Trees blocking access to Lough Neagh could cause 'catastrophe', says fisherman

Trees which have built up at a mouth to Lough Neagh could cause a catastrophe, according to a local fisherman.

More than 30 trees are believed to have been felled on Monday, however, it is not known who carried out the works.

It has left fisherman, Gerard McCourt unable to access the lough he has depended on providing part of his income for many years.

"Some outfit... has left them in the river whole to wash down and get stuck in the river mouth to make problems worse for us," he said.

Gerard added that Lough Neagh is now completely blocked if trying to access it from the river which separates Co Armagh and Co Tyrone.

His concern doesn't just lie with those who are trying to fish in Northern Ireland's biggest freshwater lake.

"The rescue services have definitely no way of getting into the River Blackwater now."

Gerard said that if a boat was to hit one of the trees at speed, it would be a 'catastrophe'.

UTV contacted the Department for Infrastructure regarding the blockage.

A Departmental spokesperson said: "The Department for Infrastructure has not carried out any tree removal works at this location.

"On designated watercourses, such as the River Blackwater, the Department has discretionary powers under the Drainage (Northern Ireland) Order 1973, to undertake works as it considers necessary to maintain the watercourse in a free flowing condition to facilitate drainage outlets and reduce the risk to life and property from flooding.

"The Department does not have a statutory responsibility to undertake works, for navigational purposes, at this location.

"Officials inspected the River Blackwater at Maghery on 21/02/2024 and noted the trees in question, however as they are not causing a significant drainage impediment or increase in flood risk, the Department would have no plans to remove them."

This blockage is the latest problem to hit Lough Neagh after last year's problems with blue green algae as well as long-standing issues such as pollution and dredging.

On Wednesday, Stormont's new Agriculture, Rural Affairs and the Environment met with the Earl of Shaftesbury - the owner of Lough Neagh's bed, to discuss the ongoing issues.

Following the meeting, the Alliance Party's Andrew Muir said: "I’ve been clear that there are no quick fixes to this issue, neither will a change in ownership provide the immediate solutions that we need to tackle blue green algae.

"I’ve also been absolutely clear that I cannot fix this alone. We need collective action across government, private and public sector and in the community. I intend to continue my engagement with the Earl of Shaftsbury, partners and stakeholders to ensure we work together"

He added: "Alongside my department’s Action Plan, which I will discuss with my Executive colleagues in a matter of weeks, the Lough Neagh Partnership has recently been awarded £250,000 in lottery funding to research future management of Lough Neagh, including public ownership. I look forward to seeing the outworking of their study which will provide us with a solid basis to make future decisions."

Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, the Earl, said: "I appreciated the opportunity to engage with the Minister in person, conveying my best wishes for his new post.

"During our meeting, we discussed our shared concerns regarding the current environmental challenges facing Lough Neagh. I expressed my firm commitment to collaborate with his team and other Lough Neagh stakeholders to find a comprehensive, long-term solution. The discussion provided a valuable platform to address these critical matters.

"What was discussed aligns with my previous statements and sentiments that underscored the imperative for a coordinated, cross-departmental approach to tackle the environmental issues linked to Lough Neagh.

"The algae bloom in 2023 highlighted the severe risks to human and animal health, emphasising the pressing need for a centrally managed government body with the authority to regulate activities impacting the lough's health and protection.

"Additionally, my position on the ownership of the lough bed and soil remains the same since I assumed responsibility for The Shaftesbury Estate of Lough Neagh Ltd in 2005. I am open to exploring options for future ownership as part of our ongoing efforts to ensure a secure and sustainable future for Lough Neagh."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.