Scientists believe that climate change could be behind the
mystery of Lough Neagh's disappearing ducks.
More than 100,000 water birds used to flock to the huge lough
around 20 years ago to overwinter. Now, that figure has plummeted
to 50,000 - 60,000 - a faster decline than elsewhere in Europe.
Ian Enlander, head of the ornithology team on site designations
with the Environment and Heritage Service, revealed the shock
drop in numbers at a conference in Belfast which unveiled
the latest research carried out by the UK government body.
Northern Ireland's Environment Minister Arlene Foster hosted
the conference at the Waterfront Hall. The conference uncovered
a world beneath the waves - revealed by scientists who created
a 3D model of the seabed, the threat to Northern Ireland's
bees, the news that the Irish hare may be a distinct species
and the discovery of more than 100 rare invertebrates - some
new to Northern Ireland.
Delegates heard that Lough Neagh used to be one of the top-ten
wetland sites in the UK for wintering birds - but has declined
to around 20th. Mr Enlander said that reviews of bird ringing
programmes suggest that, whereas wildfowl once migrated from
Iceland, the Baltic states and Europe to overwinter in Lough
Neagh, many are now staying put.
Some reports favour climate change as the main cause of this
decline, while others suggest diminishing habitat quality
in Lough Neagh could be to blame.
"The data shows that, in places like the Baltic states,
winters are milder than they were 30 to 50 years ago. If the
birds believe they can have a comfortable winter near their
breeding grounds, then why fly that extra distance?"
- Mr Enlander said.
"We have found significant decreases in the distances
that the average bird is flying towards its wintering grounds
and more detailed work by other groups on waders - such as
curlew and oystercatchers - finds that they're moving north"
- he added.
However, Mr Enlander stressed that EHS needs to investigate
whether other factors could be at play - that the ducks have
disappeared faster than elsewhere suggests something specific
to Lough Neagh is affecting them. "There is a tendency
to blame it all on climate change and wash your hands and
say there is nothing we can do about it - and that is a very
poor response to make."
He added that more work is planned to determine what local
factors could be involved. "My concern is whether changes
in water quality have fed down the food chain and impacted
on the Lough Neagh flies they feed on. We know that Lough
Neagh is not as clean as it should be, but we can't point
at any other changes that tie into the big changes that we've
seen with the birds" - he said.