Swampy tale that could help us out of a morass
There’s something different about Waterford’s Anne Valley, and it’s all about communities and water. Welcome to Dunhill Ecopark, an integrated constructed wetland
Eco-activists: Rory Harrington with farmer Edmund Dunphy in front of one of the wetland cells built on Dunphy’s land, to Harrington’s design, to purify farmyard effluent. Photograph: Paddy Woodworth
Dunhill Ecopark is a hive of small enterprises sharing facilities, knowledge and networks. And the surrounding Anne river catchment, from the Comeragh foothills down to the sea at Annestown, has been the site of equally remarkable co-operation between farming neighbours.
Both stories are linked by an innovative approach to the relationship between agriculture, industry, built infrastructure and the environment in the form of a series of “integrated constructed wetlands” that help purify the valley’s wastewater.
Dr Senan Cooke, one of the live wires behind the ecopark, gives great credit to community groups, especially the local GAA, for supporting the park’s development. The many team photographs that line its public corridors bear out his view.
The linking wetlands project can, however, certainly be traced to a single individual: Dr Rory Harrington, a local resident who is one of the most remarkable figures in Irish environmental science.
But Harrington says in turn that the scheme owes its success to the support of other individuals, among them the late Éamon de Buitléar, and from a range of institutions, including the Heritage Council, the Forest Service, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, two EU programmes and Waterford County Council. Above all, he acknowledges his neighbouring fellow farmers and Dunhill residents.
All of them took a considerable risk, whether in funding the project from afar or in ceding precious agricultural hectares to zones of “unproductive” rushes, sedges and water. Harrington bases his integrated constructed wetlands on hard science, and they are therefore experimental by definition. Much of the Anne river catchment area has become an open-air ecological laboratory.
For many years the Anne was hardly a thing of beauty or a source of environmental health. In the early 1990s it was described by Inland Fisheries Ireland as a “dirty drain”. This is a very gently sloping valley, and the stream – it’s hardly a river, even today – meandered slowly, often invisible under thick vegetation, through largely abandoned bottomlands.
Edmund Dunphy, one of the first two farmers to participate in the project, back in 1996, remembers how his farmyard washings – a euphemism for the liquefied excrement of his beef and dairy herds – would flow down a drain he had cut towards this tangled wasteland.
“We pushed everything down to the bog,” he says wryly, “and it half cured itself.” As volumes increased, however, the drain began to back up.
The prospect of installing water-purification machinery, or paying tankers to take the washings off his hands, was financially daunting. So was the prospect of fines under tightening pollution regulation. He knew he had a problem.
A couple of kilometres downstream Harrington, who combines his scientific career with farming deer with his wife, Helena, and five children, had similar problems.
But he also had more than the glimmer of a solution. His core idea was beautifully simple. Wetland plants filter the many toxins out of dirty water, consuming them harmlessly as nutrients. He began to test constructed wetland “cells”, planted with appropriate rushes and sedges, in purifying his own run-off and domestic waste, combined with riverside plantations of trees, such as willow and alder, that don’t mind getting their feet wet.