More than 140 farmers on the shore of Lough Neagh have benefited from over £4 million in the first three years of a new environmental farm investment scheme.

The Lough Neagh Environmental Farm Scheme aims to make a lasting impact on the lough and its eastern rivers through restoring and enhancing important habitats and wildlife species along the shoreline while also improving water quality and soil management.

The DAERA-funded projects are situated along the southern and western shores of the lough and along the wider eastern shore.

The scheme is managed by the Lough Neagh Partnership, a stakeholder body overseeing the management of the lough.

The projects encourage farmers to come together as part of a membership group and liaise with one central coordinator who in turn helps them draw up environmental farm plans, gives general good environmental management advice, provides group training, and arranges best practice visits to farms in other parts of the country.

664ha of wet grassland are now under better environmental management improving the opportunities for eight priority species while 190km of watercourse fencing has been installed to improve water quality.

An Irish Moiled Cattle Agri-food Co-operation Scheme has also been established to help market quality meat products.

Group scheme coordinator Michael Meharg (pictured top) farms within the project area with his wife Judy. Michael highlighted the importance of the schemes for farmers and for managing this high nature value area.

He said: “Lough Neagh is one of our most important environmental sites in the whole of Northern Ireland.

"However a lot of its wetland nature has become degraded and we have witnessed a huge decline in the number of wetland birds such as curlew, snipe, and lapwings.

The curlew which was once a quite common bird around the lough is now fighting for survival.

"The two new Group Farm Schemes around the lough have encouraged farmers to come together and avail of DAERA funding and good advice that is now allowing them to manage this very important landscape more sensitively, protect important habitats and species for the future and receive funding for their efforts."

Speaking about the remarkable success of the schemes, Gerry Darby, manager of the Lough Neagh Partnership, stressed the importance of farmers working together and the need to have someone who lives and works on a farm in the area, as the main coordinator.

“The group delivery of these new innovative schemes is particularly important, as farmers can share their own experiences and help persuade their farming neighbours or friends of the benefits of the scheme," Darby said.

"Local farmer Michael Meharg has been a great influence in the scheme and his involvement is especially important as he is able to develop trust and strong working relationships with local farmers as they recognise him as a Lough Neagh farmer who can fully understand the challenges farming in this difficult landscape can bring and how participation in the project can help improve the farm business and the environment.”