Alastair Fenn Environmental Officer for Lough Neagh
I work for the Lough Neagh Partnership and am the Environmental
Officer for the Lough Neagh. My position is funded for 2 years by a partnership that includes the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and seven of the councils that surround the lough shore. I have been in position for a few months now with duties to protect, enhance and manage this beautiful, diverse and unique internationally important landscape by resolving and mitigating environmental issues. Tough job some say while others give a hint of sarcasm given the sheer size of the landscape and the well reported abundance of threats to wildlife and water quality issues.
Whose is it?
Lough Neagh wetlands belongs to us all and that is you, me and the rest of the people living, working and visiting N.Ireland. To improve things I intend to create pilot projects that upon success can be scaled up to much larger landscape initiatives. To be able to achieve my goals I have singled out one key element that is essential in succeeding in this challenge. This does not involve the red taping of priority habitats that contain species on the brink of local extinction or the marching to the steps of Stormont carrying protest banners about water quality issues, but simply connecting you, your family, friends and your community to this valuable natural resource. Yet again this must be achieved at landscape scales and involves installing a community spirit that is not segregated by the natural barrier of water. It’s accepted that each local community of the area is culturally diverse through customs and beliefs. But it must be accepted that communities separated 40 miles apart by water are related in the fact that they are all communities of the Lough Neagh Wetlands equally sharing a vision to protect it for the use and enjoyment of their future generations. My previous experience in environmental protection tell me that a united, connected and proud community can be influential through inspired community action.
On the map but not on the radar.
Lough Neagh is on the map but not on the radar. Yes I must admit before I commenced this job I too have been guilty of overlooking that ‘big lake’ ‘in the centre’ the one that dominates maps of our wee and very proud province. Yeah you know the one we all fly over when coming into land at our International Airport, the one that Finn McCool created when he scooped a parcel of land to throw over the Irish channel and missed to form the Isle of Man and the very same one a few hundred years later that Saint Patrick himself sailed up (via the river Bann) in one of those ridiculously small conical boats. Granted it is a place of fantastic legend and folklore steeped in romance but the truth and real facts about the area just as extraordinary and exciting.
Its 65 million years old.
Lough Neagh was formed about 65 million years ago when a fault in the earth’s surface fractured sinking a huge parcel of land and allowing it to fill with water. It measures over 300 square km’s, contains over 800 billion gallons of water, is ranked 31st in the list of largest lakes in Europe and is the largest fresh water lake in the British Isles and Ireland. The waters of the lough supply 40% of the province’s drinking water and that is approximately 720,000 men, woman, children but not including our pets, farmed and wild animals (Census 2011). The territory holds regional, national and international prestige due to its rich and unique biodiversity and is highly coveted in designations (Area of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Area & Ramsar Site). Its designations relate mainly to its 100,000’s of wintering wildfowl that migrate annually to its shores from places as far away as Canada, Iceland, Greenland and the Russian Arctic to spend winter within 27 N.Ireland priority habitats & live alongside 49 N.Ireland priority species some of which not only have regional but worldwide significance in relation to their existence. But sadly it is ranked among the most polluted lakes in Europe delivering a champion finish in relation to polluted UK & Ireland lakes annually.
We have a valuable resource.
The point I am trying to get across is that Lough Neagh and its wetlands are a valuable resource; but only if we can learn to harness it in a way that is sympathetic to its important native wildlife and cultural history. Ok; accepted Lough Neagh and its wetlands is a valuable asset but what can we do with it? How can we use it to our advantage without destroying it? What have we achieved thus far and what is possible? These are just a selection of questions out of a multitude that sprung to my mind when I began this challenge a few months ago. I’m afraid to say it but there’s an encapsulating answer to all that involves that old cliché; the possibilities are endless.
Lough Neagh wetlands a blank canvas for sensitive eco development.
Across the world we share a landscape that is similar and found in many other countries. There is no point in relating case study after case study but open your eyes and ears. For the last 30 years we have been bombarded with tourist information about short breaks in Lake District in England, great lakes spring breaks in Canada and America, there’s Lake Geneva in Switzerland and its huge Jet d’Eau that cries out from a proud and appreciative community we are here and this is our lake. These are places where local communities have helped create, conserve and promote their landscape. These landscapes are valuable and for the last century have been perfected to generate income sustainably to the environment that is returned locally through jobs and industries. They are places of high land values, tourism hotspots, affluent places people go to enjoy but most importantly to spend money. When I look at Lough Neagh I look upon it as a blank canvas. We are in a position to go out there and hand pick from the best examples the finest of tourist facilities, infrastructure and most importantly ecotourism. The United Nations World Travel Organization (UNWTO) estimated that in 2007 ecotourism captured 7% of the international market. According to travel industry sources, sustainable tourism grew to 25% of the world’s travel market by 2012, taking the value of the sector to approximately £317 billion a year. Locally in October 2012 the Northern Ireland Environment Link (NEIL) reported that Ireland has potential to become world’s top Ecotourism destination. I am optimistic that Lough Neagh and its wetlands has the potential to capture its deserved sizeable slice of cake but only if a proud and united community spirit can be generated by connecting people to the valuable natural resource that is on the doorsteps of so many.