Dramatic fall-off in birds on Ireland’s largest lake

Lough Neagh’s winter bird population falls by 75% in past decade, study finds

The whooper swan - one of Ireland’s winter migrants. The study, published in the journal of Freshwater Biology, found the ecosystem of the lake has dramatically changed.

The whooper swan - one of Ireland’s winter migrants. The study, published in the journal of Freshwater Biology, found the ecosystem of the lake has dramatically changed.

Wed, Nov 13, 2013, 15:43

A dramatic drop in Lough Neagh’s winter bird population has been linked to climate change and, ironically, more eco-friendly farming practices.

The lake, which is the largest in Britain and Ireland, has lost more than three quarters of its overwintering birds in the past decade, according to a study.

Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast found the number of diving ducks migrating to the waterway for the winter months has dropped from 100,000 to less than 21,000 since the 2000-2001 season.

The study, published in the journal of Freshwater Biology, found the ecosystem of the lake has “dramatically changed” during the period leading to a dramatic decline in the numbers of insects and snails living at the bottom of the water.

One of the main reasons for the crash was linked to farm conservation measures aimed at protecting water quality which has returned the lake’s productivity to more normal and historic levels resulting in less food for the birds.

This combined with the effects of global climate change has seen a huge fall-off in the numbers of migratory and overwintering water birds, a feature for which the lake is designated a Special Protection Area.

The findings of the study by Quercus, Northern Ireland’s Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, provide one of the most dramatic illustrations yet of the complex interaction between farming and climate change, and its impact on biodiversity.

Its chief author, Dr Irena Tománková said: “Our research found there was a 66 per cent decline in the numbers of insects and snails in the lake and that this was associated with a decline of algae.

“ As the water birds, which migrate from Northern and Eastern Europe to spend the winter months on the lake, depend on these invertebrates, we partly attribute their decline to the lack of food as well as the effects of climate change.

“Historically the lake was heavily affected by organic pollution as a result of nutrients from agricultural run-off. This artificially boosted its productivity.”

“Now that conservation schemes are beginning to have an effect and reduce levels of pollution we are seeing increasing water quality and the unexpected consequence is fewer invertebrates and as a result less duck food.”

An associated study published earlier this year showed that numbers of some key water bird species declined throughout south-western Europe at the same time as numbers equally dramatically increased in north-eastern Europe.

Experts believe one of the reasons is that winter temperatures in Northern Europe have increased by 3.8 degrees in the past 30 years, meaning that lakes which used to be frozen over in winter are now available for the birds to feed on.

Less food in Lough Neagh and more ice-free lakes closer to the bird’s natural breeding grounds mean that ducks simply no longer need to fly as far south-west and as a result Lough Neagh has lost some of its importance for overwintering water birds.

Ian Enlander, from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), said: “It is critically important for conservationists and policy makers to understand the reasons behind the dramatic changes that have been recorded at Lough Neagh.

“This work has been an outstanding contribution to improving our knowledge for this site. It underlines the need for international conservation measures to apply across the entire range of these migratory species.”