Cabragh Wetlands: Half full - half empty??

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An Taisce hosts Biodiversity walks in Kilkenny

We must link our ethical, economic and environmental policies to prevent approaching disaster - President Michael D Higgins

We must link our ethical, economic and environmental policies to prevent approaching disaster - President Michael D Higgins

It’s been a confusing week - nature attempting to emerge into a glorious sun filled spring, people also trying to emerge from a life under lockdown.


In the former, sharp night frosts are holding everything back - even in France they are lighting fires in the vineyards at night and warning of the worst grape harvest in many years. Will we have a similar story with our crab apples and wild damsons although that hardy old staple, the sloe, is sure to be plentiful with so many hedgerows still festooned in white?


The human range of movement has been extended while simultaneously the stories of vaccine supply dominated the headlines. Last week opened with the news of the demise of Moneypoint, the coal powered generating station, to be replaced by floating turbines off the coast of Clare with the huge advantage of a distribution grid already in place.


Then, later in the week, a new report by Birdwatch Ireland revealed that Irish birds are more endangered than ever before with more than a quarter, or fifty four species, on the red list. There has been a 46% increase in the number of Irish birds on the endangered list in less than a decade.


Birdwatch Ireland and RSPB Northern Ireland which published the report in its annual scientific journal show two Cabragh stalwarts as endangered - to my great surprise they are the kestrel and the snipe.


Throughout the years wandering around Cabragh, one would lose count of the numbers of snipe rising, darting in zig zag flight but now they have suffered great declines. The lapwing too, once widespread, has suffered hugely while the curlew, another inhabitant of Cabragh, has been reduced to only 150 breeding pairs throughout Ireland despite concentrated conservation efforts.


The appearance of the kestrel on a red list is amazing. Previously very common and easily recognized by its hovering flight above the Cabragh marsh or by motorways and fields, it seems that changes in land use and farming practices have affected their prey while illegal shooting as well as poisoning, both primary and secondary, have caused their population to decline.
Yet, amid this biodiversity crisis, Cabragh can lift your spirits. The first aquatic insects to appear in spring are the pond skaters. They seem to turn up suddenly on the surface of still waters everywhere. They have successfully exploited a most unusual habitat which lies between land and water-the surface film. This layer, although not chemically different from the rest of the water is in a physical state of tension and acts like an elastic skin which can support small objects above and below it.
The pond skater is a small insect but its extraordinary long legs make it seem larger and spread the slight weight of the insect over a large area. At the end of each leg there is a pad of bristles which depress the surface film into dimples and prevents the legs from breaking through the water.


The insects can glide over the water as confidently as an experienced ice skater. This surface film gives relative freedom from predators and an abundance of food in the form of large numbers of small aerial insects that fall onto the water and cannot fly away again. When it glides rapidly towards its victim it sucks out its body fluids. Take a minute to study these fascinating creatures in the clear water of Cabragh’s ponds.


Searching for colour in a harsh and somewhat chastened vegetation across which a bitter cold wind blew, the summer snowflake and the marsh marigold caught my eye but it was a surprise to see Our Lady’s Smock showing its purple pink petals by the side of the grassy path.


One characteristic of this plant is that large drops of dew collect at the base of its leaves and in folk belief this dew contained magical properties. It was used to cure people and animals from fairy bewitchment and the “evil eye”!


Alchemists also collected it at dawn and used it in their experiments to turn base metal into gold and as with many other plants a concoction made up of Our Lady’s Smock was supposed to restore beauty after it had faded.


Listening to President Michael D Higgins to whom we send our congratulations on his 80th birthday, he again repeated the message we first heard in his address to us at Cabragh that we must link our ethical, economic and environmental policies to prevent approaching disaster. The Birdwatch report shows where we are heading. Would that it could be prevented by the dew on Léine Mhuire!


Stay safe, hold firm.
Slán go fóill.