Among the new drives of European environmental policy is to restore 25,000km of free-flowing rivers by 2030. In eastern EU countries, in particular, new hydro-electric dams are proposed as generators of “clean” energy. But this conflicts with the EU ambition to remove more barriers to the natural flow of water and sediment and migrating fish such as salmon and eels.
Most of Europe’s million river barriers are small structures such as weirs. In Ireland, many of these are already under scrutiny for their role in regulating floods, as climate change brings extreme rainfall to a saucer-shaped island.
The 20th-century drainage of our arterial rivers showed a brutal indifference to freshwater wildlife. Much has since developed in eco-friendly engineering that leaves waterways able to heal.
Ireland’s big river dams were built for a new state’s power supply, checking the flows of the Shannon, Lee, Erne and Liffey. None of these is likely to be challenged now by the EU’s green ambitions and waterway directives. But their impact on river ecology seems certain to face new tests.
This would bring fresh attention to one of Ireland’s least appreciated natural treasures, the Gearagh on the Lee in Co Cork. This strange and magical habitat was largely devastated to create the giant Carrigadrohid reservoir behind two hydroelectric dams owned and operated by the ESB. But it remains the very last fragment of primeval river forest left in western Europe.
Spread below a scarp of hills, the Gearagh (An Gaorthadh) is an inland delta of the Lee, its flood plain subject to what science calls an “anastomising” process. The river’s flow divides into an ever-changing network of some 15 deep streams around small, alluvial islands. These supported an oak forest formed after the last ice age and left largely intact through Ireland’s historic deforestation.
Today, stumps of the hectares of oaks and yews felled in the mid-1950s surface as dark spikes when the reservoir is low. But some 300 acres of wooded islands still survive upstream, their special plant life intact. They hold the promise of restoration given a more sensitive control of the reservoir’s levels and flow.
This, at least, has been the passionate hope of Kevin Corcoran, an ecologist and biology teacher, campaigning over decades for better protection of The Gearagh. His new book, Saving Eden: The Gearagh and Irish Nature, is a remarkable natural and social history of the forest, illustrated with his own fine paintings and drawings.
It is also self-published (Gearagh Press, €25), allowing Corcoran to express long-held fury at “property moguls” and “energy barons” bent on destruction of the natural world. His often immoderate rhetoric flows around many islands of sound and fascinating information in the story of his “ancestral home”.
It includes being cradled in his grandmother’s arms as the Gearagh’s forest community watched the flooding of their homeland from a hilltop in October 1956. “The broken, sobbing wails of my grandmother,” he writes, “cut deeply, penetrating to my very core.”
It was Gran who supplied Corcoran with the culture and folklore of the forest dwellers. In this she passed on a myth that came to embody his frustrations – that of Dorcha, evil enemy of forests, the “malignant dark force” of assaults on the natural world.
This may have driven the farmer's bulldozer that, in the early 1980s, drove a destructive, mile-long swathe through the forest below Toon Bridge. Protest from a TCD botanist, Dr Daniel Kelly, was followed, in 1987, by protection of the Gearagh as statutory nature reserve covering 800 acres.
It is now also a special area of conservation in the EU’s Natura network, a Ramsar wetland and biogenetic reserve, with further protection of its migrant winter waterfowl. Corcoran writes of shooters in the early 1990s standing “thigh deep in dead birds” and needing wheelbarrows to carry them away. Shootings, he protests, still go on.
In the delicate and fragile structure of the Gearagh, forest debris creates dams in the streams that divert their flow in every direction. Without better water management upstream, Corcoran fears more flash floods that will “hit the alluvial islands like a battering ram”. He looks upstream to farming works and wind turbines rushing rain off the land.
Corcoran complained to the European Commission about potential erosion of the Gearagh’s islands. This brought condemnation of Ireland’s failure to draw up management plans for the Gearagh – or, indeed, for any of the country’s conservation zones. This has brought closer monitoring of the banks of the islands, many of them inaccessible but inspected by drone.
Whether the Gearagh’s oaks ever grew for 1,000 years, becoming “colossal trees soaring ever upwards like gigantic pillars into an enormous vaulted roof”, must be left to Kevin Corcoran’s passionate imaginings. But enough life remains in this beautiful, mysterious piece of the natural world, surviving thousands of years to exist as the last of its kind.