The Lost Forest: An Gaoire
The Lost Forest (The Gearagh, County Cork, Ireland)
Source: mp2films(private collection)
Gurgling water rushes from the misty hills of the Upper Lee Valley, through Lough Allua and continues eastbound to form a "band of braided streams... an intricate tangle of narrow channels"known as The Gearagh. The Gearagh (or An Gaoire in Irish, meaning 'wooded river') was until recently an intact post-glacial alluvial forest, the last of its sort in Western Europe.
In 1954 in order to provide electricity for people in the county and nearby city of Cork, two hydroelectric dams at Carrigadrohid and Inniscarra were constructed. Unfortunately, hundreds of trees were felled and 39 local families were removed from their homes in the forest and relocated, prior to the flooding of the valley. It is estimated that approximately 60% of the woodland was lost, most of which was ancient oak forest, in situ since at least 1650.
The origins of woodland at The Gearagh
Source: 'Gearagh Scoping Report', Electricity Supply Board (ESB), 2017
Ireland belongs to one of the least wooded countries in Europe, with only 10%of the country covered in forest. What was once a thriving alluvial forest at the Gearagh, boasting a unique collection of healthy species' populations such as the endangered freshwater mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera), looks now more like the aftermath of an environmental disaster or war. Some will argue that when water levels are particularly low, due to little rainfall, certain rare species can be observed in the mud. For example, the mud worth which is only found in one other location beyond the boundaries of The Gearagh. That said I have stood and watched these tree stumps shrouded in a ghostly mist, and cannot say I am convinced that everything is as it should be.
The Gearagh Armaggedon, County Cork, Ireland
Photo credit: Declan O'Mahony
Even though The Gearagh still boasts rich and rare biodiversity, the cry from conservationists and locals alike is waiting to be heard. There has been a marked increase in flash flooding since the straightening and dredging of the Toon river channel and its embankment for both the reservoir and intensive agriculture further up the river. This has detrimental effects on the anastomising structure of The Gearagh itself, forming a single channel from the 'band of braided streams'.
The flooded Gearagh clearly visible on Google Earth.
Source: Google Earth
It is believed that if the water level held in the reservoirs was dropped by just one meter, the alluvial forest could recover. This unique ecosystem could be developed into a sustainably managed community-based ecotourism project, thus generating income for the local economy. Furthermore, upon recovery, The Gearagh could undeniably be proposed as a World Heritage Site (take a look at the criteria necessary, particularly (vii) and (x) http://whc.unesco.org/en/criteria/
An extremely difficult task and one of global concern is, of course, striking a balance between energy production and nature conservation, and I will touch more on this in later posts. Many environmentalists strongly argue against the supposed feasibility of basin-wide development (as was the case in The Gearagh) whilst simultaneously protecting critical habitats. However, we live in a too brightly lit world - you yourself are reading this very piece on an electronic device - and our energy supply must come from somewhere. A vital question to ask in the particular case is:
Can hydropower and ecosystem recovery be implemented hand-in-hand ?
Subsequently, on a broader level, an urgent question that environmentalists are currently contending with is whether or not development and nature conservation can co-exist?