Many people living in Cork will be familiar with the Gearagh – a flooded forest just outside Macroom, some 40Kms west of Cork city. Over the years I have brought numerous walking parties there – it’s easy walking beside beautiful pools and waterways, underneath broadleaf trees and old hedgerows. But what visitors notice most are the countless black stumps of trees in the water, which are a permanent reminder that this used to be an ancient river forest that was largely destroyed when the River Lea was dammed some sixty-five years ago.
Last month, ecologist and author Kevin Corcoran published a seminal book on the Gearagh, [Saving Eden, The Gearagh and Irish Nature, ref below]. This book tells the history of European forests since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago, and how they have been progressively and systematically destroyed particularly over the last 1000 years, and how the Gearagh represents one of the very, very few examples anywhere of forests that have an unbroken genetic history over that period.
This story of the Gearagh is interesting and important in its own right telling how, unlike most other European forests, one ancient forest survived right through until the 20th Century when our supposedly modern society in just a very few years caused this irreplaceable resource to be almost completely destroyed. However the story, on many levels, is a metaphor for much that is going on around us every day. Even while we talk a lot about climate change, sustainability and saving the planet, the reality is that our planet and society is hurtling at high speed towards disaster. And we can only stop that Gadarene Swine like rush over the cliff edge if we understand what’s happening all around us.
The story begins 10,000 years ago as the ice retreated after the last ice-age, and vast rain-forests naturally emerged all across Europe and the world. Around 6000 years ago when the weather improved broadleaved oak, elm, ash and yew trees became dominant species, and grew to enormous sizes. These trees provided the optimum environment for the development of rich ecosystems of flora and fauna. Over the next 6000 years forests were of course plundered by successive societies for obvious reasons. Neolithic and Bronze Age farmers cleared forests for farming cattle, wheat and oats. Iron Age farmers with iron axes and ploughs made considerable impact on the forests clearing land for agriculture and timber fuel. But in the Medieval times and Middle Ages demand for timber increased dramatically for housing, shipbuilding etc. reducing most forests to nothing.
The Gearagh was and is unusual because it was a river forest straddling the River Lee for some 30 kilometres from its source in the Shehy Mountains to the small town of Macroom. As a river forest it was a complex maze of streams, rivers and islands, with constantly shifting water courses that made the area almost impenetrable and highly dangerous for anyone without a knowledgeable guide. And so the forest largely survived untouched through the centuries until the 20th Century. Further there was a local forest dwelling population that lived in and around the forest who made their living from among other things salmon fishing, hunting and illegal alcohol distillation. While through the 19th and 20th Centuries there had been some pressures on the forest way of life, by the 1940s the original forest ecosystem was largely intact.
However, in the 1940’s plans were laid to dam the River Lee with a primary aim of generating electricity. By 1949 a scheme was approved by the Irish Minister of Industry and Commerce to establish two dams, one at Iniscarra with a height of 42 metres, and a second higher up the river valley at Carrigadroid with a height of 22 metres. By 1956 the two dams were completed and the forest had been clear-felled and many homes compulsorily purchased and demolished to allow flooding of the river valley. In October 1956 the flooding commenced with the river backing up and flooding the entirety of the Gearagh forest including the dwellings.
Prior to the flooding, the River Lee valley was a hugely prolific ecosystem of Flora and fauna. This included huge numbers of Atlantic salmon, trout, eel, pike, large populations of otter, freshwater mussels and sponges and birdlife including mallard, widgeon, teal, pochard, waterhen, kingfisher, heron, dipper and wagtails. Today it is well known that when a valley is flooded the nature of the reservoir behind the dam changes dramatically, as the water is much, much deeper than the natural river. The artificial reservoir becomes a deep, sterile environment, in which the bottom gets no light and cannot support a natural plant-based food chain with its own natural ecosystem.
As a direct result of the flooding, the birdlife contracted dramatically both in numbers and diversity. Salmon that travel every one or two years from the Arctic to the head of the river to hatch eggs and then return to the sea, have their journey obstructed by the giant dams. Efforts were made by the dam builders to allow salmon to pass the dams; they constructed fish lifts referred to as Borland Fish Passes, that were intended to provide unimpeded movement of salmon both up and down the river. These lifts have been a complete failure and the dam managers have admitted that they have been a complete disaster. Before the river was dammed, there would have been 15,000 salmon running the river to spawn every year, and there was a huge salmon fishing tourist industry on the upper river. After the dams were installed, there were perhaps 500 salmon running. The tourist industry has of course collapsed.
Thirty years after the damming it was observed that a new and very different tidal ecosystem had evolved. The birdlife has been restored to a significant extent, and the whole area has been declared a Special Protection Area and National Nature Reserve. But the tidal character was profoundly different to the original. The fish were primarily coarse, and the large numbers of salmon will never return. In his book, Corcoran reports that the thousands of over wintering wildfowl are all but disappeared. Evidently, notwithstanding the Special Protection status, hunting is still allowed and that thousands of birds have been slaughtered beyond recovery. I myself have noticed that the huge flocks of winter birds have disappeared. But Corcoran goes on to suggest that without any initial cost or long term investment or even human intervention some aspects of the original primeval river forest could be restored – “simply by reducing the average water levels of the upper reservoir by 1.5m and maintaining the water levels of the reservoir in a more environmentally sensitive way at the correct time of the year, the effect would be beyond measure”. Of course this action wouldn’t bring the salmon back, but it would surely help the original flora to re-establish!
This story is an object lesson in how not to manage sustainability. Of course, we know that back in the 1950s concern for the environment or indeed individuals’ rights was not on anyone’s agenda. But today things should be different. Today the two dams have combined capacity of 27MW which by modern standards is very small. Compare that with just one offshore windfarm, the Emerald project located off Cork, which will generate 1.3GW which is some 50 times the combined capacity of the River Lee dams. So today the bigger concerns should be flood management and control and sustainability, which of course should already be a major consideration given Cork’s lack of elevation above sea level and of course sustainability of the River Lee!
We shouldn’t kid ourselves that achieving sustainability is easy, or that we know what the future holds. But at the same time we need decisions that balance commercial and environmental concerns. In business I was accustomed to developing “fully loaded outcome models – that reflect all of the downstream impacts of a decision. Here in Ireland and Europe we are still making manifestly one sided decisions. Yes Ireland and Europe are edging uneasily towards better policy making, but right now it’s obvious that commercial decisions have been and remain dominant. A recent high court case demonstrated that proposals for a new food production factory that would directly lead to Ireland missing its emissions targets was legal and proper, because it would create jobs, be commercially successful etc. because there was no legally based policy in place that required compliance with both commercial and environmental outcomes. Our challenge is to educate our legislators about how to form well balanced policy.
The Gearagh is an excellent example of “what not to do”. Sadly, we will never see the Gearagh return to its former glory, certainly not in our lifetimes. However, it’s worth a visit because even in its failed state it’s still magnificent. There’s enough there to help you imagine what it once was.