CLM Spring issue 2018 - Magazine - Page 28
Letter from the
far West Coast
Corncrake. Bill Coster/FLPA
ast winter, Ireland suffered its own calamitous floods.
The River Shannon, notably, swamped great reaches
of the farming midlands, along with its bankside towns
and floodplain bungalows. The island is a raggedy
saucer, with central limestone hollow and mountainy,
metamorphic rim. Safe, if stormswept, on my hill above
the Atlantic, I watched the rains make their first landfall,
a day or so ahead of the UK.
Flowing slowly down the middle of Ireland, the
Shannon has flooded for millennia. ‘Draining the
Shannon’ was an aspiration of Irish independence.
In the 1950s, after another calamitous flood, the
government borrowed Colonel Louis Rydell from the
US Army Corps of Engineers, a notable tamer of the
mighty Mississippi. He mapped channels to be dredged,
warned of cost and complexity, and moved on to the
flooding of the Indus, in Pakistan.
His advice inspired decades of Ireland’s state drainage,
its rough dredging leaving many lowland rivers as
canals, their banks heaped with spoil. As in Britain,
reform of river engineering had to wait on ecology
and the impact of EU nature directives. Ireland had no
crusaders like Jeremy Purseglove, but measures like
those which he offered in his influential Taming the
Flood (1988) began to take effect, and riverbeds and
vegetation were allowed to heal.
The Shannon catchment is the Republic’s wildlife
heartland, its wetlands and seasonally flooded fields a
major winter retreat for Europe’s migrant waterfowl.
Much of it is now parcelled out into SACs
and SPAs for the EU Natura network.
They conserve, for example, the
‘callows’, or water meadows,
of the middle Shannon, both
for wintering migrants and
for nesting native waders,
on grassland that has never
been ploughed or reseeded.
On the lower Shannon, an SAC
protects nationally rare water flora
and threatened riverbank bryophytes.
Its tributaries hold all three of Ireland’s lamprey
species, and its lakes harbour the Arctic Pollan
Coregonus autumnalis along with native salmonids.
Living and working in a landscape hedged about
with restrictions – the few surviving raised bogs that
must not be cut for fuel, farmland streams that may not
be dredged or scalped of bushes, meadows that must
not be ‘improved’ – the small farmers of the Shannon
corridor have spent decades in uneasy, often resentful,
thrall to conservation, with grants for mowing regimes
designed to suit the dwindling Corncrake Crex crex
Farther west, the floods have deluged low-lying
farmland in south Galway, on the northern flank of the
Burren, where a karstic limestone landscape creates
turloughs. These winter-filling lakes, distinctive to
Ireland, also bring flocks of migrant wildfowl, their
conservation competing with plans for river drainage.
Marooned once again, their livestock huddled on the
last grassy atolls and swans, geese and ducks sailing
out across their land, small farmers in half-a-dozen Irish
counties have only one cure in mind – dredging and
more dredging. They may wonder how the EU’s nature
directives can withstand the events of climate change.
Last spring, the European Commission announced
a ‘fitness check’ on the workings of these directives. It
wondered how far conservation might now safely be
delegated to national governments. The very thought
alarmed most European NGOs, familiar with the
domestic political power of farming and other lobbies.
Meanwhile, the Commission is gathering national
responses to its Floods Directive. At a consultation
conference in Brussels in November last year, NGOs
heard that ‘the practical implementation of an
integrated floods-nature management approach
remains in the initial phase in many member states’.
If intensive study of historical flooding makes a
good start, then Ireland has been doing its best. Its
Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management
(CFRAM) programme compiles studies of great detail
and diligence. Even here on the Mayo coast, where our
local, small trout river, the Bunowen, descends from
a mountain pass, its occasional floods at Louisburgh
village are chronicled attentively.
The production of flood-risk maps from such data,
however hydrologically skilled, does seem problematic.
Those for the Shannon may need revision, given the
winter’s remarkable chain of rainstorms. As the
first landfall of such highly saturated
clouds, the west of Ireland (which is
everywhere beyond the Shannon)
seems doomed to suffer not
merely the predicted 25%
increase in winter rainfall, but
storm-blown deluges sucked
up by each extra degree of
The calculations of CFRAM do
allow for a scaling-up of flood flows
of 30% in its ‘high-end future scenario’.
That seems more than enough for an island
like a saucer. As human settlements take priority, and
most money, in defensive engineering, ambitions for
the Commission’s ‘integrated flood-nature management
approach’ could come under increasing strain.
Office of Public Works CFRAM studies. www.cfram.ie.
Purseglove, J. 1988. Taming the Flood: a history and natural history
of rivers and wetlands. Oxford University Press.
174 British Wildlife February 2016
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