Lough Neagh is the largest freshwater lake in the UK and Ireland. Located in the heart of Northern Ireland, Lough Neagh covers 160 square miles. More than 40% of all land area in Northern Ireland drains into the lake, and six major rivers flow into the Lough while only one, the Lower Bann, flows out. The wetlands surrounding the Lough are internationally protected under the Ramsar Convention due to its abundance of wildlife.
Lough Beg is one of several smaller lakes that surround Lough Neagh. It lies on the River Bann near the exit of Lough Neagh and features abundant swamp vegetation in shallow water along the east shore. The western shore consists of unimproved meadows, some of which are the most extensive in Northern Ireland. It is also home to many rare plant species including Northern Small Reed, Water-wort, Pennyroyal Mint, and Slender-leaved Pondweed. It also has the largest count of the rare wild orchid - Irish Lady's Tresses - in the world.
Lough Beg is internationally important for overwintering fowl with large concentrations of Pochards, Teal, Shoveler and Whooper Swans. It is also a passage site of migrant waders including Black-tailed Godwit and Ruff. In summer, the grasslands support large populations of breeding Snipe, Redshank and Curlew.
The species-rich wetland makes it an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) and Special Protection Area (SPA), thus an important ecological site for conservation. When the UK Biodiversity Action (UK BAP) was published in 1994, it highlighted the importance of conserving the country's biological resources and provided detailed plans to aid the recovery of priority species. Subsequent studies and reviews highlighted the dramatic decline of breeding populations of waterbirds in Lough Beg.[ii]
The RSPB NI led a campaign to halt and reverse the decline of these priority species, especially Curlew, Lapwing, Snipe and Redshank, through a cross-border programme of strategic habitat management.
Gareth Bareham, Conservation Advisor at RSPB NI, assessed the specific threats to the species and their habitats and produced the original plan of action to address those threats. "We set the baseline targets based on their features at the time of designation and with similar sites around the UK," he begins. "Lough Beg had been showing a decline in wader populations and some of the important plant species and invertebrates over the last twenty years."
The Environment and Heritage Service encourages wet grassland maintenance and enhancement to conserve native plants and animals in the area. For instance, the occasional patch of scrub is valuable cover for birds and invertebrates. In the absence of management, however, coarse grasses can quickly take over, giving way to dominating woody species including willow and alder scrub.[iii]
"At Lough Beg, we know that an effective land management will benefit waders such as Lapwings, Redshank and Snipe," continues Bareham. "We evaluated what was done right and what wasn't, so we could help farmers take positive action. Farmers are the long-term custodians of this area and we wanted to encourage them to implement specific habitat management measures on their land."
Paul Trimble is Business Manager at the Countryside and Land Management Service (CLMS). As a unit under RSPB, the CLMS undertakes management of reserves internally, but also engages with external groups including farmers and landowners.
The total area under ASSI is about 5km2 with about 180ha (1.8km2) designated Commonage and requiring multiple arrangements with local farmers. "Our role is to help farmers to better manage the land and re-establish the right conditions for birds, plants, mammals and invertebrates," begins Paul. It's a vicious circle to control the dense rushes, willow and alder scrub so breeding ground is lost and flora is smothered. "The land becomes totally unproductive and ironically, loses the very species and habitats for which it was designated," argues Paul.
"CLMS applies best-practice mechanisation of our own Reserves. We have very specialised machinery for environmental processing," Paul continues. Some of the land around Lough Beg is heavily littered with large rocks and stones, which can make it difficult to undertake some machinery operations. "We are using a Case Quadtrac and a Case Maxxm tractor fitted with wide profile Soucy tracks to achieve a noticeably light ground pressure," explains Paul. "This equipment enables travel across the very wet, boggy conditions and avoids leaving ruts."
For vegetation control, Paul uses the Major Cyclone rotary mower. "The mower is more reliable and requires less power consumption than flail machines, which means lower fuel consumption and reduced carbon emissions," explains Paul. "They also leave a better finish to scrub areas."
"We have two 2.5m Cyclone machines and they easily handle all the rushes and willow scrub." The resulting finish was important as well: "It leaves an open stubble finish which the waders find more acceptable for nesting and the Irish Lady's Tresses seem to find much more suitable for their growing conditions."
"By improving the grass swards, we can introduce grazing regimes which help manage the vegetation," added Bareham. Grazing by cattle is the most effective way of controlling the growth of more vigorous plant species and maintaining a diverse sward structure which benefits breeding waders. "We can introduce hardy breeds of cattle such as Highland or Belties who can help control the vegetation," Bareham continued.
"Landowners are already seeing the benefits to the grazing potential around Lough Beg when the rush and scrub is managed well," added Paul. Farmers sharing the ground allow livestock to graze the area during the summer period, and mechanical vegetation control using the Cyclone rotary mower helps between the months of September and February.
The RSPB NI has seen remarkable improvements since launching this project. "Since the introduction of an effective vegetation maintenance programme at Lough Beg, we have seen definite increases in waders such as Lapwings, Redshank and Snipe," Bareham enthuses. Of course, in the wide ecosystem, improved nesting conditions brings another set of problems. "Terrestrial and avian predators such as foxes, badgers, hooded crows and magpies will take advantage of an increase in eggs, chicks and nesting birds," Bareham points out. "But that's a different challenge."
Paul Trimble added, "My role is all about 'best practice' and developing our business to become even more effective for our customers. We are showing a marked increase in bird, flora and fauna populations while reducing operating costs and carbon emissions. This is informative for conservation managers and farmers alike."