New research has exposed severe scarring caused by the dredging of sand from the bed of Lough Neagh, with a leading fishermen’s body warning it could take “decades if not centuries” for the bed to recover.
The lough, the largest freshwater lake in Ireland and Britain, is an internationally-significant habitat, supporting rare plants, thousands of birds and freshwater pollan - one of the most important fish species in Ireland.
For many decades, sand has been dredged from the bed of the lough.
However, environmentalists and fishermen have claimed that not enough research has been carried out into the impact of dredging.
New research by sand-mining expert Dr Chris Hackney has now revealed that dredging over many decades has caused deep scarring on the bed of the lough.
Dr Hackney, an academic at Newcastle University, carried out a survey of the depth of the bed in August to measure the impact of industrial sand extraction.
The survey looked at an area of half a square kilometre where around two million tonnes of sand have been dredged in recent years.
His work found that sand dredging alone has created scars of up to 56 feet deep (17 metres) in places.
Dredging has also caused several deep ‘pock marks’ of up to 19.6ft (6m) deep.
“The lough bed used to be around four to five metres (13ft - 16.4ft) deep in that part of the lough,” Dr Hackney told The Detail.
“However, years of extraction has removed sediments from the bed such that depths are now, in places, 21m (69ft) deep.
“That’s a 16-17m (52.5ft-56ft) lowering of the lough bed as a result of extraction.”
Dr Hackney compared the current status of the lough with data from charts created more than 170 years ago, before any sand was dredged.
“From admiralty charts and depths - collected back in 1851 - the lough bed showed a smooth, slowly-sloping bed,” he said.
“However, our new survey demonstrates the lough bed is now highly uneven, with clear pock-marks and scars evident resulting from the suction-dredging.
“At the time of the survey, dredging vessels were not active in this area, so this uneven topography is a result of long-term dredging, suggesting that the uneven topography persists through time and does not even out back to a smooth surface.
“These individual pock-marks can be anywhere from 10-18m in diameter and up to 6m deep in places.
“By comparing the original lake surface to this survey it appears that this 0.5 km2 area has lost around 1.29 million cubic metres (around two million tonnes of sand).”
Sand extraction at Lough Neagh was unregulated until 2021 when a handful of firms were licensed by the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure (DfI) to dredge up to a total of 1.5 million tonnes annually.
Pat Close, chief executive of the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative Society, said he believed the lough bed could take "decades if not centuries" to recover.
Mr Close told The Detail that the areas of the lough where there had been the highest concentration of dredging over recent years were effectively "dead zones" for fish.
“To be cynical about it you could say that extracting sand from Lough Neagh is less controversial than opening an open-cast quarry in the Sperrins or somewhere else,” he said.
Mr Close said fishermen need a “worthwhile database” to look at the overall impact of sand dredging on the lough.
“We’ve suffered in the past from a lack of investment in research to have a good understanding of fish populations and how they are changing and so on,” he said.
Mr Close said the fishermen are now working with Daera (the Department of Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs) and the Northern Ireland Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute to try and gather data.
Daera did not respond to a request for comment.
Although the lough’s water is publicly-owned, the bed and banks are owned by the Earl of Shaftesbury, an English aristocrat based in Dorset.
Sand traders pay the Shaftesbury Estate a levy for every tonne of sand they extract.
The Estate was contacted about the new research but did not respond.
No regular surveys
No Stormont department or agency carries out regular surveys of the lough bed to measure the impact of sand extraction.
The only major research facility at the lough, which was operated mainly by the then University of Ulster at Traád Point, near Ballyronan, Co Derry, closed nearly two decades ago.
A study commissioned by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) in 2016 found there were “many important gaps in understanding the effects of sand dredging” on the lough, including on native fish species.
Studies into dredging, which had reportedly cost £500,000 as of June 2017, have been carried out by consultants on behalf of traders who extract sand.
One study, produced in 2017, found that the dredging was having no detrimental impact on the lough’s ecology.
However, environmentalists have argued that extensive research into the impact of dredging needs to be carried out.
Retired academic Dr John Spence, secretary of the Lough Erne Rivers Trust, told The Detail that there are still key information gaps about Lough Neagh and its connecting rivers.
He also argued that sand extraction at the lough is not sustainable at its current levels.
“There are major gaps in the understanding of what is going on within Lough Neagh and indeed the Bann River and adjacent coastline and Magilligan Strand - all part of this landscape formed during the last glaciation,” he said.
“What is very self-evident is that the current practices and state of the lough, its environment and ecosystems are neither sustainable and most certainly do not look like anything trending towards a circular economy or sustainable environment – in current government reports, the water quality in the system is described politely as being ‘hypereutrophic’.”
Hypereutrophic lakes and rivers have too many nutrients, leading to poor water quality.
Excessive nutrient levels can cause algal growths and low oxygen levels that can kill fish.
In 2015, environmental group Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland (FoE NI) launched legal action against sand dredging at the lough.
FoE NI wanted dredging to be halted to allow research to be carried out into the environmental impact of sand extraction.
Although FoE NI’s first legal challenge failed, following a second case, the Court of Appeal found in 2017 that extraction at Lough Neagh must be reviewed.
A planning appeal inquiry, set up after the court’s finding, heard conflicting submissions from sand trader firms at Lough Neagh and environmentalists about the impact of dredging.
The Lough Neagh Sand Traders - a body representing sand extraction firms - argued that the effects of sand-dredging on sediment and water quality at the lough were “not significant”.
The body also stated there were “no cumulative impacts to consider in this respect resulting from historical dredging prior to 2010 or between 2010 and the present day”.
RSPB NI said that “insufficient information” had been presented to the inquiry, preventing “a robust and competent assessment of the potential impact of this project”.
Continued sand extraction was greenlit in October 2020 by then Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon. The planning approval came into effect in January 2021.
In announcing her decision, Ms Mallon said she had “come to the view that there will be no adverse effect caused by the development on the lough in terms of its integrity or other aspects of its designated status provided that suitable conditions and agreed measures are put in place”.
A spokesman for the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) said Ms Mallon’s decision was taken following an extensive public process, including an independent planning appeal inquiry in 2018/19.
“The decision that was made by the minister followed the recommendation by the Independent Planning Appeals Commission,” he said.
He said the department continues to monitor and regulate how much sand is extracted from the lough.
Companies which form part of the Lough Neagh Sand Traders’ collective were contacted for comment.
Two of the five firms - Northstone Ltd and P&J Walls - declined to comment.
The other firms did not respond.
- Tommy Greene, the journalist who wrote this article, is a Bertha Foundation fellow. His recent work has appeared in The Guardian, The Irish Times and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
- All of the work which he will be completing as a Bertha Foundation fellow will be focused on environmental issues
- This is the fifth in a series of publications which Tommy will produce as part of the Bertha Challenge
- To find out more about the Bertha Foundation, please click here