Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland climbs up UK beach league

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Media captionMore Northern Ireland beaches have been recommended for their bathing water quality

More than two thirds of Northern Ireland's beaches have been recommended for their bathing water quality.

It is the highest figure ever, with 16 out of 24 beaches getting the top award.

The good news comes after years of being near the bottom of the UK's recommended bathing waters league.

It is 25% better than the previous year and, this time, no beaches failed the basic standards.

The recommendations come from the Marine Conservation Society in their annual Good Beach Guide.

It follows a series of special beach summits held by the Northern Ireland environment minister Alex Attwood.

These started after several years where many of the local beaches failed even the basic standards.

"Our natural assets are a huge part of the quality of our lives, tourist growth and new jobs," said Mr Attwood.

"It is great to see our improving water standard being publicised throughout the islands. It is a good advert for the quality of our natural heritage."

But Dr Robert Keirle of the Marine Conservation Society has a warning for the future.

"This summer will see the first samples taken under the revised Bathing Water Directive which will replace the current standards with far more stringent ones from 2015," he said.

"It's really important that local authorities, Northern Ireland Water and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency don't become complacent and take their collective feet off the pedal of continued environmental improvements.

"If that happens we could see a drop in the number of beaches recommended by us in the future, which could pose a risk to the great reputation that our beaches have."

And a simple comparison of two beaches along the County Antrim coast demonstrates the problem.

Last year, Ballygalley beach was recommended by the MCS guide.

This year it received the most basic mandatory pass.

That meant it just met the most basic standards for its bathing water quality.

But a few miles up the coast the beach at Waterfoot has been recommended for its quality. Last year it only received a guideline pass.

The constant rise and fall in quality of some bathing waters suggests that Northern Ireland's beaches are still vulnerable to local pollution.

It is still storms and heavy rainfall that decide whether some beaches will pass or fail.

And there is also the hidden problem of the outflow from septic tanks and animal waste getting onto beaches.

From next year the water sampling standards start to get tougher.

This is to meet much more stringent targets that have been set for 2015.

There will then be an added incentive to get it right.

Beaches that fail year after year under the new rules will have to display signs advising against bathing in the area.

And that's definitely not good for tourism.

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