A stream named the Leenamore trickles off the bog and into the sea at the head of Sruwaddacon Bay. It is a tiny inlet, the stream being no more than a couple of feet wide before it fans open to meet the sea. Peaty brown water flows between seaweed and pebbles that are resting on a mudflat at the edge of the bay.
On the shoreline, between the fields on either side of the stream, there are salt marsh clumps of peaty earth, mounds covered in sea rush and a thick mane of common salt-marsh grass.
It is possible to reach this pristine, unspoilt place by strolling down a boreen off the L1202 Bellagally to Kilcommon road on the southwestern shore of Sruwaddacon Bay. What is more difficult is to reconcile what one sees today with what this place looked like two years ago, in June 2013.
Then, almost the entire 40 by 60 metre area was a 30ft hole in the ground, a deep scar not unlike those made during construction when a motorway slices through a hillock. Huge crawler excavators had gouged out the earth to create a trench into which was laid the Corrib gas pipeline, a small water outflow pipe and parallel umbilicals, the connection between the well head manifold, 80km out to sea, and the terminal.
If anything sums up the attention to environmental detail that planners and regulators imposed on the whole Corrib project it is what happened here, known to all who worked on it as the Leenamore Crossing.
The work was carried out by contractors working for Shell but the habitat translocation and reinstatement was overseen by project ecologist Jenny Neff, a Wicklow-based consultant and chartered ecologist who has been working on the Corrib project for 15 years.
In 2002, Neff became project ecologist for Shell, successor owners to Enterprise, at the insistence of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Since then, she and her team of up to 10 specialists – including three ornithologists, two fauna experts, two botanists, a freshwater ecologist and a landscape architect – have been working on Corrib to the extent that even now, surveys of bird numbers are conducted weekly. Habitat monitoring is done on a monthly basis and more often during reinstatement work.
In her professional assessment, the project will have, at worst, a neutral impact on the immediate environment but most likely a net positive impact in biodiversity terms because of the habitat enhancement measures which include creating new wetlands and planting deciduous trees.
In 2011, the Biodiversity Consultancy of Cambridge, England, concluded that the project had been so carefully managed from an ecological point of view that by 2020, there will be no net loss of biodiversity – and possibly even a net gain.
The environmental restrictions imposed, as part of the conditions to bringing the gas ashore and processing it in the terminal, mean that parts of Erris are now among the most monitored anywhere in Ireland in terms of biodiversity and environmental impact.
“We have gathered a vast body of data and at the moment,” says Neff. “BirdWatch Ireland is contracted to carry out data analyses on all the water bird data we’ve collected since 2002. We are currently developing a similar partnership for the analysis of our sandmartin data we have.
“We’re also working with WIT in Waterford, with their molecular genetics department, where they’re analysing DNA from otter spraints to better understand the number and distribution of individuals using the bay over the years.”
Looking at Leenamore Crossing today, it would probably take a forensic archaeologist to uncover what went on just two years ago. In order to allow the pipeline to be laid and the land restored, it was decided that, in effect, the entire estuary would be removed in layers – stones on the mudflat one by one, the salt marsh by cutting it into turves.
Before removal, the estuary area was mapped, the turves numbered and the precise position of all 182 identified by geo-positioning so they could be put back in exactly the place from which they were removed. For the 10 days they were out of place, they were stored nearby in a shoreline pen where they were replenished by tidal seawater.
Environmental concerns also drove design aspects the design and layout at the tunnel start site at Aughoose. The mile-long security and screening perimeter fence was painted a shade of green so it blended in with the landscape.
Anything inside the site that protruded above the top of the fence and therefore could be seen from outside, was painted a dull grey, the ambient colour of the sky locally.
Restoration of the site includes removing and recycling 30,000sq m of tarmac and 11,600 tonnes of concrete and reinstating the peat land habitat, 40,000 tonnes of which was removed while the tunnel was being built.
Plants grown from seeds gathered from the bog itself will be put in and sphagnum, gathered locally but propagated in England, will be used to rejuvenate areas that had been degraded by overgrazing.
Despite being criticised by protesters and sometimes subjected to extreme verbal abuse, does Neff, a committed environmentalist, have any qualms about her work for Shell?
“No. This was the whole point of mitigation by design and the method of construction – to actually have the whole thing planned, from the outset, from the point of view of reinstatement and species protection. I would have walked away if it wasn’t going to be done the way it needed to be done in a manner to make sure it was done the right way. I stood over that at oral hearings and I would still stand over it. As long as we as ecologists are being listened to, our professional advice taken and habitats and species were protected, I was happy to be involved and able to influence a positive outcome.”
Jenny Neff is author of the Corrib Development Biodiversity Action Plan 2014-2019, which has been adopted by the company. It can be read via https://www.shell.ie/ environment-society/biodiversity-action-plan.html