian Smyth, endorsed by Belfast City Council, is the latest in a series of discussions on this subject. The Lough Neagh Partnership, led by manager Gerry Darby, has received a substantial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to conduct an economic assessment of future ownership and management options. The group anticipates this process to span roughly two years, during which they will explore costs, risks, and negotiations. Lord Shaftesbury, the owner of a significant portion of the lough's assets, has expressed interest in selling, though complexities persist beyond the price tag.

The Lough Neagh Partnership asserts that a government department should spearhead a taskforce, in collaboration with stakeholders, to address the perceived "neglect" of statutory agencies over the past two decades. However, this solution hinges on the functioning of a Northern Ireland Executive.