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  • Dr Catherine Farrell

A Day in the Dargle: Life beyond the INCASE laptop

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

About the author: Catherine Farrell is lead ecologist on the INCASE project, which is testing natural capital accounting in four river catchments across Ireland. Find out more about natural capital accounting with our handy explainer video.

The world changed for all of us in Ireland last March, and while we take the good with the bad, and while we have all adapted ‘as well as can be expected’ to life in Zoom, sometimes you just have to grab your mask (and your cape) and get out into the real world. After a summer of trawling through data to develop Ireland’s first set of natural capital accounts, and with nature donning her fabulous autumnal glory, it was time to get out and meet the Dargle in all its earthy / watery form.

The River Dargle rises in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains. For Water Framework Directive purposes, the Dargle sub-catchment has been drawn to include four very different rivers that drain south County Dublin and north County Wicklow. These rivers are the Kill Of the Grange, Shanganagh, Dargle and Kilmacanogue rivers (the latter rising in the Great Sugar Loaf), each with equally varied tributaries and character.

And so, with whispers of a stricter lockdown coming into force I grabbed my wellies and hit for the east coast while I still could. The M50 was eerily car free as I turned off at Junction 15 in the early morning rain. One of the pluses of this awful, restrictive pandemic has to be the reduction in traffic and consequential waste of commuters’ time. I hadn’t much time to think about that however, as motorway gave way to the narrow roads and, dare I say, boreens that I encountered not five minutes from the suburban centre of Sandyford.

Those boreens at the foothills of the Dublin Mountains were the entry point to a catchment landscape that revealed itself to me to be wonderfully diverse, contradictory and teeming with life. It’s hard to relay all my thoughts and ideas as I travelled through this area. Instead, I’ve captured them in headlines - my top ten learnings from a day in the Dargle:

1. Urban meets rural, in the space of five minutes.

When we were mapping the Dargle from the comfort of our homes, my colleague Lisa Coleman and I had focused on gathering the data in neat packages and bundles; the full array of natural capital – freshwater, woodlands, forests, grasslands, geo-forms – considering the goods and services that these assets provide us; building tables and accounts for the extent and condition of this natural capital, and thinking: simples, we have it sorted. Follow the guidelines and we’ll be grand!

I thought I knew the place, but I hadn’t a clue.

The first thing that struck me was how close the urban world is, how connected the northern Dargle catchment is to the powerhouse that is Dublin. These are the sub-basins of Kill Of the Grange, the Carrickmines Stream and Shanganagh River. These watercourses are born in the heathlands and forested foothills of Three Rock Mountain, flowing quickly through to the urban fabric of South County Dublin into the Irish Sea. In this urban context, property prices range from leafy suburbs to dense urban housing, and then even leafier manors as housing estates give way to the exclusive coastal views of Killiney and Dalkey (no, I didn’t see Bono, but I hear he was looking for me…).

Sugar Loafs in the morning light from Carrickollogan

2. Hedgerows, beautiful hedgerows.

I continued through Stepaside and Kilternan – villages so rural in character you could be forgiven for thinking you were down in deepest Kerry, or mystical Sligo. The boreens were challenging and my view restricted by wonderful, luxuriant, commendable hedgerows. We used satellite data to tell us where the tree cover in the catchment might be and came up with a figure of over 7,000 ha, or just shy of 40% of the catchment covered in trees. I had wondered could this be true, and my visit told me, yes it is. About half of this (~3,245 ha) is commercial plantation – dominated by wall to wall pines. Not very interesting nature-wise, but good for timber. And, while the total area of woodland habitat considered to be of EU Habitats Directive standard (native woodlands) is a mere 70ha or so, there are trees along every field boundary, and every valley, and anywhere they are allowed to grow. About 3,500 ha of them. That’s good isn’t it? It certainly makes for a wonderful autumnal display. Go now, if you can.

3. Anyone for golf?

Beyond the hedgerows there were some farms for sure, but what is really striking is the number of golf courses. On the coast, on the hills, in the valleys – small ones, big ones, lavish ones (no bog ones!). All amenity grassland of course, and well-manicured and managed. I could see some of them from the top of Carrickgollogan Hill – a Coillte Nature site in between Dun Laoghaire, Carrickmines and Old Conna Golf courses that has been zoned for welcome conversion to broadleaf species (it is presently a mixed stand of poor / good growing conifers). An old lead mine to the north at Ballycorus tells of distant times when shovels were more abundant than golf clubs.

4. A seaside town.

After a head-clearing view on Carrickgollogan, it was time to rendez vous with my catchment chauffeur (also known as Professor Jane Stout, absolute legend) for the rest of the trip. Between the golf courses and Bray, I passed slivers of native woodland – I couldn’t see them, but I knew they were there because we had viewed them on the maps so often. Tiny fragments of Old Oak and Alluvial woodlands (Knocksink Woods SAC) along with pockets of remnant fen (Ballyman Glen SAC) hanging on for dear life. Only for designation would they even exist?

