Northern Ireland

Lough Neagh: New environment minister to meet Earl of Shaftesbury, owner of large parts of shore and bed

Andrew Muir promises “frank and open” discussion as part of overall approach to toxic bacteria crisis facing lough

Satellite imagery shows the level of algae bloom in Lough Neagh. Picture by Copernicus Open Access Hub
Satellite imagery shows the level of algae bloom in Lough Neagh. Picture by Copernicus Open Access Hub

Environment Minister Andrew Muir plans to meet the owner of large parts of Lough Neagh’s shores and bed later this week.

Andrew Muir, the minister at the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) told the Assembly the he wanted a “frank and open” discussion with the Earl of Shaftesbury, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper.

The state of the lough following the widespread appearance of toxic blue-green algal blooms last summer is one of the most pressing issues in the new minister’s in-tray.

Agriculture minister Andrew Muir said he did not want to ‘expose the public to an exacerbated level of risk’
DAERA Minister Andrew Muir (Brian Lawless/PA)

The Shaftesbury family has owned large parts of the lough since an ancestor married into the Chichester family, which was handed ownership in the early 17th century.

Management of Lough Neagh must be under the control of one government body, the English-based earl told the Irish News last year.

Mr Muir, during his first Assembly question time, told members the meeting and working with the earl formed “a twin-track” approach to tackling the problems and future of the lough.

“I would say there’s no quick wins associated with the issues associated with Lough Neagh,” Mr Muir said.

“It is highly likely and I think this is important that I put this on the record in the chamber here today, it’s highly likely that the scenes we saw last year will occur this year.

“And to be honest, and I’m saying this from a genuine place, I think it is a damning indictment that this situation was allowed to unfold.”

Mr Ashley-Cooper has made clear he is open to discussing future ownership of the lough and expressed his deep concern over the bacteria blight.

Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury
Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury

Calls have been made for the lough to be transferred into public ownership following the appearance of bacterial blooms last year.

Nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural fertiliser running off fields is believed to be a major contributory factor.

The spread of the invasive zebra mussel species is also understood to have played a role, as they have made the water clearer, allowing more sunlight to penetrate, stimulating more algal photosynthesis.

Climate change is another factor cited, with the highest water temperature at Lough Neagh recorded last June.

A cross departmental water quality steering group is currently drafting recommendations to tackle blue green algae in Lough Neagh.

“I am deeply concerned about the algae bloom which has occurred on Lough Neagh as it can pose serious risks to human and animal health and I share the calls for a coordinated cross-departmental approach to tackle these environmental issues,” Mr Ashley-Cooper told The Irish News

Discussions over the sale of the estate’s lough assets began in 2012. A sale price of £6 million was reported.

However, following a study, senior civil servants in 2014 advised against the purchase, with the report noting that while the Earl of Shaftesbury owned much of the lough there were dozens of other interested parties.