On May 16th. next a crucial meeting between the ESB, Cork County Council, Inland Fisheries Ireland and the National Parks and Wildlife Service will decide the future of the Gearagh, Western Europe’s last stand of post-glacial, alluvial Temperate Rainforest. Hidden away in the inaccessible reaches of the ESB’s, Carrigadrohid hydro-electric reservoir on the River Lee in County Cork, its name is derived from ‘an Ghaoireadh’ ,which literally means ‘River Forest’. A National Nature Reserve, Special Area of Conservation, Special Protection Area and a World Ramsar Site, it was first brought to scientific prominence in 1907 by our most eminent naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger, when he described it thus –
‘Above Macroom, where the stream runs through flat meadows, it spreads out, dividing and rejoining again and again, among trees and bushes, forming a delightful combination of wood and clear swift water – a very curious feature and unique in Ireland. The place is suitably called the Gearagh (Gaertha, a woodland along a river) and is well worth exploring in one of the flat-bottomed boats which are in use for this purpose’.
Incredibly scarce at a global level ‘an Ghaoireadh’ is the very last, reasonably intact river forest left in Western Europe. Sitting on an immense inland delta, both river and forest combine to create a treacherous and inaccessible swamp forest ecosystem where the most fascinating biodiversity survives. Lying adjacent to the mighty Atlantic Ocean and its moderating Gulf Stream the areas climate is Hyper-oceanic in nature. Therefore it is ever perpetually mild and moist and so in part semi-tropical in nature, conditions that allow impressive and unique amounts of delicate, moisture loving species to thrive. Its interior is smothered in a magical blanket of rare oceanic mosses, liverworts and ferns, its upper canopy sports extraordinary sky gardens of equally uncommon lichens, while its streams are a fragile word of diminishing freshwater pearl mussels and sponges. Similar in its rarity to the Cloud Forests of the high Andes and the Mist Forests of the Canaries, it is a priceless and irreplaceable remnant of the Temperate Rain Forest that once covered much of the Eurasian land mass.
Although much of the forest was submerged beneath the flood waters of the Lee Hydro-electric scheme in the 1950’s, it has made a remarkable recovery over the last sixty years. Environmental Biologist Kevin Corcoran of the West Cork Ecology Centre has been monitoring and studying the Gearagh for the last 35 years. The main focus of my research has been to insure this priceless European gem is preserved for posterity. Up to now the best way to achieving that aim has been through the intentional process of keeping it below radar, away from a public glare that could so quickly wipe it out through mass intrusion. This has been incredibly difficult, almost like trying to hide the Cliffs of Moher, but somehow the Centre has managed to pull that off. Now however, the time is right to bring it out into the open. Stringent EU Laws are there to protect it and there is a better educated public out there that will hopefully take it to their heart.
Following the success of the documentary River Runner by the esteemed film maker and artist Declan O Mahony, which show cases the unique world of the River Lee and the Gearagh, the story is now out in the public domain and so it is time to act. The principal owner of the Gearagh is the ESB and although their brief is to make affordable electricity for the Irish consumer they have always made an effort to allow the public access to the safer parts of the Gearagh, with car parks, safety railings, a bird hide and access paths being generously provided. Now however increasing pressures have been impacted on the rejuvenating forest, whereby wind farms, blanket afforeastation and agricultural reclamation projects in the pristine uplands are causing the hydrology of the Upper River Lee to be so modified that it has having very negative down stream effect on the Gearagh. In effect it is being washed away.
Thankfully, as a result of our legal commitments under the EU Habitats Directive, the Gearagh must be fully protected from injury and so, the purpose of the 16th. May meeting. Hopefully a realistic and sustainable management plan is being thrashed out that allows the ESB to perform its job as well as boosting the economy of the entire Lee Valley through the eco-tourism benefits that will follow the restoration of the Gearagh. In fact everything is on its side right now. The land essentially belongs to the state and so to the citizens, and there are very substantial EU funds available to support such a project.
According to Mr. Corcoran this is the third such meeting to-date but unfortunately the public have not yet been allowed engage. We have the support of the very capable MEP Liadh Ni Riadha however who has pulled out all the stops to assist the initiative. We are very fortunate to have her on board. If I was allowed to participate in the discussions however, I would certainly push for an over-all Sustainable Lee Basin Management Plan that would not only restore the Gearagh but transform the region.
Sustainable Management Plan
To further that aim The Lee Basin Sustainable Management Plan, is an initiative by the West Cork Ecology Centre to develop the future economy of the River Basin in tandem with ‘best environmental practices’. Under its flagship a restored Gearagh would create the spring board for a whole new sustainable, eco-tourism initiative, not just for Cork and the Lee Valley but the whole southwest rural region.
As a working case example the Centre cites the model used in the development of the primeval Bialowieza Forest in eastern Poland, a conservation and eco-tourism initiative that has brought huge economic benefits to the region. A similar project here in the Gearagh would put the area on the International Map. A must see for all tourists visiting the Lee Valley.
Such a development would transform the southwest region and also encourage other compatible initiatives, be it fishing, walking/cycling routes, rural tourism projects (food; languages; crafts; life style programmes .. ). Furthermore by encouraging the regions major economic stakeholders to grow with the support of advanced environmental technologies they can further assist the wider community through self employment opportunities and modern sustainable lifestyles.
Positive indicator parameters would act as the green lights to indicate that such a development is taking place. These can include specific river organisms like salmon, kingfishers and otters, or healthy ecosystems that occur throughout its length, be it the Gearagh alluvial forest, clean lakes and tributaries and intact uplands at source.
Management Plan Initiatives:
Step 1: Restoration of the Gearagh with the support of the ESB. Set up a realistic management plan. Develop an on-site interpretative centre and hands on educational centre.
Step 2: Maintain and continue to improve the entire river environment to allow the Salmon to come back. The river is still reasonably healthy thus vital to insure there is no further degradation. Continue to promote our country as a source of clean, healthy food, produced in a sustainable, environmentally sound way.
Step 3: Encourage other stake holders to support the initiative. Forestry outfits to adopt modern, sustainable targets; Farming to support sustainable food production programmes within a stable bio-diverse environment. Encourage all other industries to also work towards a modern sustainable label.
Step 4: Promote sustainable community initiatives that develop local industries and life style opportunities. A walking route from source to sea. Retreat Centres. Educational and outdoor pursuits. Third level institutes working with communities through educational programmes that develop sustainable practices and skills as well as encouraging research and development that adds to the sustainable ideology.
Kevin Corcoran, West Cork Ecology Centre, Macroom, Co. Cork.
Liadh Ni Riadha; contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Participants in the meetings include the following:
Niall Cussen, Principal Advisor, Planning Section, Dept of the Environment.
Mobile 086 8154760
Michael Quinlan, Property and Finance Manager. ESB.
Ciaran O’ Keeffe, Director, National Parks and Wildlife Service. email@example.com
Paul Murphy, Senior Planner, Cork County Council.
Inland Fisheries Ireland, Macroom, Co. Cork.