At the beginning of this year, the Strangford Lough Wildfowlers’ & Conservation Association (SLW&CA) made headlines after becoming the UK’s first-ever wildfowling club to undertake a hydroelectric scheme. Shooting Times visited the club, which is based in County Down, Northern Ireland, to investigate how successful the scheme has been so far.

The SLW&CA was formed more than 50 years ago by a group of local wildfowlers who now own a conservation site at Glenvale Nature Reserve in Newtownards, Lough Neagh (the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles) and Strangford Lough. The club also leases three different forestry sites. The fowlers’ quarry includes curlew, goldeneye, shoveler, tufted duck, scaup and pochard, as well as the usual wigeon, teal and mallard. At its peak in the 1960s, the club boasted a membership of around 250. Five years ago, however, it dwindled to just 40 members as older members started to retire. “Itbecame increasingly difficult to maintain the sites with so few members, so we were forced to look for ways to raise income and boost membership,” club secretary Frank Brown explained, as he carefully picked his way around one of the over-spill ponds on the reserve.

To ensure members’ longevity and to increase revenue, the club introduced a controversial one-off joining fee of £300. “The other clubs in the area thought we were mad. But the risk paid off as there is now a waiting list for people wanting to join our club,” said chairman Jack Gilliland. “When you think about it, £300 is not really a lot of money when you consider how much people are willing to pay for walked-up pheasant shooting.”

The club utilised several grants to pay for its pioneering hydroelectric project, which now provides a steady stream of income (between £5,000 and £10,000 annually depending on rainfall) to help conserve local waterfowl and take the club into the 21st century. The club secured 95 per cent of the funding (?350,000) from Interreg, Clear Skies, Ards Borough Council and Northern Ireland Electricity’s SMART fund. Frank said that the whole process was a sharp learning curve, “When we first decided to engage in this project, we knew nothing about electricity or obtaining grants.

We had to jump through hoops to tick all the required boxes. But Ards Borough Council supported us at every juncture and stopped us from becoming discouraged. “After a series of meetings with our members we finally obtained approval to go ahead with the scheme. Some were worried that the project would become a millstone around the club’s neck. But in order for us to exist as a club in the future we need to be developing these opportunities as they come along.”

The hydro-turbine uses an existing four-acre lake on the reserve, which was constructed in the late 1800s to service the local textile industry. The hydro-system has a 56kW peak output and generates around 88,000 units of electricity every year, saving approximately 52 tonnes of CO2. Initially, the electricity was sold to Ards Borough Council, which in turn used it to power the local aquarium. From 1 November, however, the Single Electricity Market now prohibits the club from nominating an end user. Frank said the scheme brings enormous benefits to the wildfowlers, “Our generator creates enough electricity to power 18 or so houses, which is a real achievement. This scheme pays for all the maintenance and insurance costs of the conservation areas, which means that club funds can now be used solely for purchasing shooting, so that we can build up our portfolio and assets. The hydro-scheme funds our conservation work, which improves our kudos within the community
and increases our credibility with banks when we want to purchase more land.”

Now that the hydro-scheme is up and running, the SLW&CA is looking at ways of obtaining further funding to transform the reserve into a centre of excellence for environmental education. The club hopes to demolish the existing fibreglass “hall” which was erected 30 years ago, and turn it into a state-of-the-art classroom for local schools and community groups. Despite not having modern facilities, every year for the past 30 years, the club has held an open week. “It has been immensely popular. On average, 120 children visit us from four different schools. Some of the adult visitors can even remember visiting the site as children. A few of them are now working in influential jobs such as the Environmental and Heritage Service for instance, which can only benefit us,” beamed Frank.

A spokesperson for Ards Borough Council commented that the club is a shining example of what can be achieved. “The club uses its unique site as an educational resource, helping children to understand the importance of species and habitat conservation. Ards Borough Council was pleased to be able to support the hydro-scheme both financially and technically and will continue to provide help to SLW&CA in relation to its desire to develop further its environmental education role in the community.” As well as education, conservation is also at the heart of the club’s ethos. The Glenvale Nature Reserve spearheads local wildlife management by maintaining the area for a multitude of species including kingfishers, otters, deer and a variety of hawks. “Originally, the council wanted to fill in this lake to create a football pitch,” Jack said, as we watched the duck feeding. “Thankfully we managed to talk them round, and now it is bursting with wildlife.”

Thyme Consultants’ Simon Breasley has worked closely with the SLW&CA over the past seven years, assisting the club with land purchases. He commented that the association has developed from merely shooting wildfowl to becoming a leading organisation for the conservation of quarry species, the protection of important habitats, the education of its members and for providing a strong lobby at local government level. “They have an impressive track record of forward thinking, proactivity and innovation. They are at the forefront pushing the boundaries of club land ownership and club influence in Northern Ireland.”

As with a lot of wildfowling clubs, the SLW&CA is coping with burgeoning outgoings, primarily keeping up with health and safety laws and insurance. The local council has granted planning permission for several houses to be put up along the boundary of the reserve. “If a child trespasses on to the reserve and hurts themselves, the club is liable. We have had to expand to allow fishermen on to the lake as a means of security. Now, children do not seem so keen to trespass. Plus fishermen have the additional benefit of bringing in much-needed income to pay towards the public liability insurance. This red tape has meant the club has had to think creatively. We have been forced to diversify in order to survive.”

Jack and Frank are acutely aware that wildfowlng clubs are under constant pressure to move with the times. “There used to be five other clubs in this area but two recently closed because they did not own the land they were shooting over. Owning land is crucial to our survival. Without it, a club is on very shaky ground indeed,” noted Frank. Simon echoed Frank’s sentiments: “The SLW&CA is one of the most active and forward-thinking wildfowling clubs in the UK. The club has clear long-term objectives to increase its landholdings to ensure its own long-term financial sustainability. Scaddy Island on Lough Neagh was SLW&CA’s most recent land purchase. A comprehensive management plan for the island, funded by the Lough Neagh Strategy Project, has been developed. This plan maintains traditional wildfowling activity and sets out a programme of works to enhance the island’s nature conservation value.”

Frank concluded by offering the club’s expertise to others. “This scheme has been an overwhelming success and we would urge other clubs with the same potential to look into installing a similar system. If other clubs are interested in hydro-energy then they can contact either myself or Jack and visit our site. We can then explain some of the pitfalls that we have come across and encourage them to take this step.”

To find out more about Strangford Lough’s hydro-scheme, contact Jack Gilliland, tel 07803 051618, or Frank Brown, tel 07716 387936.