New environmental group shine a light on beauty of Cork river

A new environmental group has been set up in West Cork to catalogue and share the biodiversity along the picturesque River Ilen, reveals BRYAN WALL
New environmental group shine a light on beauty of Cork river

NATURAL BEAUTY: A stunning sunset over the Ilen River at Skibbereen, Co. Cork. Picture Denis Minihane. 

ACTIVISTS and volunteers in West Cork have launched a new environmental group dedicated to cataloguing and sharing details of the biodiversity along a major waterway.

Among its ambitions is to create a walkway along the River Ilen oo people can appreciate the nature and wildlife that lives in and alongside it.

The Ilen River Nature Matters group, which was only founded in recent weeks, has already attracted more than 200 members on Facebook.

In the group, people are encouraged to post details of nature spotted on or in the River in Skibbereen, and along the banks and edges of it.

This includes photographs and descriptions of various plants and animals along the river, which flows through the major West Cork towns of Skibbereen and Baltimore before reaching the Celtic Sea.

Ann Haigh, one of the founder, spoke to The Echo about the reasons the group was set up and its long-term aims.

A former veterinarian with a Masters Degree in Wildlife Health and Conservation, but now working in research and development, Haigh said she took part in sustainable community training alongside her fellow co-founders and they realised the River Ilen is “central” to Skibbereen.

She also felt that the river has been under-appreciated and this presented an opportunity “to raise the case for biodiversity”.

The river and its immediate surroundings are teeming with life, which includes multiple species of birds, fish, and insects.

The founders of the Ilen River Nature Matters group, from left, Sekeeta Crowley, Noreen Crowley, Ann Haigh, Nicola McCarthy. Liz Wakefield not in photo. Picture: Lucia Ospina, Co-Director of Green Skibbereen
The founders of the Ilen River Nature Matters group, from left, Sekeeta Crowley, Noreen Crowley, Ann Haigh, Nicola McCarthy. Liz Wakefield not in photo. Picture: Lucia Ospina, Co-Director of Green Skibbereen

Cormorants, egrets, kingfishers, and swans all live side by side on the Ilen, with bats also making their home along its banks.

In the river itself, trout and salmon can be seen in large numbers, which otters feed on. The occasional seal has also been spotted.

One potential way of increasing respect for the River Ilen which Haigh pointed to was the possibility of constructing a walkway along the river “so you can have a continuous walk to appreciate the nature”.

But Haigh added that “we want to also at the same time enhance the biodiversity that’s there and protect it and actually enhance it, make it better, whether that’s through planting pollination-friendly beds, tree planting, bird boxes, bat boxes, or bee boxes”.

Another potential avenue that Haigh suggested might be the creation of a nature walk that uses an augmented reality (AR) phone app, which would detail what flora and fauna have been identified at a particular section of the river.

For now, though, she said it’s all about trying to “engage the community but also recording what people are seeing that is there”.

And that’s where the Facebook group comes in, as it allows members to do just that.

For example, members of the group have posted photos of tortoise-shell butterflies. As Haigh explains, in its early life as a caterpillar, this butterfly relies on nettles, not only as a place to lay its eggs, but also for sustenance when they hatch.

This shows, she said, the importance of not trimming overgrowth too much and the “need to leave space for nature, and maybe that brings it to the local level”.

Cataloging and recording the biodiversity currently living along the Ilen as the effects of climate change take hold is also an important element of the group’s work.

“I’m in this for the long term,” Haigh said.

Underscoring this is the ongoing plan to document how climate change has disrupted the sense of time for different species:

“What I want to do is show time as well. To see if things are in bloom at different times, or caterpillars are there at different times, or they’re there late or early, all the different indicators for species that they’re out of season.

“That’s something that we’ll be capturing as well as part of this data.”

Although Haigh seems to put a caveat on this, given “it’s citizen science in that it’s not exact”, she also argues: “It’s still information which may show trends over the years so I’m passionate to keep it going”.”

Cork County Council has also paid some attention to the importance of the River Ilen, at least from a tourism perspective.

In 2016, it launched the Ilen River Blue Way to provide for water sports on the river. But there still remains much to be done in the area of conservation.

Perhaps illustrating this further was a fish kill on the Ilen during the summer which left thousands of fish dead, probably the largest of its kind in Ireland.

Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI) is currently investigating the incident, with a spokesperson telling The Echo that a file on the fish kill is currently with its solicitors. Consequently, “it is not possible to comment further”.

When asked about the fish kill, Haigh said nobody really knows what happened, adding: “But obviously it’s a horrible thing.”

She added that it’s important “to really find out and figure out what happened so it doesn’t happen again”.

A fish kill like this also has knock-on effects on other species in and around the river.

Focusing on the Ilen’s otters, Haigh highlights that “they depend on fish. It’s just a horrible thing when you see dead animals in amounts like that”.

Going forward, Haigh told The Echo that hopefully the group will host a number of talks about biodiversity along the Ilen.

They’ve also linked in with a local business, Deelish Garden Centre, which has agreed to sponsor a €50 voucher for a photo competition.

So far, Haigh is thrilled about the public response to the group and wants to “really thank everyone who’s engaging with the page”.

She added: “It’s just so amazing to see what actual nature we do have.”

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