Dorset landowner accused of exploiting Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland

Photo copyright Joanna Bury

Members of Extinction Rebellion Wimborne staged a colourful protest at the gates of St Giles House, the seat of the Earl of Shaftesbury, in Wimborne St Giles on Monday March 18, 2024, which was the St Patrick’s Day Bank Holiday in Northern Ireland.

We wanted to raise awareness of the Earl of Shaftesbury’s exploitation of Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland. The Earl owns the Lough, which is the largest lake in the United Kingdom and provides 40 per cent of Northern Ireland’s drinking water; but it is suffering an ecological catastrophe, and urgent action is needed.

Doss Bay, Lough Neagh taken in 2007 by Kenneth Allan, copyright with the photographer, licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Lough Neagh is host to massive biodiversity, including migratory birds, fish, eels, and insects, all of which have suffered serious declines. Last summer the Lough was covered with blue-green algae – toxic bacteria which are a risk to human health and to biodiversity. Human sewage and run-off from agricultural land has been blamed. Local communities and environmental groups report a downturn in fish and eel numbers in the Lough, and Queens University Belfast has found an 80 per cent fall in the number of migratory birds, including the Whooper swan.

The Lough faces a further severe challenge, namely sand extraction licensed by the Earl of Shaftesbury. The Wimborne demonstrators highlighted that 1.5 million tons of sand are dredged from the bed of the Lough every year. This causes environmental damage and likely exacerbates the ill-effects of algal blooms, causing ‘dead zones’ for fish. Dr Chris Hackney of Newcastle University carried out a survey of the depth of the Lough Neagh bed and found sand dredging alone has created scars of up to 56 feet deep (17 metres) in places.

In mid-March 2024, a cross-section of environmental protesters demanded urgent action outside Stormont in Belfast; the action in Wimborne was timed to support their protests. The Earl of Shaftesbury must stop allowing sand extraction and take action to reverse the damage done to the Lough: he is uniquely positioned to help with its recovery. The Earl has not ruled out a private sale, but ideally the Lough should be in public ownership and properly managed.

Watch the protesters in action here!

Photo by Joanna Bury