Farming on the shores of Lough Neagh – Farming livestock and protecting waterways
December 3, 2020
Dominic McCann is a busy man – he works by day for the Rivers Trust and also runs a small 25 cow suckler cow beef finishing unit on the family farm in the townland of Ballydugennan that lies on the shores of Lough Neagh near where it narrows to flow into the Lower Bann at Toome.
Indeed before the Lough was lowered – part of this farm was under the lough!
The level of Lough Neagh has been lowered twice, to control flooding, improve navigation and create new farmland but interestingly at 151 square miles – it remains the British Isles’ largest lake and a catchment that drains 43% of the land area of Northern Ireland as well as some border areas of the Republic of Ireland.
The first drainage work was undertaken following the 1846 report by Board of Works engineer John McMahon. His report proposed lowering the Lough to the summer level of 1826, some 6ft below the then surface level and the limiting of the loughs rise to 1ft. Works to achieve this included dredging the mouths of both the Upper and Lower Bann and removing the rock barrier at Portna. The work was completed between 1847 and 1859 and before this it has been estimated that every winter up to 25,000 acres of land around Lough Neagh flooded.
The programme cost £264,000 – £100,000 over the original estimate – and it reclaimed up to 30,000 acres of land round the shoreline. This was followed up by a second programme that commenced in 1930 and today the lough is 3.6 metres lower than is was in 1847 – creating some of Dominic’s farmland.
Interestingly Dominic’s land also retains traces of the Randalstown railway which spelt the death knell for the once hugely important canals that linked coalfields and other commerce to Lough Neagh and for which in part the initial drainage measures had been undertaken.
Sometimes looking at your farms history can help understand how to manage it today!
Practically all of this means that some of Dominic’s land is low lying, hard to drain, with heavy clay soils and thus liable to be saturated – leading to the potential for nutrient losses into the Lough – which already fails to meet required Water Directive Framework standards.
To help keep his waterways clean and not contribute to the problem, Dominic has fenced off many of his sheughs using EFS funding and has created riparian corridors in places.
Riparian – waterside – corridors are a very useful feature on a farm, even if just comprising rough grass. Depending on width and slope they can reduce Nitrate N and phosphorus losses significantly but also potentially pesticide loss. They also help dry land up through increased evaporation (particularly if trees are planted in it), help increase water infiltration and also slow water flow – simply and at low cost!
As the water courses are now fenced off Dominic has installed a pasture pump to allow his cattle to still use the water on farm, He says this works very well – (although he notes that as it has a diaphragm in it, he protects it from frost in winter).
Dominic has also taken up the idea of putting a concrete pad under drinkers designed to stop cattle poaching the area, and where there could be a point source for dunging and urine and hence Nitrate loss – but has made them bigger than the grant required as he found the soft ground needed more protection.
These three measures, allied to Dominic’s careful attention to soil sampling to establish nutrient levels and PH significantly reduce the risk of nutrient runoff into the waterways from his farm.
The new fences and new hedges he has established also greatly help in controlling stock, and the farm now is working well and Dominic able to relax a little as much as his busy schedule allows – although he has identified other areas where he wants to carry out river and stream protection!