‘When I was younger, I was killing as many wildfowl as I could: Brent geese, wigeon, mallard, greylag, pigeons, anything I could get my hands on,’ says 86-year-old Willie McEvoy in his thick Ulster-Scots accent. We’re standing outside the house where he was born (‘where my father was born, and my grandfather lived’), a white-washed Irish bungalow consisting of a row of small rooms connected to a cow shed, sat alone on an island in Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland, one of the territory’s nine areas of outstanding natural beauty.
The lough was revealed as ice sheets melted at the end of the last ice age and is surrounded and scattered with glacially formed drumlins (small egg-shaped hills and islands) creating a ‘Postman Pat landscape’, as local scientist Lynn Gilmore describes it. It’s the UK’s largest coastal inlet, a huge 150-square-kilometre inland sea that empties twice a day, sending more than 350 million cubic metres of water rushing out into the Irish Sea.
All this energy attracts a great range of biodiversity, and the lough contains more than 2,000 animal and plant species. These include porpoises, basking sharks and thousands of migrating birds, which stop off here in the winter to feed. It was these birds that McEvoy and his neighbours used to shoot with punt guns (guns tied onto flat-bottomed punt boats that could kill 20–30 birds in one shot) to supplement their income from farming.
But now the economy is changing, the area’s farming and fishing industries are in decline, and the lough’s fast-flowing tides (which reach speeds of up to 15km/h as they rush out of the Narrows, a half-kilometre stretch of water at the lough’s mouth) are attracting a new species: engineers.
British sea power
Earlier this year, a team from the private British renewables company Marine Current Turbines (MCT) installed SeaGen, the world’s first commercial marine turbine, at a cost of £12million. It’s a test turbine that has been given permission to stay in the area for five years while the company sees how it functions and what effect it has on the environment.
Not everyone was keen to see this large machine placed at the entrance to such an environmentally sensitive area. ‘You could say, “Why set up an experiment to see if tidal power works here?”,’ says Dr David Erwin, who heads up the independent committee of scientists monitoring the turbine’s effects. ‘But I like to turn that question on its head and say, “What better place to test it?”.
‘Anywhere with this level of water movement will be spectacular in terms of biodiversity, so if this technology is going to be sold around the world, it has to be shown to be environmentally benign,’ he adds. Since 2004, scientists have been documenting the area in its natural state in order to provide a control for when the turbine gets up to full power at the end of the year. ‘Everything that can be measured is being measured,’ Erwin says.
If this installation is successful, MCT hopes to attract further investment to fund its plan for a small turbine farm in the Skerries, off Anglesey. In the long term, company founder Peter Fraenkel hopes the turbines will become part of a decentralised government energy plan.
He believes that 3,000–6,000 turbines scattered around the UK could provide five to ten per cent of the country’s electricity needs, producing predictable (‘the tidal races have been there for millions of years and will still be there for millions of years’) and sustainable (‘our technology can be replaced for thousands of years’) energy, unlike a barrage, which would eventually silt up, and without the pollution of coal or nuclear power plants.
As all the power comes from the rotors, which drive electricity-producing generators, MCT’s current focus is on increasing the rotor area in contact with the tides. Comparing it to more traditional forms of harvesting, Fraenkel explains that ‘the bigger your basket for apples, the more apples you can collect. And the bigger your rotor, the more energy you can collect.’
Meanwhile, the scientists monitoring the turbine’s effect are focusing on two things: the effect it has on the seabed, and the effect that SeaGen’s two rotors have on the large populations of grey and common seals living in the lough. ‘It’s definitely not a seal smoothie maker,’ says Erwin. ‘The blades turn quite slowly – 14 revolutions per minute – but the tip of that blade travels at 32km/h, so it could give something a good thump.’
To make sure that that doesn’t happen, in the short term, someone will stand on top of the machine while it’s running and press a button to stop it if they see a seal coming. In the longer term, research is being done to see if sonar could be used to detect seals automatically and switch off the turbine, without the seals being driven away by the sound.
