NORTHERN Ireland is lagging behind the rest of Europe over controversial sand dredging, experts have warned.
Millions of tonnes have been dredged from the bed of Lough Neagh - the largest freshwater lake in Britain and Ireland - for decades.
But little work has been carried out to monitor the impact of sand extraction from the lake - recognised internationally as a key wetland site.
The lead author of a major UN report into sand mining, published last year, said he was not aware of issues around sand extraction at the lough until they were highlighted by The Detail.
Pascal Peduzzi said the UN report did not consider sand extraction in Ireland.
“I am not aware of this case. Nor can I think of any specific examples of cases like it,” he said.
Although Lough Neagh’s water is publicly-owned, the bed and banks are owned by the Earl of Shaftesbury - an English aristocrat based in Dorset - who receives royalties for every tonne of sand dredged.
No one government body is responsible for the management of Lough Neagh.
Several local councils and various bodies are responsible for different aspects of the lake.
Mr Peduzzi told The Detail he was concerned by how the lough was being managed.
“I am quite surprised to hear about the situation at this lake. This question of ownership is very important,” he said.
“If what you’re doing has downstream impacts, then the activity is no longer simply a ‘private’ issue - even if the water body, or any other source of sand, is privately owned.”
Mr Peduzzi emphasised that responsibility for protecting the lough rests with the Northern Ireland government at Stormont.
“It’s up to the government to set the rules of what you’re allowed to do and what you’re not allowed to do within each jurisdiction,” he said.
The major UN report recommended that sand extraction, including its environmental impact, needed better monitoring across the world.
While other European countries have substantially improved how they regulate sand extraction, dredging at Lough Neagh has only been regulated since early 2021, after planning controls were introduced by then Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon.
No Stormont department or agency carries out regular surveys of the bed of Lough Neagh to measure the impact of dredging.
However, The Detail revealed last month that sand extraction over many decades has caused deep scarring on the bed of the lough.
Research carried out by Dr Chris Hackney, from Newcastle University, found that dredging alone has created scars of up to 56 feet deep (17 metres) in places.
Sand mining expert Kiran Pereira said the handling of dredging at the lough made it an anomaly within Europe.
“Sand extraction in Europe has come a long way in terms of managing licensing operations, monitoring the impacts of the activity and land restoration post-mining and other statutory requirements,” she said.
“However, there are still exceptions and Lough Neagh appears to be a prominent outlier.”
University of Birmingham academic, Dr Julian Clark, who is carrying out research into the lough, said sand is extracted from some lakes in mainland Europe, including in northern Germany.
However, he said those lakes do not have the same international environmental protections or scientific importance as Lough Neagh.
“Another issue is the number of conservation and biodiversity designations that apply to the lough as an actively mined surface water body,” he said.
He added that the Lough Neagh case was also “an outlier in the UK, where dredging is usually used to alleviate flood risk rather than for mining”.
The Shaftesbury Estate, the Department for Infrastructure, the Department for Agriculture and the Mineral Products Association Northern Ireland, which represents quarrying and dredging firms, were all contacted for comment but 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 seventh 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