The joy and beauty of life on the Liffey

TWO books by well-known Irish naturalists have come to hand. One celebrates a river and the landscape through which it flows; the other focuses on a peninsula in Co Donegal.

The Liffey, Portrait of a River, written by Dick Warner and illustrated by Rosemary Burns, is an affectionate and lively tribute to the famous Anna Livia. The Czech composer Smetana celebrated his beloved river, Die Moldau, in music and Dick and Rosemary do the same for theirs in prose and pictures. Like Smetana, they begin when the river is born as a tiny spring and follow its course to the sea. The Liffey starts out on Kippure mountain from where it heads west. Then it veers northwards and curves eastwards towards Dublin.

One of the first landmarks it encounters is the Coronation Plantation, which dates from William IV’s accession to the throne in 1831. Dick Warner, who presented the excellent Spirit of Trees series on Channel 4 some years ago, has some interesting comments to make on this mountain oasis. The plantation, he thinks, was an ill-advised venture. The species is the Scots pine, a tree which likes its own space and resents being too close to its neighbours, a fact of which those responsible for the Coronation Plantation appear to have been unaware.

But proximity to others is not the trees’ only problem — sika deer, introduced to Wicklow by Lord Powerscourt in 1860, eat young shoots and, with the old specimens dying off, young trees are not regenerating. The Scots pine was once native to this island but during the Bronze Age it fell on lean times and became extinct, probably as a result of climate change. The tree has been reintroduced and is now found throughout the country.

On a happier note, Ballysmuttan, a bit further downstream, was the location where a significant piece of Irish scientific research was carried out. Dr Rowland Southern, Assistant Director of Fisheries in Dublin during the 1920s, was an authority on trout. These fish grow much bigger in some streams than in others. Southern suspected that this had to do with the amount of calcium in the water but, to prove this, he needed a location where he could raise fish in acid water and compare their progress with others placed in alkaline conditions. Ballysmuttan was the ideal location for the research.

The Liffey has endured massive upheavals in its eventful past, but the building of three dams for hydro-electricity stations in the 20th Century must surely have been the most dramatic. The dam at Poulaphouca was completed in 1940, after which a vast area was flooded. Seventy-six homes and 50 farms disappeared. The bodies were exhumed from the local cemetery and re-interred in higher ground. The army was ordered to shell the deserted houses; it was wartime and they needed artillery practice. These are some of the many ruminations and anecdotes recounted in this lively and colourful tome. Warner’s light and easy style blends well with Burns’s evocative and impressionistic water colours. The symbiosis between writer and painter makes this a most entertaining and uplifting book.

Richard Nairn’s A Nature Guide to the Ardara Portnoo Area of Co Donegal is a very different sort of offering. This slim little book describes the ecology of the triangle of land west of the road between Ardara and Maas. it begins with the area’s complex geology and continues with the flora and fauna. Short essays and notes on subjects ranging from vegetation history to the botanist Henry Chichester Hart, a 19th century authority on the flora of Donegal, intersperse the text. The area seems especially rich in lepidoptera; at least 90 species of large moth have been recorded at Sheskinmore, while 21 of Ireland’s 28 butterfly species are present in, or have visited, the area. Ralph Sheppard and Johan Crombie have studied the moths and Bob Aldwell coordinated the Donegal Butterfly Survey. The most exotic vertebrate recorded was a leathery turtle, the world’s heaviest reptile, now an annual visitor to our coasts. The book, illustrated with attractive photographs, includes lists of animal and plant groups as appendices. It will appeal to anybody with even a passing interest in the wildlife of Donegal, while providing essential baseline information for the more experienced naturalist.

The Liffey, Portrait of a River by Dick Warner and Rosemary Burns is published by Cottage Publications. e29.99.

A Nature Guide to the Ardara Portnoo area of Donegal by Richard Nairn, is available from the Nature Press, Broomhall Business Park, Rathnew, Co Wicklow, e14 including postage.

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