IT’s a beautiful image that burned into Dúlra’s mind last week – the crimson sun sinking below the low mountains of Tyrone, producing a kaleidoscope of color on the rippling expanse of Lough Neagh stretching 10 miles away.
It was a breathtaking sight, although in reality it is not rare. Few of us ever get the chance to experience it as this incredible lake has remained hidden from most of us.
And that’s the real tragedy.
Lough Neagh is a natural beauty right on our doorstep. But all Dúlra’s life it has somehow remained on the periphery. Its sheer size – at 392 square kilometres, it dwarfs all other lakes in Ireland and Britain – means it really should be at the center of our lives.
But it might as well be on the moon. You could live tens of miles from the coast in West Belfast and still have no idea how to get there. Are there signposts?
And if you manage to find your way to the lake through the countless backstreets – as Dúlra did last week – can you really enjoy dander along the shores?
Are there riverside paths? Can kids paddle there? Are there shelters for the public to view the rare birds up close? How about a simple picnic table? The coast closest to Belfast is actually 20 miles long, but as far as Dúlra knows you can’t even get there (legally) along the waterfront.
If you want a picnic by the water with your family, travel 55 kilometers from Belfast to the southern village of Ballyronan in Derry.
Dúlra was once privileged to attend a wedding at Loch Lomond in Scotland, which is one fifth the size of our Lough Neagh. He never knew Scotland had such a treasure – it was like something out of the Swiss Alps, but it was only half an hour from Glasgow. There were log cabins and hotels shaded by pine trees, pleasure boats that took guests on trips around the islands. Oh, and for Dúlra the biggest attraction of all: ospreys that nest on those same islands and dive down to pluck trout from the water with their talons.
Lough Neagh is not in the same ballpark.
Amazingly, experts believe the partition punished Lough Neagh. You’d think a mini-state would nurture that huge body of water it’s designed around, but instead, the state ignored the lake. It was as if it had been put in storage.
A wonderful book just published in honor of Loch nEachach reveals that in pre-partitioning Ireland was one of the economic centers of the island, with canals stretching out like a spider’s web.
But it was somehow downgraded by a new state preoccupied with sectarianism.
Between 1930 and 1959 the level of Lough Neagh was lowered by 1.26 metres, leading to the loss of floodplains, reed beds and wet forests. As with many of the ecological collapses that are in the picture today because of climate change, we can’t blame others. Most of the most serious damage has been done since time immemorial, and much of it, such as the cleansing of the brooding curlews in the lake, is now being done.
The real decline of this great lake on Belfast’s doorstep took place in the 20th century and continues to this day. The book – Lough Neagh: An Atlas of the Natural, Built and Cultural Heritage – reports that wild bird numbers have fallen by 80 percent with once-common birds such as the curlew, now nearly extinct. Many people believe that the government has abandoned the lake completely, often leaving it to the private sector, which has created jobs and wealth from the lake, but has largely failed to address environmental losses.
Dúlra loved last week’s walk along the road that bordered the lake at sunset. Those Lough Neagh flies were out in the millions – knowing they don’t have mouths so they can’t bite is little consolation – and the early evening bats were out to dine on them too.
The road here is as close to the lake as possible. Fortunately there aren’t many cars, although as dusk falls it clearly becomes more dangerous for anyone walking.
Land runoff allows farmland to extend all the way to the water’s edge, although the farmers here are far from industrial. Dúlra saw here a farm animal that is probably the most popular to eat, but which, like Lough Neagh itself, is unfortunately hidden from us – the pig. A herd of them roamed free on a waterfront farm, clearly enjoying the countryside as much as Dúlra.
We all know that Lough Neagh was created by Fionn Mac Cumhaill, who tore up a piece of land and threw it at a Scottish giant. It fell into the Irish Sea, creating the Isle of Man, as the crater left behind filled with water to form the lake.
But at the time it was surrounded by ancient forests where the osprey — named iascaire corineach (tonsured fisherman) after the bald Irish monks of the time — would have arrived from Africa every spring to nest.
Last week, Dúlra could almost imagine that magical bird of prey diving down to pick pollen from the vast waters of Lough Neagh. It is here that the barn owl has recently made a comeback, showing that despite all setbacks, progress is possible if the desire is there.
• If you have seen or photographed something interesting, or if you have any questions about nature, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.
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