A damp harvest
As well as carrying out research into the effects of the marine turbine on the lough’s ecosystem, the local marine laboratory, which is part of Belfast’s Queen’s University, is looking at ways of repairing damage inflicted by trawlers on the area’s horse mussel beds (which provide an important foundation for marine ecosystems), how algae can be used to prevent sewage from nearby towns raising the lough’s nutrient levels to a harmful degree, and how to sustainably harvest the lough’s resources.
Top of the resource list are fish and seaweed, both of which have a long history of exploitation in the area. Ancient stone fish traps dating from the sixth or seventh century have been found in the lough, and there are grids of stone laid out to encourage kelp growth that date from the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, there’s a market for a nutritious edible seaweed called dulse, but it’s difficult to find people to harvest it.
‘It’s a back-breaking job,’ says marine biologist Graham Savidge, who oversees the whole lab. ‘There’s a project here to cultivate it. The idea is to get a cord and dunk it in a soup of spores so they’ll attach to it and grow on it. Then you can just go along and pull it out of the water and cut the dulse off.’
Down the corridor, a colleague, Philip Johnston, is working on another project to stock the lough with thousands of sea trout in a bid to encourage angling tourism in the area. ‘There’s a wonderful opportunity here to create jobs,’ says Johnston, who sees an industry of 50–80 guiding boats working around the lough.
Caroline Nolan, head of the Strangford Lough management committee, believes that even without developments such as this, there will be an increase in tourist numbers over the coming years. ‘It’s part of the peace dividend in Northern Ireland,’ she says. Nolan is keen to make sure that the lough is ready for the influx and attracts the right sort of tourism. ‘Considering we’re right beside Belfast and a stone’s throw from a million people, it’s amazing how unspoiled the area is.’
In order to keep it that way, she’s hoping to attract eco-friendly tourism developments such as the new canoe trail around the lough. And her team is also working on a project called Turn o’ the Tide, which is designed to both reconnect people with the lough and encourage them to protect the area. In a recent survey, they found some people living around the lough didn’t see it had anything to do with them. ‘We want to bridge that gap,’ says Nolan.
Events so far have included storytelling sessions from ex-wildfowler Willie McAvoy and initiatives such as wildlife-friendly training for the lough’s tour boat operators.
‘It was beneficial,’ says John Murray Jr, who skippers a tour boat that was hand-built by his father from local trees. ‘It taught us if you see a seal not to go straight at them as if you’re going to punch into them, but to sail up beside them as if you’re going to go by them.’
For now, the area is still fabulously untouched. ‘You can still discover things here,’ says Turn o’ the Tide co-ordinator Lynn Gilmore. ‘The other day, I was out with my family and we discovered an oyster midden (an ancient rubbish tip). There aren’t many places you can still do that.’
Where to see marine archaeology
‘Greyabbey. There you’ll find both medieval fish traps and an ancient dugout canoe. Because of the tides and soft mud in the area, it’s best to get in touch with a local National Trust guide.’
Brian Garvey, Turn o’ the Tide co-ordinator
Where to go on an overnight kayaking trip
‘To Salt Island. There’s a bothy on the island that sleeps 16 people and because there’s no electricity, the stars are really clear at night. You’re also almost guaranteed to see seals during the two-hour paddle out there.’
James McKay, operations manager for Clearsky Adventure (www.clearsky-adventure.com)
When to look out for grey seal pups
‘During the autumn, there are lots of little white fluffy pups all around the coast.’
Tania Singleton, seal rehabilitation officer, Exploris Aquarium (www.exploris.org.uk)
Where to see huge flocks of migrating brent geese
‘Almost the entire world population of light-bellied brent geese spend the winter on Strangford Lough. October is the best time to see them, when they’ve just arrived from Canada. You can get really close to them in our brent hide on the edge of the lough.’
James Orr, centre manager, WWT Castle Espie Wetland Centre (www.wwt.org.uk)
Who to go out on the lough with
‘John Murray (028 4272 8414). He has been running boat tours for more than 30 years and knows everything there is to know about the lough.’
Caroline Nolan, head of the Strangford Lough management committee
This was published in the December 2008 edition of Geographical magazine.