Inch Lough is a brackish lagoon cut out from Lough Swilly by embankments, and penned between Inch Island and extensive flat agricultural polders (slobs) on the mainland of County Donegal by a third long embankment.
Historically there was a large area of Lough Swilly between Inch Island and Burt, which lies at the foot of Grianan Mountain (the site of the famous Iron Age hillfort, Grianán of Aileach). In 1836 it was proposed to claim this shallow expanse of tidal estuarine mud from the lough. Work started around 1840 and was complete by 1859.
The first stage was the construction of the Tready Embankment across the centre of the area, from Tooban Junction near Burfoot in the east, to Farland Point in the west. It would also serve as the route of the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway – a narrow-gauge line connecting Carndonagh and Derry in the north-east, with Letterkenny and Burtonport in the far west. The line operated between 1863 and 1953.
North of Tooban was a point where the mainland was close to Inch Island, and where a causeway, the Inch Embankment, was built to link the island to the mainland.
The third stage was to construct a parallel embankment in the west, between Farland Point and the island, the Farland Embankment, or as it is now generally called, the Farland Bank.
So between these three embankments and Inch Island there was a section of water cut off from Lough Swilly, and also from the mud flats to be drained. This area would be kept as a holding tank, to receive the waters drained from the south and keep out the tidal extremes of Lough Swilly. Thus Inch Lough was created, and over the years has become steadily less salty.
South of the Tready Embankment, between it and Grianan Mountain, all that area of Lough Swilly now isolated from the tidal waters could be drained through a complicated system of large and small drains, to create agricultural land. This huge expanse of flat polderland is locally known as The Slobs, or more formally as Inch Level. The drainage was not initially very successful. Until the late 1950s the patchwork of small fields were very marshy, and included some areas of unambiguous marshland.
At that time, industrialist Daniel McDonald, started to buy up the small properties and by 1961 had amalgamated all into Grianán Estate, the largest arable farm in Ireland at around 1200ha. The fields could then be enlarged and the drainage system re-vitalised.
There have been a few changes of hands since then. Most notably, a consortium of businessmen bought the estate in 1980 and announced plans to drain the northern half of the lake. A local campaign was immediately launched to resist this – mainly defending Inch Island’s status as an island, but concerned also about the threat to wildlife from the loss of half of the lake. The consortium claimed that the scheme proved to be technically unviable, and whether or not that was the real reason, or they were overwhelmed by the strength of the opposition, they abandoned the scheme and sold up in 1989.
An Grianan Farm is now in the hands of Donegal Creameries plc., and managed as an organic dairy farm. Parts of it are leased to local farmers. In 2002 the National Parks and Wildlfie Service took on a thirty year lease of Inch lough and its surrounding wet grasslands. Since then, NPWS along with various stakeholders have developed the site, with ongoing work in conservation management, community involvement, and development of visitor infrastructure. The aim now is to sustainably develop Inch Wildfowl Reserve for the future, integrating conservation with community and farming, whilst allowing limited access for the public.