Eleanor Turner- WP3 Transition Lead
Sensing the Catchment was a day designed to utilise the skills of our multidisciplinary research group to develop a method of engaging our local communities in issues of environmental concern. In this instance, we were focusing on raising awareness of the integrated nature of our river catchments and coastal waters. Using observation methods from arts practice to analyse what we both saw and how that impacted on us throughout the day, coupled with storytelling and science-based narratives and sampling, we explored the structure and ecology of the Coomeragh River catchment from sea to source.
The weather was against us from the start, but being a group of hardened outdoor enthusiasts we marched boldly on with with our day as planned. And since we didn’t stop, the rain did for a time.
The shelter of the Sea Synergy Centre set the scene for a quick intro to the location and the marine life abundant around our coastline. Then, gathering under slightly lighter grey skies in the car park we journeyed through time and senses with Sean, our Seanchaí, discovering stories of days past on the very ground we were walking on. Reciting Amergin's poem, adapted for the occasion, we boarded the bus feeling as though we had started a quest.
Our first stop was Smuggler’s Beach; Lucy’s (our resident marine biologist) childhood playground and adult office/classroom. We closed our eyes to open our senses and breathed deeply; the Wild Atlantic winds, rich in oxygen, swept in from phytoplankton in the surface waters of the worlds oceans. Adding depth to the experience by stretching our grey matter with an artist’s tasks of observation set by our resident artist Dr. Anita McKeown.
It’s a fine thing to walk a windswept shore and see the patterns in the sand or catch a glimpse of something scurrying under a frond of seaweed. It’s something magical, however, to walk that same shore guided by someone who not only grew up here and can see changes in shapes and depths over time, but who has studied in great detail every life as it plays out in the rockpools and shallows along the shoreline. To point out the tracks of worms and limpets, to turn rocks and identify several crab species and know which seaweed to add to soups and which to salads, and even after all these years spent here, to see for the first time a sea slug (nudibranch) and still share with us all a reaction of childlike wonder at the discovery..
We walked the length of the strand, entranced by the convergence of elements and evolution, that created this part of Ireland’s coast. We reached the Inny River, where its waters met the sea and could go no further.
And so, gathering together, a sense of place and context for the day was built again by both Rod Robinson (Communications Officer for Waterville Lakes and Rivers Trust) and myself. Leaving the salty habitats behind, we cast our minds to the arteries of the land; our local river systems. Looking back over the Inny to Dromid and seeing in the distance where the Coomeragh system flows into the same bay. We started to consider the importance of our freshwater habitat, for us as people, but more vitally for the iconic species and habitats they support. With time for reflection, we made our way back across the strand to the bus, for the next stage of the journey. Like the returning salmon in autumn, we were heading up stream.
Sean was on hand again, weaving history and mystery along the route to create connections through time and spirit with ancestors long past and the landscape itself as something alive and feeling. Arriving at our next stop “The Old Hatchery” just below Lough Derriana, we took time to share our own stories over a picnic and a short break.
Regrouping within the “Hatchery”, Rod took us on one of the most epic journeys of an Irish species -the lifecycle of the salmon- closely followed by our sea trout for which this system is famed. Spawned in our small mountain streams they drop slowly down through the system as they develop before undergoing physiological changes to leap from freshwater to saltwater. They run to sea to cross the Atlantic Ocean, to feeding grounds in the North West. The sea trout like to hug the coastline and feast around our shores. Until the time comes to return, called like many Irish by some invisible pull, home to the place they started out; to spawn again in the same cool mountain streams to ensure the next generation. Unfortunately for both the fish and us, populations locally and globally have been in decline for several years and much work is needed to protect and conserve these amazing creatures lest we lose them from the system forever.
To see more of the ecology of a river we left the Hatchery to conduct a small stream sample; a technique used by scientists to assess water quality. As it is now understood that certain invertebrate species are sensitive to reduced water quality and by their presence or absence, the water quality at any given site can be determined. The benefit of sampling this time of year is that there is little detrimental effect on the riverine system; the downside is there’s not much to find! As we know the seasons on land in forests and farms, so too are there seasons in our water habitats; both at sea and in freshwater. After identifying what could be expected of riverine fauna this time of year, we moved to the next phase of the journey – a walk to Lough Derriana, the upper most access for salmon and sea trout and our last stop of the day.
Approaching the lake on foot, the majesty of the reek’s ahead of us was breathtaking. A sight I think no one could tire of as the clouds chased the sun across the sky and dropped patterns of light and dark across the flanks of the hills, torn out by ancient glaciers and now softened by time reaching gently into the lake below. The story of the landscape here has directed the story of the fish, trapping relics in higher lakes, the sea trout gene pool now has a specific “ferox gene” making it longer-lived and larger-growing. A simple example of the benefits of our much bemoaned rural isolation. An isolation not felt today as a group of once strangers now huddled together under threatening skies to hear the end of Sean’s tale started much early downriver on on a different kind of shore.
And so, the journey ended, with smiles and selfies, with new knowledge and open hearts and another rain shower!“In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. And we will understand only what we are taught” said Baba Diuom. As we met the bus, my old secondary school Careers teacher caught my hand to thank me and said with bright eyes “as a hill walker I have passed this way many times, but I never knew before that all of this was going on”.
For the CoDesRes team, Sea Synergy and the Waterville Lakes and Rivers Trust I would say: mission accomplished. A day well spent and a group of participants heading back to their other lives with a greater understanding of their place in ‘all this that’s going on’.
For the researchers, this also marks the start of the real work, as reflections from the day are used to inform further improvements on methods of engagement for addressing the larger issues encompassed in the targets of the SDG 14 and 15. The success of this style of intervention is also analysed for impact on individual’s awareness. The method will also be considered in terms of cost and effort, as a possible interpretive tour to be offered to paying participants, embedding education on global issues in a local context and supporting a sustainable local community.
In short, lots to do, so until next time you’ll find me at my desk😉
Listen here to Anita and Sean being interviewed by Radio Kerry about the event.
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Total number of attendees – 18
Total number of facilitators – Anita, Lucy, Sean, Rod, Ellie and of course Seano, our lovely bus driver!
Donations made on the day were gifted to the Waterville Lakes and Rivers Trust.