Cabragh Wetlands - The Naturalist on the ditch
These present long summer days when in retrospect the sun always shone-the days of our childhood-a childhood summer spent for the most part with bamboo rods and halfpenny eel hooks from Kilroy’s shop on the Mall or more often with jamjars fishing for gudgeons leaning over streams where Yeats said the fairies shed their tears.
We human children were definitely enraptured with the water and the wild and particularly that of long deep ditches that ran from Bohernamona to Long Georges and the sluggish Suir. When Paul O'Reilly, the Moycarkey artist, superimposed a yellow JCB on a Paul Henry landscape many years ago, even he could never have imagined the extent of drainage that would occur in the Irish landscape over the next decades and that these ditches would offer the last refuge to plants that had flourished in the vast wetland areas of the middle of Ireland before they were turned into arable and grazing land. The ditch and hedgerow play a valuable role as a reserve for plants and animals of water, marsh or fen. There are thousands of kilometres of ditches that preserve wildlife that once existed on a vast scale. Three main types of ditch are seen, depending on the type of farming that is practised on the surrounding land, arable farm ditches, grassland ditch and grazing marsh dyke.
If a farmer is to plough the land and grow crops, the level of water in the ground, the water table ,needs to be kept well below the surface and so ditches are dug deep. The water is kept as shallow as possible and in dry summers the ditches dry out, destroying the conditions needed by marsh plants and animals. The vegetation in these ditches is usually trimmed to ensure that in times of heavy rain, a sudden torrent will be able to flow away freely instead of overflowing and damaging the crop. Very few of the robust species survive in this setting.
Areas of grassland and mixed farming have a relatively high water table and ditches that drain these are less subject to drying out. The farmer may not take the trouble to cut back the vegetation so thoroughly since grazing land is not damaged by short term flooding. Such ditches often contain marsh plants and animals. These ditches, particularly in Ireland, have hedges running alongside them and even kingfishers dive down to catch sticklebacks in the clear water.
Grazing marsh dykes are on areas of farmland close to water that are flooded in winter. In summer the land is relatively dry and is excellent for grazing. Many provided the basis for the booley system in medieval Ireland. Hedges cannot be grown on this type of land. The grazing marsh is an open landscape and in Cabragh. All the contributors to the Adopt a Plot Scheme have conserved a large tract of this landscape that is now almost vanished from Ireland. These are the best preserved relics of the long past era before the wetlands were drained and in co-operation with the Traveller community this area is alive with wildflowers and colour.
Interestingly,aerial photography has shown a regular pattern of shallow ditches across the wetland. In all types of ditch, common plants of the shallow water such as rushes, burr reed, water plantain and yellow flag are common and there are also prolific bankside plants. Invertebrate life such as snails, beetles, water boatmen, water scorpions etc. also flourish in the ditches along with their hunters like the grey heron.
All of this forms part of the excitement of Detective in the Wild, the annual primary school summer camp at Cabragh Wetlands. Wandering through reedbeds and wet meadow, identifying plants and birds, hunting butterflies and damselflies all in the open air but with every facility close at hand makes for an exciting child centred week. Phone 0504 43879 for details of the camp which takes place July 16-20 and there are some places still available.
The cycling community have given us so much help at Cabragh over the years and this year again they organize our sponsored cycle on July 15th-looking forward to seeing you there.
While wishing all the primary teachers well on their summer in-career development course at Cabragh next week,we thank them for their support during the year. They visited Cabragh with their students in every season.
Slán go fóill.