There are many ways to enjoy getting out and about in the company of our rivers, whether strolling along the banks of the Barrow, kayaking down the Avonmore or fishing on the Moy.
It’s initially a little harder to grasp the delight of stepping “instream”, directly into cold water, to discover what kind of insect life lurks under the stones.
However, this kind of ecological immersion is becoming an increasingly common experience, for schoolchildren and for community groups. And it may, its advocates claim, play a key role in helping us to connect what we do in our bathrooms, our factories and our farms with the health of our environment. Everything, after all, ends up in our rivers, if we only looked at them more closely.
To see children in the river, splashing with their nets, holding creepy-crawlies in their hands, this is a great way to connect with nature, right here and right now
"Oh my goodness, what I saw today was so spectacular," says Bláithín Ní Áinin. She has just been on an "instream field trip", in the Abhainn Mór stream on the Dingle Peninsula, with the pupils of Cloghane National School, facilitated by the StreamScapes environmental education service.
“To see children in the river, splashing with their nets, holding creepy-crawlies in their hands, this is a great way to connect with nature, right here and right now. Some of the kids were a bit precious about getting into the water at first, but at the end of the day they were almost all barefoot on the stones, happy out.”
Ní Áinin works for the Local Authorities Water Community Office in Kerry, and her mission is to “engage and empower communities to improve water quality from stream to catchment”. So you could say she has a vested interest in promoting this sort of outing.
But her take on the day is confirmed by a Cloghane teacher, Rachel Ní Bhuachalla, and by six children who speak to The Irish Times about the experience. Every one of them describes the experience as "really fun" or "enjoyable" – and not just because they were out of the classroom on a fine day.
They also all speak about the pleasure of learning about new creatures, and finding out what these creatures told them about the quality of water in the local stream.
the older ones helped. When they said 'metamorphosis' was like tadpoles and frogs, the younger ones got it
“The children were a little tentative initially,” says Ní Bhuachalla. They were not only reluctant to get their feet wet; they also felt “there was nothing in the river to see”. But gradually, as they realised that the small specks in their nets were in fact the larvae of strange and delightful water insects, and that their presence indicated very good quality water, they became fascinated.
Of the 37 children participating, only two had to withdraw, one because of midge bites and one because of hay fever. Six adults, including some parents, were on hand to meet health and safety concerns.
The day began with an hour-long presentation of slides and videos on aquatic life by StreamScapes. How did the children take to concepts like biodiversity, ecology and metamorphosis?
“Very well,” says Ní Bhuachalla, who points out that Cloghane has just been awarded An Taisce’s Green Flag certification for environmental awareness. “But there was an issue, because we are a Gaeltacht school. They didn’t know these words in English. But the older ones helped. When they said ‘metamorphosis’ was like tadpoles and frogs, the younger ones got it.”
At the other end of the day, the children learned about the significance of their finds, which included the larvae of cased caddis fly, stonefly and mayfly. The cased caddis fly is particularly remarkable: not only does the water-dwelling larva morph into a delicate, moth-like creature of the air, but it builds tiny, elaborate “houses” of shells, sand and wood particles, to protect it while developing.
The fact that the children found all three larvae in good numbers indicates that the Abhainn Mór is at the high end of the five-point water quality scale. As Ní Bhuachalla says, the children of Cloghane are lucky: they live in an exceptionally beautiful landscape, and their local stream, at least, is in good ecological condition.
Mark Boyden was moved to set up StreamScapes, in 1989, precisely because so many Irish streams and rivers were, and still are, towards the negative end of that scale. He had learnt this in a hard school, through attempting to reintroduce salmon and trout. These top predators can only survive if every thing else in the ecosystem is thriving, and this wasn’t often the case.
His approach as an environmental educator is distinctive, in that he avoids preaching, or focusing on the bad practices that cause problems. He doesn’t think negative news is very effective in changing behaviour.
“We chiefly seek to reveal the wonder that’s there in the river,” he says, “and stimulate conversations, allowing participants to draw their own conclusions. I will never forget the joy of seeing four generations of one family, sharing that wonder between them, upon seeing and learning of the complexity of the life in the river below their farm.”
The ethos in the end is fairly simple; 'Engage; Enlighten; Empower
Though he and his colleagues often work with adult groups, he sees primary schools as the main vector for a shift in awareness that can change domestic, industrial and agriculture behaviour. He has found children persuading their parents to buy nets and continue a more detailed exploration of their local stream or river with their community: “It can start with ‘Oh, Mum, you won’t believe what we did in school today!’ ”
He has run schemes where schools hatch trout in aquaria, and then release them into nearby streams. “ ‘Environment’ has too many syllables. ‘Fish’ has only one. Releasing a fish gives a child a stake in a stream.
“With an instream field trip, the students respond to the real and wild environment that they find themselves in; it brings out the ‘hunter’ in them and a hyperawareness descends upon them, promoting an eagerness to learn.”
And from these learnings, he believes, spring a new knowledge and a new ethos: “The ethos in the end is fairly simple; ‘Engage; Enlighten; Empower’. The StreamScapes experience simply seeks to root you in your own valley, your own catchment; to reveal the complexity and fragility of local biodiversity and the pristine waters upon which it depends; to demonstrate how we are not separate from our local ecosystems, but that all of our actions are bound up with these processes.
“The empowerment aspect is to ensure that people are motivated to participate in the management and governance of their streams, their lakes, their rivers, their valley, their catchment.”
StreamScapes field trips can be organised by schools, community or professional groups, and individuals, through lawco.com or streamscapes.ie
‘Instream’ ecology through a child’s eyes
Padma Nic Brodie "I really did enjoy it. We got to go in the water and catch insects and find out what they were: cased caddis flies, mayfly and stonefly. I'd definitely do it again."
Emily Ní Dhubhda "It was really fun but really cold, and we got splashed a lot. We were given a net and it was really fun to find things and get to know what they were, and what they ate. The water quality was really good; you only get mayfly and stonefly in good quality water, 4 plus. Our stream is 4.5 to 4.6."
Abigail Ní Dhubhda "It was good to have the whole school together, finding things in the water. I'd do it again because it's very fun and you discover new things."
Barra Ó Éanachán "It was fun, the water was really cold, but we caught a lot of things."
Cormac Ó Catháin "People are saying we caught cased caddis flies, but there are lots of different species of cased caddis [there are thousands]. The water was very cold; it was lots of fun, though. The water quality was 4.65."
Maddison Ní Cluimhnáin "We found lots of creatures and stuff."