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We are sacrificing Ireland’s countryside to business and agricultural interests

Neglected Lough Neagh is just one of example of how we mistreat the natural world

We talk a lot about urban dereliction. We don’t talk nearly enough about natural dereliction, the slow sacrifice of the countryside to powerful agricultural and industrial interests and public apathy.

The plight of Lough Neagh is a rare exception that cut through to garner some national interest – even if the sudden blossoming of public interest in its fate came almost a decade after the toxic algae began to bloom.

Caused by agricultural run-off, sewage and rising temperatures, the algal bloom has turned the largest freshwater lake in the UK and Ireland an alarming shade of Ghostbusters green. It has killed off some wildlife and reportedly some pets, and is threatening the lake’s eel fishing industry. Oh, and the lake is responsible for 40 per cent of the North’s water supply.

The state of the lough seemed to capture wider public attention because it struck many observers as a beautifully apt metaphor for the toxic state of politics in the North, or the attitude of “out of sight and out of mind” that seems to determine Britain’s approach to Northern Ireland. As Newton Emerson pointed out here recently, it’s a good metaphor, but not an accurate one. Lough Neagh’s plight predates the current stasis in the North; it is an ecological collapse that has been at least a decade in the making.


The toxic algae began to take hold during the brief golden age of Stormont, when an ambitious plan was formulated to give a boost to agri-business in the North. Even if what is euphemistically referred to as “the nutrients” causing the bloom were immediately reduced it would still take 21 years for the water quality to return to “good” status.

But while the dead lough is not really an accurate analogy for the political deadlock, it is a useful metaphor for the way the natural world is treated as a commercial asset.

The land surrounding the lough is the property of the Earl of Shaftesbury, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, a resident of Dorset, England, whose family was “gifted” it in the 17th century, lucky things. The Shaftesbury estate sells licences to companies that want to extract sand from the lake. Eight years ago the Belfast Telegraph reported that its duck population had been reduced by 75 per cent as a result of the extraction and pollution.

Ashley-Cooper told the BBC this week that he “always gets blamed for things that are completely outside of my control”. He only owns the “bed and soil”; the water is “not our responsibility”. He would, he said, like to “do the right thing by the people living here”. But he won’t just be handing it over: “I’d like to be treated as any other business owner and the business has a value.”

This display of unabashed commercialism led to outrage online, including claims that Lough Neagh is a vital natural resource that “belongs to all of us”. Really, a thousands-of-years-old lake doesn’t belong to any of us; we’re just its custodians. But he isn’t the only one guilty of looking on a natural resource as an asset.

Take the current debate over the nitrates directive. Farmers have been campaigning against the EU moves to end the derogation which allows them spread higher levels of fertiliser on land. They are perfectly within their rights to defend their income. But it’s worth remembering that what they are also fighting for is their right to keep polluting our lakes and waterways.

In all half of our rivers and lakes and two-thirds of our estuaries are polluted, and the annual reports from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are taking on an increasingly anxious tone. The latest EPA data, published over the summer, found levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in Irish watercourses were unacceptably high. The cause is human activities such as farming and forestry.

Barely a month goes by without some stomach-churning incident involving our waterways. In June Uisce Éireann shut off a pipe which was discharging sewage from an unauthorised wastewater plant into the Nenagh river. In August a 1km stretch of the Glashaboy River in Cork turned a bluish grey after a pollution incident.

And in July, in the kind of irony so rich it’s probably capable of growing its own algal bloom, Inland Fisheries Ireland secured a prosecution against Uisce Éireann for pollution of the River Liffey at a treatment plant in Ballymore Eustace, Co Kildare.

There’s no room for smugness south of the border about the plight of Lough Neagh either. This week photos emerged of the same lurid green sludge curdling below the surface of the Blessington lakes, also known as Poulaphouca reservoir, also known as the source of the drinking water for 50 per cent of the greater Dublin area.

During the summer Keeldra Lough in Leitrim was closed for 65 days between June and September because of toxic algae that have been blighting the lake for a number of years. In the past few years blooms have been detected in Lough Lein and other Killarney lakes, Cavan’s Lough Sheelin, and several others.

This week the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council published its findings on the cost of assisting the agricultural transition, retrofitting and other supports at between €1.6 billion and €3 billion per year from 2026 to 2030, and up to €1.9 billion a year after that. In all, compensating farmers for changing their practices will account for a third of the overall cost we face for dealing with climate change. In the long term farmers will be okay.

We talk a lot about the scourge of urban dereliction. But the dereliction of the environment is a ticking time bomb.