Lough Neagh: Major review into sand dredging will include long-awaited survey of the lake bed

Sand has been dredged from Lough Neagh for decades. File photo by Chris Scott, The Detail

Sand has been dredged from Lough Neagh for decades. File photo by Chris Scott, The Detail

A REVIEW of the impact of sand dredging on Lough Neagh will include a long-awaited survey of the lough bed, The Detail can reveal.

Agriculture and environment minister Andrew Muir told the assembly earlier this week that he would commission “an independent scientific review in terms of the impacts of sand dredging” - 18 months after The Detail revealed that decades of dredging had caused deep scars on the lough bed.

It is understood that the review will include a comprehensive survey of the lough bed - the first official one to ever be carried out.

The review is part of plans to save the lough, which was choked by extensive toxic blue-green algae blooms linked to slurry run-off and sewage discharges, last summer.

However, a campaigner has questioned why it has taken the Department of Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) so long to carry out a survey.

James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, said a survey should have been carried out during a major public inquiry into sand extraction at the lough in 2018 and 2019.

“This announcement begs the question of why this kind of independent scientific research was not commissioned for the public inquiry into sand dredging more than five years ago, nor last summer,” he said.

"What is clear is that we all deserve new research to gain an understanding of the various stresses on the lough and how each factor impacts on other factors.”

Lough Neagh was choked by blue-green algae last summer. File photo by Tommy Greene, The Detail

Lough Neagh was choked by blue-green algae last summer. File photo by Tommy Greene, The Detail

Sand has been extracted from the lough for decades but regulations were only introduced in January 2021 when a handful of firms were licensed by the Department for Infrastructure to dredge up to 1.5 million tonnes annually.

Mr Orr said any survey needs to be done by a body which is independent of government.

He also called for all dredging to be paused to allow a proper survey to be carried out.

“The first key issue is to establish is a scientifically credible baseline that assesses the sand budget for Northern Ireland an Lough Neagh – in other words, how much sand do we need, what are the alternatives, how much has been taken out unlawfully over the last 50 years and how much is left?” he said.

He added: “For a scientifically robust study we clearly need a moratorium to remove bias from the research.

“You can’t establish a scientific baseline when that baseline is constantly changing - particularly after decades of unassessed and unregulated habitat removal."

A Daera spokesman said departmental officials will look at a programme of any work needed at Lough Neagh "with external science partners".

He said any surveys or research will only be commissioned after a "review of existing evidence".

"Officials will establish an Independent Scientific Advisory Panel to support this review and wider evidence programme to inform the necessary conservation measures to support recovery, in line with our statutory duties as befits Lough Neagh's protected status," he said.

However, he added that Daera was not considering a pause on sand dredging.

"There has been no consideration of seeking a temporary cessation of dredging activity," he said.

Lough Neagh is the largest freshwater lake in Ireland and Britain. It also supplies around 40% of Northern Ireland's drinking water.

In December 2022, a survey commissioned by The Detail revealed that sand dredging over many decades had caused deep scars on the bed of the lough.

Dr Chris Hackney, a sand mining expert at Newcastle University, looked at an area of half a square kilometre where around two million tonnes of sand had been dredged in recent years.

His work found that sand dredging had created scars of up to 56 feet deep (17 metres) in places.

“The lough bed used to be around four to five metres (13ft - 16.4ft) deep in that part of the lough,” Dr Hackney said.

“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.”

The bed and banks of the lough are owned by English aristocrat Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury.

Sand traders pay the Shaftesbury Estate a levy for every tonne of sand they extract.

Ownership of the lough has long been a source of contention.

The earl has recently said he would like to transfer his ownership "into a charity or community trust model, with rights of nature included".

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