Dry spell unearths Gearagh’s beauty

What lies beneath: At its lowest levels since 1976, the extensive dry spell throughout most of the summer has unearthed the full extent of what lies beneath the waters of The Gearagh. Exclusive aerial photos of the area reveal a thriving ecology and biodiversity and with the remains of woodland dating 100s of years now on show, one environmentalist believes, if properly managed, the tourism industry could benefit. Maria Herlihy reports.

The impressive patchwork quilt of islands now exposed on The Gearagh
The impressive patchwork quilt of islands now exposed on The Gearagh
New growth at The Gearagh. All photos by John Delea

It’s a submerged glacial woodland that has been hidden for decades but freakish low rain levels throughout the summer of 2018 has resulted in the emergence of an ecological wonderland.

Flooded over 60 years ago to facilitate hydro-electric dams that would provide power to Cork city and surrounds, The Gearagh at Macroom can best be called an “artificial set up”. That’s according to Kevin Corcoran and the local environmentalist argues that if The Gearagh was flooded in the winter and drained in the summer the area’s biodiversity would “thrive”.

In a previous life, The Gearagh was densely populated with ancient oak trees, indeed it was widely considered the last surviving full oak forest in western Europe.

Just take a closer look at the name ‘The Gearagh’ which translates into Irish as An Gaoire, derived from the Irish word Gaorthadh or ‘wooden river’.

Since the area was submerged by the ESB, The Gearagh has become a vast area of submerged islands which once supported a rich woodland flora.

But increasingly low water levels has meant that these islands are being more exposed and this year the levels are at their lowest in decades. Indeed, according to Mr Corcoran, forestry is starting to make a come-back, as is the rare and protected mudwort, a small herbaceous plant found on muddy shores.

The Gearagh was flooded back in 1954 to facilitate the building of two hydro-electric dams in Carrigadrohid and Inniscarra, which provide electricity for nearby Cork city. The area is now part of the plants’ upper reservoir.

This development by the ESB required that the region was flooded, resulting in the felling of hundreds of trees and the removal and relocation of tracts of people.

Many of the felled trees were centuries old and are part of a woodland that dates back to the medieval period. Anyone familiar with the region can view these tree stumps in dry spells such as the one currently being experienced.

” Since the controlled water levels are now so low it has meant that people can actually see its actual structure which dates from thousands of years ago,” Mr Corcoran explains, adding: “It has meant that the ecosystem is reverting back to how it was and how it should be”.

In addition to the forestry and plants, he says there is a “huge flush of wild flowers” also making headway and the region has now attracted a huge sway of butterflies.

As the levels of water are now so low, small islands separated by mostly flat river streams are visible – and it is here that the ecosystem is reverting back to how it was.

“The islands are getting vegetated but if high flooding of the region again takes hold then it will simply kill off everything that is starting to flourish. I believe that if he Gearagh was flooded in the winter and left dry in the summer then people could once again enjoy what this region has to offer,” Mr Corcoran continues.

“When you look up-stream you can now see the woodlands of hundreds of years ago and the inlands and streams, although these are very dangerous to walk in as they are very deep holes of mud. And it is here that the mudwort is taking off.

“I strongly believe that if a proper conservation plan was put in place then The Gearagh would be a huge tourist attraction,” he adds.

Mr Corcoran claims that the ESB doesn’t have a conservation plan on The Gearagh and he has been calling for one for the last 30 years.

“Companies now have corporate social responsibility built into their mission statements and work with communities. That can be seen with a local company in Macroom, Danone. However, when it is a semi-state, then not only do they not have to have a conservation plan but they also don’t have to implement it. That is the real reason that The Gearagh is not what it should be,” he further claimed.

“If The Gearagh had a proper and implemented conservation plan, it would not only be a boom for tourism but equally so the local economy and the entire Lee Valley would improve. As I said, if it was properly developed, all the outcomes would only be positives.

“Instead what is occurring is people are going to Petitions Committees in Europe to outline what is going wrong at home,” he adds.

The Corkman sought a right of reply from the ESB on the view point of Mr Corcoran.

In response, a spokesperson said that the current extended dry period is impacting on water levels in The Gearagh, as it is throughout the country.

“Despite some rain this week, levels are currently below what would be normal at this time of the year due to very low inflows into catchment over a prolonged period of time. There were similar low levels in 1976, which was a particularly dry summer,” said the spokesperson.

He said that during the dry spell, ESB’s primary focus is around maintaining water quality levels on the river by ensuring the statutory flow is maintained.

He also said that the ESB continues to work closely with National Parks and Wildlife Service and other agencies in developing a management plan for The Gearagh.

An ESB scoping exercise proposed a number of initial recommendations .

“Work commenced on the implementation of these recommendations in November 2017. To-date terrestrial laser scanning of the main channel flowing through The Gearagh has been completed,” he said.

He also said that, based on ongoing consultation between ESB and National Parks and Wildlife Service, “further scientific studies are planned for the eastern section of The Gearagh Special Area of Conservation”.

” These will encompass monthly bird surveys, botanical studies around the periphery of the reservoir and drone photography of the reservoir substrate revealed during low water,” the spokesperson added.