Sunday, February 6, 2011

Rams Island Walk - Christmas Day 2010

Check out the smug grins! Danny Moore and Drew Moore at Rams Island, Christmas Day 2010. First time in sixty three years anyone made the walk. Photo by Dominic Moore.

Lough Neagh folklore, dating back millennia, tells of the fairy path from Langford Lodge and the Crumlin River out to Rams Island. The story goes that there is a secret path and once in a lifetime the fairies walk out to the Island.

I've often wondered if the truth behind the legend is the local tradition of walking out on the ice to Rams Island when the Lough freezes, in extreme winters such as 1947 and 1895. There are records of people making this walk during half a dozen winters since 1800, and more before. In the most extreme winters, adventurers rode out to Rams Island on horseback, and even by horse and cart.

Centuries of bragging rights are passed down through family trees. My brother was speaking to Denis Wilson of Glenavy in mid-December, when he mentioned with pride that his great grandfather drove a horse and cart out to Rams Island in 1895. His father attempted to repeat the feat in 1947, driving a jeep a few hundred yards out towards the Island, before aborting when his passenger panicked. Resigned to a lifetime of being the guy who bottled it!

Not quiet a horse and cart!  Yours truly on the quad off 28 Shore Road, in front of Rams Island.  Christmas morning 2010.

The period from November 23rd to December 26th 2010 gave us our opportunity to make history. Based on historical temperature records for Armagh dating back to the 1850s December was the coldest month in Northern Ireland since February 1895.  There were only three months in the last 160 years that were colder, February 1895, December 1878 and January 1881. It should be noted that there was a period of milder weather from December 27th onwards, which underlines the unusual intense cold that went before. By my reckoning there may have been an air frost down by the Lough every day from late November to Boxing day. That period could possibly be the coldest 30 day block since 1850!

As in my previous post on the Glenavy River we first made it out onto the ice on December 8th. There was a thaw and some wind for a few days which cleared the ice. The freeze proper began during the day on Saturday 18th, with the whole bay rock solid from Monday 20th.

Canadian ice fishing!  Block of ice cut from Lough Neagh with a chainsaw.  Christmas Day, 2010.

As the week passed and the frost seemed to get harder and harder we realized that we might get the first chance to walk out to Rams Island in sixty three years (since 1947). The ice seemed ready by Thursday 23rd (when we held the Ice Barbecue) but the forecast was for the frost to hold until Boxing day so we decided to wait and let another forty eight hours of severe frost do its job. We also brought safety equipment, ropes, life jackets, wet suits, a compass, extra camera batteries and generally lots of kit!

JCB driving on Lough Neagh! We went to great lengths to test the ice on Christmas morning before venturing out of the shallows. Why test with a brick when you can test with a seven ton JCB? The caveat of course is that the water is only a foot or so deep.

Christmas morning was majestic! There was a change in the air with icy sunshine and crystal clear views to the Sperrin Mountains, and temperatures back to well below -10C.

Ice seems to stretch all the way past Langford Lodge to Slieve Gallion in the Sperrin Mountains! Crystal clear winter sunshine, December 25th 2010.  From 28 Shore Road.
After about three hours of deliberation, Drew, Domnic and I donned the safety gear and "hit the bid." Honestly, setting out was the scariest thing I've done in my life, although we'd spent a lot of time on the ice through the week this was the first time we were venturing over water more than four feet deep. In the end the walk itself was uneventful and there wasn't so much as a creak out of the ice. We considered riding the quad out to get over as quickly as possible, but in the end we went on foot. I was out front with a wind surfing board as a floatation device in the worst case. We probably overdid the safety theme by dragging a boat with us too!

Drew and Domnic about a mile out in the middle of the bay, with Divis Mountain in the background. The boat was never far away, though there wasn't so much as a creak out of the ice. It is easy to see how someone could have made the trip with a horse and cart.
The bay out to Rams Island froze for the third time in thirteen months during a period of unexpected frost in mid January 2011, under a "mild" high pressure. Although the ice was never strong enough to even consider walking out on (only Sam the dog was out), it turned out to be very destructive. It broke up when quite a strong south west wind developed as the high moved away. Waves and ice are a nasty combination, pulling down every fence along the shore. Funny how the least significant freeze did the most damage!

There was something tragic about reaching a lifetime goal and completing the walk. It was a truly wonderful experience, but in all probability, we'll never get another chance to repeat it. That will be left to our children or grand children. From the temperature records, there was a cluster of cold winters between 1867 and 1895, with five winters where Lough Neagh could have frozen hard enough to walk to Rams Island. If the last two winters signaled the beginning of such a cluster it would not be unprecedented to see another big freeze in the next ten years. However, more likely we'll have to wait fifty to sixty years before there is another chance for someone to walk the fairy path out to the Island.

Moore family at sunset on Christmas Day 2010.  Frozen Lough Neagh and Rams Island in the background. Getting Lily in a photograph is almost as rare as the Lough freezing.  Sam (the Border Collie), Drew and I walked out to the Island a few hours earlier.

CALNI "Protecting the Future"
Professor Sir George Bain titled his report to Planning Services objecting to the Moy Park Incinerator "Protecting the Future".

In one respect, Lough Neagh Ice and the fairy path to Rams Island are extreme events, though they do serve to illustrate a point. The first reference to people walking out to Rams Island I've read was in the 1600s, though the folklore and legend suggest that people have made the walk over thousands of years. Realistically, the Incinerator might prevent the Lough freezing for fifty or a hundred years, but the elements will most likely wrestle back control at some point; though none of us would be around to see it!

A much bigger danger in my mind is the damage that the thermal pollution could do to the ecosystem and in particular the unique spawning grounds in the shallows that run from Sandy Bay up to Lennymore and the mouth of the Crumlin river. As we've pointed out repeatedly, the same conditions that make our area one of the first to freeze, also create unique habitats for many aquatic species, and equally, make the whole ecosystem highly susceptible to thermal pollution. This damage will be irreversible, species and an ecosystem lost forever.

The water crisis that hit after the big freeze also served to remind us that Lough Neagh is the drinking water catchment for over 50% of the people in Northern Ireland, so any risk to the ecosystem could quickly pass on to become a human health issue with severe economic consequences for Northern Ireland Plc. Northern Ireland water has plenty of problems today, it would have a lot more problems if it could no longer draw from Lough Neagh. This is not just a potentially devastating issue for cold water fish species, it is an issue for every household in Northern Ireland that drinks water sourced from the Lough.

In light of the above it should come as no surprise that Lough Neagh has a score of environmental designations at the local, national, European and global levels. It is also viewed as one of the top nine assets in Northern Ireland by the Tourist Board and a strategic economic asset. Considering that 51% of the drinking water supply comes from the Lough it would be easy to justify making it the single most important economic asset in the province.

We must continue to stand up to 'The Man', Marfrig and the Poultry Industry, the risks are way to great and there is no way to justify this act of environmental vandalism!

Rams Island over the ice at sunset on Christmas Day 2010.  It will most likely be another fifty years before someone gets the chance to make the walk, and only if we protect the future for our children and grand children by ensuring the Moy Park Incinerator never gets built.

1 comment:

  1. top class blog,
    very interesting danny.
    photography is amazing. cant wait to see more.