Government should have stopped dredging at 'wildlife jewel' Lough Neagh

Good news for nature. We just won a crucial legal challenge to protect one of our country's natural jewels, and a vitally important wildlife site - Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland.

Yesterday the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal ruled that the Northern Ireland government acted unlawfully by not stopping dredging for sand at one of Europe’s most important wetlands.

The only legal option now open to the government is to stop the sand dredging. 

Dredging has been taking place on a huge scale at Lough Neagh without planning permission and other authorisations.

Friends of the Earth brought the legal challenge over the Northern Ireland government’s failure to stop the extraction. 

Biggest ever unauthorised development in Northern Ireland

Up to 2 million tons of sand is suction dredged from the bed of the lough every year. This is the biggest unauthorised development in the history of Northern Ireland. Yet this vitally important wildlife site is supposed to be protected under local and international law. In fact there is no bigger unlawful mine anywhere in Europe in a Special Protection Area.

Lough Neagh is Europe’s biggest wild eel fishery and in the 1980s supported the UK's largest concentrations of overwintering water birds (scaup, pochard, tufted duck etc). This was the reason it was designated Northern Ireland’s first Special Protection Area (SPA) in 1999, under European-wide legislation known as the Birds Directive. Over the past 30 years, local bird populations have declined by more than 75%, water quality is at breaking point and fish populations are a shadow of what went before.

Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland Director, James Orr said:

“It’s a scandal that the Northern Ireland government has taken so long to understand its legal obligations. It shouldn’t be left to groups like Friends of the Earth to ensure environmental law is followed, and people shouldn’t have to force the authorities to protect special places like Lough Neagh.

“This ruling by the highest court in Northern Ireland sends a powerful signal to the government to take our environment seriously, and to safeguard precious natural jewels like Lough Neagh."

The only legal option now open to the government is to stop the sand dredging.

James Orr, Friends of the Earth

Front loader on sand mountain
Sand extraction at Lough Neagh

Proper protection for nature

The Northern Ireland government should now put in place a system to manage the lough and its resources sustainably. This is in everyone interests: the sand industry needs to know how much sand is left and the government needs to understand the damage the extraction is causing.

Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, said the decision has implications for the protection of all our precious nature areas.

“The case today was won because of EU law and demonstrates how vital these are in protecting our environment," he said. 

When it leaves the EU the UK must adopt strong nature laws and ensure these are enforced everywhere. The public wants proper protection for nature.

Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth


First published 28 June 2017

photo of Lough Neagh at sunset