CabraghWetlands - The Pond at Cabragh
In Tim Robinsons' seminal trilogy on the life and lore of Connemara, he titles one of the volumes The Last Pool of Darkness. The deep pool, be it in bogland or part of a river system has been a source of wonder for Irish people since time began.
Much of our archaeological heritage has been recovered from deep pools into which objects of value were thrown as votive offerings or part of a burial ritual. The name of our capital city translates as the black pool, An Linn Dubh. One of the most famous Celtic bog bodies, Lindow Man, an Irish Celtic chief from county Wicklow was found at the bottom of a bog pool at Lindow Moss outside Liverpool with the triple marks of a sacrificial killing. However it is not only humans that are dispatched in black pools. The waters of the pond at Cabragh hold plenty of intrigue with many of its creatures remaining fully active throughout the year. Surrounded as it is by yellow flag, valerian, purple vetch and stitchwort, the placid waters on which lay the native Irish water lilies brought there by one of the founding members of the Cabragh Wetlands Trust, Willie Gaynor, Solas na bhflathis dó, it gives a deceptive appearance. The bobbing heads of water hens moving across the still water could not be more deceiving.
The law is eat or be eaten. Danger is everywhere, the food chains are the same, only the characters are different. This is a predatory underworld inhabited by creatures that terrorise the rest by stalking them to death. They penetrate the hides of other creatures and systematically suck them dry. Those above the water are particularly insidious because they look somewhat harmless. Take for instance the pond skater. As elegant as a ballet dancer as it skips across the pond with its splayed legs and pencil thin body supported by just a narrow film of surface tension, it preys mainly upon insects that become waterlogged cutting short their drowning with a lethal incision of its jaws.
Floating just below the surface but with the same unsympathetic outlook towards struggling insects is the water boatman. He is keel shaped with legs that stick out like oars and when he moves in the pond you see why the name is so apt. Holding the air bubble on its front, it swims using a back stroke which means that its mouth faces upwards. It makes a meal of everything from drowning insects to aquatic colleagues including water fleas and sometimes small fish. The scariest of the underwater assassins is the water scorpion with its long tail which is really a breathing tube. It has pincers that hold any victim long enough for the mouth to finish it off. Water scorpions are slow moving creatures that lie among the mud and weeds ambushing whatever bumbles past.
Not all the pond bugs are murderous. The lesser water boatman closely resembles the O'Donovan brothers by rowing around the right way up. They eat nothing more than algae and pond debris. It often dives below the surface breathing from the bubble of air it holds to its chest. However the larvae of the dragonflies are also intimidating killers so all in all it is a wonder that any insect dares to live underwater at all.
If you stand at the pond’s edge in Cabragh and gaze into the water you may well catch sight of the three spined stickleback as it patrols its area. The spines can be raised and locked in place making the fish a prickly mouthful for any predator. In suitable habitats, they vie with each other to attain territory and consequently are well spread out. They have a bright red throat and blue eyes. They court females and lead them to the nest by performing complicated zig-zag dances. Sticklebacks are unusual because they build nests made of fragments of weeds and glued together by kidney secretions. Like sea horses, it is the male who provides parental care.
Three spined sticklebacks are easily caught with a net and all the creatures mentioned in this article were a source of wonder for all the children last week and this who attended the various summer camps. It was wonderful to see so many young people without phones, IPads or tablets savouring their exploration of a unique place that still retains the magic of the natural world at its pristine best. Of course, it’s not only for children. Come and enjoy it in your own time and watch out for a full Heritage Week programme later this summer which this year adopts the theme of storytelling and heritage.
Slán go fóill.