Strangford Lough/Horse Mussel Campaign

undredged modiolus (c) Bernard Picton Ulster MuseumUndredged modiolus

Find out more about our campaign to protect Strangford Lough and its unique horse mussel reefs (Modiolus modiolus), including background to our recent complaint to the European Commission regarding our Government's lack of progress to protect this prized resource.

Current Action Timeline

November 2011, Ulster Wildlife sent a second letter of complaint to the European Commission, having monitored the progress of the restoration plan for Strangford Lough and the lack of progress on protecting the site, as is required by the Habitats Directive. The basis of the complaint is that both the Department of the Environment and the Department of Agriculture & Rural Development have not done what they have needed to, or promised to, to protect this site. Timelines and specific objectives were set in the restoration plan which have not been met.

In light of recent research, and having explored other options, Ulster Wildlife felt that this matter required urgent action and that it had no other option than to make this second complaint.

Read More: Ulster Wildlife Briefing 'Horse Mussels & Strangford Lough': January 2012.

Read More: Press Release 'Government still failing to failing Strangford Lough, warns Wildlife Trust

23 January 2012, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a motion, brought to the NI Assembly by Anna Lo, Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, 'that Northern Ireland Assembly recognises the environmental importance of Strangford Lough and the economic contribution it makes through employment, leisure and tourism; and calls on the Executive to introduce, as a matter of urgency, measures to protect and restore its Modiolus habitat in a way that meets the requirements of the EU Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC); and further calls on the Executive, when implementing such measures, to ensure that people who derive an income from the Lough are not economically disadvantaged.' 

Read More: Hansard (Official Report - Monday, 23 January 2012)

Hear More: BBC Newsline, 23rd January 2012, 6.30 (Strangford Lough: 12.08-15.04mins)

24 January 2012, Representatives of the European Commission met with representatives of the relevant departments to discuss the matter formally.


Strangford Lough (c) M WilliamsThe Wildlife Trusts made a complaint to Europe in 2003 in relation to the proper protection and management for Strangford Lough, a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) which should be strictly protected as designated under the EC Habitats Directive. Our main concern was that one of the features for which it had been designated, the Modiolus modiolus (horse mussel) reefs, was in decline and being destroyed by a lack of regulation of activities in the Lough. Europe responded by putting the government on notice that it was considering taking infraction proceedings against them. A temporary ban on trawling (mobile gear fishing) was implemented and is now a permanent ban.

A research project reviewed the status of Modiolus in the Lough - Strangford Lough Ecological Change Investigation (SLECI). As a result of the information coming from SLECI and in a bid to return the site to favourable conservation status (FCS), a restoration plan was put together by the two departments involved, DARD and DOE. £1 million was paid to fund this work over three years and an independent research group was set up to oversee the restoration plan and work. On this basis, the European Commission agreed that no further action would be taken by them and the potential infraction case was closed.

However, the decline is continuing.

A report issued by Queen's University Belfast in May 2011 reviewed the progress of the restoration plan including the mapping of sites where Modiolus modiolus is present, both damaged and pristine. This report found a continuing decline in this vital habitat and recommended immediate action for total protection of the remaining reefs; protected areas much larger than the two Fishing Exclusion Zones which were legislated for by DARD in March 2011.

It must be remembered that the damage that can be caused is not only about the physical impact of using pots in the horse mussel beds, but the removal of species (e.g. lobsters) from the ecosystem which can have similarly devasting effects.

  • DOE has responded by stating their intention to introduce bye-laws to provide permits for activities for which they have responsibility, such as diving and anchoring. It is thought these will have limited impact upon existing recreational activity in the recommended non disturbance zone.
  • DARD has so far made no commitment to increase the area protected to match the extent of the recommended non disturbance zone, or Fishing Exclusion Zone.
  • A 'code of conduct' for pot fishing has been drafted, but has not yet been formally implemented as proposed in the original restoration plan.

Read More: Ulster Wildlife Briefing 'Horse Mussels & Strangford Lough': January 2012.

Read More: Modiolus Restoration Research Project. Final Report & Recommendations. QUB 2011

About: Modiolus

The horse mussel Modiolus modiolus forms the bedrock of one of the most diverse marine ecosytems in Europe - Strangford Lough. The horse mussel communities are one of the key features for which the site has been given protected status.

The horse mussel:

  • forms dense beds or reefs which support a diverse variety of life such as sponges, soft corals, anemones, brittlestars, urchins, starfish, barnacles, and commercial fish speices such as lobsters, crabs, spider crabs, whelks, scallops, oysters and fish.
  • is the largest European mussel, size ranges from 35 to 200mm, and although edible, is not generally eaten due to the taste!
  • lives on a variety of seabed substrates including bedrock, gravel, sand and mud.
  • is a long-lived species, many of the larger mussels in Strangford Lough are well over 20 years of age. It is likely the horse mussel can live as long as 70 years.
  • provides important 'ecosystem services' by its high filtration capacity - 1 mussel filters about 1liltre of water per hour while 1000 mussels can filter about 24 tonnes of water per day.
  • is a priority species in Northern Ireland which requires conservation action because of its rapid decline, scarcity and importance.

Interview with Eamonn Mailie about the Strangford Lough Campaign.

Listen to political editor and author, Eamonn Mailie interviewing Ulster Wildlife CEO, Heather Thompson and Ulster Wildlife Strategic Director, Victoria Magreehan about the Strangford Lough Campaign (Jan 2012).

Interview courtesy of Eamonn Mailie.

Srangford Lough mussel fish in danger (mp3)

Further information:

Updates regarding our current course of action will appear on this webpage -

If you would like further information about Ulster Wildlife's action to protect Modiolus at Strangford Lough, contact us.