Fight continues to save key wetland in Northern Ireland


The future of Lough Beg remains in the balance as a local conservationist lodges an appeal against plans to route a section of dual carriageway through the wetland.

Following the Northern Ireland Government's decision to route a section of the A6 dual carriageway across the Toome Complex swanfields at Lough Beg, through a landscape made famous by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, an application for judicial review has got under way.

The campaign to save this pristine wetland in Northern Ireland and the integrity of the UK's second largest Ramsar site, Lough Neagh-Lough Beg, has attracted the support of actors, birders, poets, environmentalists and lawyers. The Belfast High Court found in favour of the developer at the end of March, but notice to appeal was lodged in May and a hearing has been scheduled for 23 June; the battle is not yet over.

The Aarhus Convention allows this case to be brought by an individual; that is, a litigant in person. This international treaty, forged in the Danish city of Aarhus and to which the UK is party, empowers the public to gain access to information, decision-making and justice in matters concerning the environment. The March judgment came after six months of intensive legal argument which began last September, following a Ministerial announcement in August to begin construction on the road. That announcement was accompanied by the Government's decision on the Article 6 Appropriate Assessment, as required under EU laws stemming from the powerful Birds and Habitats Directives.

Lough Beg is at risk from a proposed road development (Chris Murphy).

This road scheme will result in the loss of functionally linked land; lead to degradation of a Northern Ireland priority habitat; cause significant disturbance to specially protected birds during and post-construction; cause fragmentation of the largest contiguous, lowland wet grassland east of the Erne-Shannon; and expose the largest freshwater SPA in the country to many other risks. The likely outcome of a new dual carriageway is the spread of industry, housing and more roads, each one more intrusive than the last.

In court, the Department for Infrastructure argued that the preferred route will not have any adverse impact in the long term because the site has yet to reach its carrying capacity and displaced swans will be accommodated in other fields through voluntary agreements backed by yet-to-be-issued vesting orders, if necessary, as the Government accepts that it has no control over fields that are not in public ownership. These measures were to be in place prior to construction. However, a year into a working group having been set up, unacceptable uncertainty remains and no voluntary agreements are in place.

The Department also argued that such measures are not part of a decision as required by EU law, merely a commitment to fulfil a promise made to the RSPB 10 years ago a few days prior to a public inquiry. Notwithstanding that this dual carriageway across Ireland's most important site for wintering swans and the UK's third-ranked site for Whoopers (after the Ouse and Ribble) has not yet been built, it was also argued that swans are not troubled by roads, and rather that disturbance is caused by people, not vehicles.

Through Environmental Information Regulations questions, Northern Ireland wildlife conservationist Chris Murphy — the personal litigant who recently lodged the appeal — believes there is evidence that the strict procedure so carefully considered when drafting the Habitats Regulations has been deliberately circumvented. Powers are devolved in Northern Ireland, allowing a Government agency, in this case the NI Department for Infrastructure (DfI), to be the regulator, proposer, developer and assessor, as well as the 'competent authority'. In other words, the DfI has given itself permission to build a road across a floodplain through which a joint Iceland-WWT study of marked birds indicates two-thirds of the entire Icelandic Whooper Swan flyway will pass.

Chris Murphy told BirdGuides: "This wetland is far too important to give up fighting for. If necessary I will take the case all the way to the European Court of Justice. The legal framework is all there together with the effective and supportive bureaux of the Aarhus and Ramsar Conventions."