Lough Neagh, along with Lough Beg and Portmore Lough, was designated a Special Protection Area (SPA) in February 1998 because of its international importance for birds. The Lough Neagh SPA is one of the most important wetlands in Britain and Ireland for wintering wildfowl. It is also internationally important for breeding common tern.
Common terns breed on islands where there is little or no vegetation on the ground. On Lough Neagh, the most important natural island is Pagan in the south east corner of the Lough which holds around 45 breeding pairs. The old Torpedo Platform near Antrim, a man mad structure, has the highest number, holding approx 50 breeding pairs annually.
Common terns spend the winter in west and south Africa, coming to Lough Neagh in April and leaving in August. Lough Neagh attracts these birds because the large expanse of water offers feeding opportunities. Unfortunately, suitable nesting areas on Lough Neagh are hard to find. This is because the Lough has very few islands, and most of those that do exist are tree covered.
Common terns look for breeding areas which are treeless and where they can lay their eggs on gravel or other bare ground. They nest in colonies and like to be in the company of other birds, particularly black-headed gulls. They will not nest along the shore of the Lough because that would be fraught with danger, and therefore need to find bare ground on islands or other structures on open water.
The Lough Neagh Wetlands Local Biodiversity Action Plan has identified a need to help these birds and has begun developing an Action Plan with several organisations to enhance the breeding opportunities for common terns.
One of the very few islands that could be restored for common terns is Scaddy Island which lies in the south west corner of Lough Neagh. This was a breeding site up until about 1995 when the birds suddenly left. To attract them back again, the owners of the Island, Strangford Lough Wildfowlers Association, in partnership with the Environment & Heritage Service and the Lough Neagh Partnership, set about restoring the habitat there in time for the 2007 breeding season. The vegetation has been cut back and large areas have been opened up to see if they can attract the common tern back again. A large black-headed gull colony still remains on Scaddy Island, and as common terns like to nest among these birds for safety, the habitat has been provided to attract the terns in among the gulls.
The Environment & Heritage Service already manage sites for the terns on Lough Neagh, including the Torpedo Platform and Pagan Island, and also plan to restore and manage additional sites such as Tolans Flat, in partnership with Derrycloan Gun Club.
Creating man made structures such as platforms or floating rafts is a suitable alternative where there is a lack of natural islands. Evidence of how common terns will take readily to man made platforms and rafts is available from sites across Europe. On Lough Neagh we need only look at how the birds adopted the old disused Torpedo Platform near Antrim to set up the largest breeding colony on the Lough. The RSPB has led the way at their Portmore Lough Nature Reserve where they have installed three new floating rafts for the 2007 breeding season. These rafts are covered with gravel and are placed out in the middle of the Lough. Craigavon Borough Council has followed this example and installed one large floating raft on one of the Craigavon Lakes.
Floating rafts provided for common terns at Portmore Lough RSPB Nature Reserve
Work connected to the Local Biodiversity Action Plan for the common tern in the Lough Neagh Wetlands will continue to develop over the coming months and years and it is hoped that this will see an increase in the number of breeding birds in the area.