Chris Moody, the first person to film otters on the River Bride in Cork City, argues that we should be protecting the biodiversity of urban waterways, writes Ellie O’Byrne
The River Bride is not a river renowned for its beauty.
A tributary of the Lee, it flows through Blackpool, a traditionally working-class area on the outskirts of Cork City.
Once heavily polluted by industry, it’s been rerouted to accommodate developments including housing estates and Blackpool Shopping Centre, and joins the River Lee unseen, flowing through underground culverts into the city.
Locals may even have reason to actively dislike the river: In 2012, Blackpool suffered severe flooding. In 2015, the Office of Public Works (OPW), revealed plans for the River Bride Certified Drainage Scheme, which would see much of what remains of the Bride surrounded by concrete flood defences, or permanently covered over.
But one man believes that his Bride is beautiful: Cartoonist Chris Moody, who has become something of a self-appointed river patrol on the stretch of the Bride that runs behind his home.
Donning waders and setting up camera traps, Chris has documented a staggering array of wildlife on the river.
He’s the first person to capture footage of otters on the Bride, but it doesn’t end there. He’s spotted foxes, badgers, stoats, mink, heron, wagtails, mallards, dippers and even, once, a fleeting glimpse of the elusive kingfisher.
“Dippers are amazing little birds to watch,” Chris says. “They walk under the water and flip the stones to feed, and they do it by using the current.
Sleek, intelligent, and playful, the European otter has charm aplenty, and Chris’ videos of the nocturnal mammals have attracted the attention of the press and, last year, earned him an Outstanding Individual award from Cork Environmental Forum.
He’s taken part in otter surveys with Cork Nature Network, and was surprised at how active the playful mammals, protected under Irish and EU law, are on the urban waterway.
With biodiversity such a buzzword these days, Chris feels that the Bride, as a city river, is undervalued and misunderstood.
The OPW’s plans to cover the river are, he fervently believes, a missed opportunity to make the most of an ecosystem that’s teeming with life.
“I think it’s mad to cover it over,” he says. “I understand that there are a number of points of view here: Businesses were flooded badly, and the water was up to the windows of the shops. But I think there are other solutions. I feel that Blackpool is being shafted out of its river.
“I went up the river with an ecologist and she did what’s called kick-tests, where the riverbed is disturbed and a sample taken,” he says.
The impacts of dwindling city biodiversity aren’t just a problem for the species that disappear.
For human city-dwellers, exposure to nature, including hearing birdsong and seeing trees, comes with a big boost to mental well-being, a recent study from King’s College London revealed.
Ireland’s National Biodiversity Action Plan 2017-2021 tries to ensure we achieve “no net loss of biodiversity” through the actions of public authorities; it states it will work with the OPW to “ensure that Flood Risk Management planning minimises loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services through policies to promote more catchment-wide and non- structural flood risk management measures.”
Yet Chris has by no means been the only one complaining about the OPW’s treatment of rivers in their extensive flood risk management works.
In Skibbereen, though many locals have welcomed protection from flooding, the Caol stream, a tributary of the beautiful Ilen, has been reduced to what some say amounts to an open drain in the town, surrounded by concrete and steel.
In Bandon, footage of trucks using the gravel-bedded river, where salmon, trout, and lamprey spawn, as a thoroughfare during flood relief works sparked threats of legal action by environmental groups.
Most recently, the Irish Wildlife Trust accused the OPW of “the systematic destruction of river systems” following clearing and tree-felling on the banks of the Newport River in Co Limerick.
And then there’s the ongoing Save Cork City campaign, a concerted effort, including legal challenges, to halt the OPW’s plans for 15km of flood defence walls in Cork. Save Cork City argues that, despite the higher cost, a tidal barrier, in combination with managed wetlands to slow the flow of the Lee, are a better long-term solution to Cork’s flooding.
Chris agrees that slowing a river down is part of the solution to flooding. He’s been poring over maps of successive rounds of development along the Bride since 1996 and believes he knows what’s causing the river to flood.
“All the development upstream has resulted in water coming into Blackpool faster, which erodes the banks of the river, and all that material is getting caught in culverts,” he says.
Despite a provision for otter walkways in the OPW’s plans for the Bride, Chris believes that the 350m of proposed culvert will impact negatively on the fish population of the river. And if that happens, he fears otters will disappear from the Bride. “If the fish population is affected, that’s the otters’ source of food,” he says. “There’s a total lack of joined-up thinking here.”
An ecosystem capable of supporting an apex predator like an otter relies on the presence of a complete food chain, including invertebrates and plant life.
A survey conducted on the River Thames in 2008 found that concrete walls and sheet piling were the worst environment for plants and animal species. “Weathered brick or boulder walls, with rough and complex surfaces that trap water and organic material, were the most biodiverse habitats,” researchers concluded.
Other countries are reversing centuries of river management that treat waterways as little more than an obstacle to human progress.
In Sheffield, an award-winning flood defence solution was built when a culverted river flowing beneath a council-owned car park was uncovered and slowed down with the aid of plants, natural materials like coir and rock rolls. Now, brown trout are breeding in the river again.
Chris, a father to two children of 10 and six, would like to see something similar for the Bride: The waterway protected, cleared of rubbish, and enjoyed as an amenity.
“There were plans for walkways and cycle paths along the river in the area development plan in 1996, and I don’t know what happened,” he says.
“I want my children to grow up with the river.”