What was the greatest ecological disaster in Ireland?

Ian D Rotherham recently published book ‘The Lost Fens: England’s Greatest Ecological Disaster‘ is highly recommended. A recent review in the ‘Independent’ can be found here. Very few parts of the British landscape have escaped modification over the past 1,000 years, but according to Rotherham none of them have suffered a loss which can remotely compare to that of the “rich wilderness” of the great fens of eastern England. This he describes as “an ecological catastrophe almost beyond comprehension”. On reading the book you will find it hard to disagree with him.

Old River Shannon (19)
Lower River Shannon at Doonass, prior to the Shannon scheme

Like Britain, the Irish countryside has been highly modified and very few parts of it bear any resemblance to what was there a millennium ago. However, what was the greatest ecological disaster in Ireland? Was it the drainage and open cast peat mining of the great bogs of central Ireland, the arterial drainage schemes of the great turloughs and swollen rivers of the Moy and Corrib catchments, the loss of the great alluvial forest of the Gearagh under the River Lee Hydroelectric Schemes, the drainage of the great fens and wetlands in the Shannon estuary or was it the catastrophic loss of the great Lower River Shannon to the Shannon Scheme? In terms of the loss of a great fishery, there can be no argument here; the Lower Shannon was clearly one of greatest fisheries of Western Europe.

Old River Shannon, Doonass, with base compensation flow
Lower River Shannon at Doonass as it is today.

Unlike the great fens of eastern England, the Lower Shannon is still here of course, and retains much of its original diversity. Unlike the great turloughs of the west, and the midland bogs, we still have the Lower River Shannon and it is time to restore it again to be a centre point of our remaining cultural, aesthetic and natural heritage.  Indeed it could be restored to much of its former glory with some modern and progressive management. The key things that are missing on the Lower Shannon at the moment are (a) lack of water and (b) inadequate fish passage facilities. The Old River Shannon Research Group has been set up to highlight these and other issues, and deliver sustainable management for Ireland’s great river.

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