What’s the future for these remnants? Is there a plan to expand them and revitalise them? Jane and I talked this out for the rest of the trip as we got to grips with all the nature conservation areas in the Dargle. Big questions: if most, or all, of the habitats of conservation interest in the catchment that are already designated (conserved), are actually in BAD conservation status and declining – shouldn’t Ireland (we) be doing something about that? How do natural capital accounts help to tell that story?

5. Spruced up heaths.

In thoughtful mode (and maintaining a safe distance), we continued our way past the Great Sugar Loaf, a splendid quarzitic geological form, through the picturesque tourist village of Enniskerry (gateway to the garden of Ireland) and up into the mountains.

I’ve spent a lot of my time on bogs, but I am (to my shame) less acquainted with heathlands. And yet they are extensive in the Dargle. And we know from our work on INCASE that these heathlands were once more extensive, and that most of the conifer plantations along the slopes of the Dargle, Glencree and Glencullen valleys were planted on heathlands. Those areas that remain unplanted are farmed to varying levels of intensity .

Questions posed by the SUAS EIP (we could see the Powerscourt Paddock plot in the distance) include what level of grazing is good for heathlands, can the heathlands in their current state sustain any grazing? What about burning? And my own question – how the hell do we deal with all that bracken? Bracken, once established, shoves everything else to the side and there is room for little else. A complete biodiversity quencher. Sadly, it seems to be more than common in this precious landscape.

Crowds of conifers to the left, heathlands to the right, here I am...

6. Bogs in the Liffey mist.

There’s comfort in what you know, and I was glad to climb further up into the Wicklow Uplands and get a breath-taking, albeit misty view, of Liffey Head Bog. Here we were, not half an hour from coastal golf courses and urban spread, in the welcome open bogscape of the Wicklow Mountains National Park. Stunning. The wellies were jumping with excitement, so we brought them out on the bog, to explore a view of Upper Lough Bray. I was on a quest to verify satellite imagery and I found that some of the data that was showing as patchy scrub was a mosaic of bracken and scrub. More bracken, eh?

The lough itself, and the walk, and the waterfall flowing down its western wall were food for the pandemic-afflicted soul. But the state of the mountain blanket bog was another dampener. Drained, bare peat, old turf banks. More questions. The lonely stonechat on the shores of the lough may have been trying to tell us something, I’m pretty sure it was along the lines of ‘get off my patch’!

A geological wonder: Upper Lough Bray

7. Bracken abounds.

Back in the car, it was a short drive to the head of the Glencree valley to take a view east down the wooded glen – here we were greeted by a mix of conifer and broadleaves, more of the former, though the autumn colours of broadleaves made for a rewarding stop.

But to the west behind us, the landscape was dominated again by bracken, where there should be heath. As we drove over the Military Road and into the Glencullen valley, we viewed a conifer plantation merged with overgrazed and burned peatland and bracken-infested heath. Not a healthy scorecard at all. Something is out of balance.

Bracken, bracken everywhere...but where's the heathland?

8. Hidden valleys.

Having a local chauffeur is highly recommended, and on the way back to base we drove through the most wonderful ravine, locally known as The Scalp. This steep sided glacial valley is reminiscent of something from Lord of the Rings – great big boulders with pockets of native trees poking out awkwardly between. Another element of surprise and geological diversity in this rich landscape of the Dargle that had barely featured in our desktop data review. You can’t beat the real thing!

9. Crops, but not much.

For good measure we passed some croplands just to verify they were there for our mapping. And a few farmyards with bagged bales of silage and cattle feeders getting readied for the long winter. Farming is a feature of this catchment, but less so than in INCASE’s other focus catchments in Ireland - the Bride in east Cork, the Caragh in west Kerry and the Figile in north-east Offaly. But farming has left its impression on this landscape. Whether or not there’s greater revenue from owning a golf course or building a housing estate for the ever-expanding seams of Dublin instead one can only surmise…

Glencullen Valley: Farming and forestry collide, with more bracken

10. The Dargle floodplain, or is it?

On the way back from this too-brief tour of the Dargle catchment, we travelled back to Bray along the banks of the river that gives the sub-catchment its name. The Dargle has been known in the past to burst its banks and the people of Bray were flooded out of it in recent years in a bad way. That event has led to an extensive hard engineering solution to flooding that leaves me with even more questions. Where’s the floodplain? Or is that it covered in houses?

It was time to go home, back to the Midlands, away from the beautiful sea (which I didn’t even get to – next time!) and this beautiful, diverse and intriguing landscape of the east coast, south of our capital city Dublin. Joining the stream of traffic within minutes of the wooded glens of Glencree and Glencullen, and the dramatic Sugar Loaf, I was left with more questions than ever:

  • What is the role of our natural capital accounting in the Dargle catchment? Should we focus on one policy issue like urban planning and water quality? Or sustainable farming practices in the uplands?

  • How do we link the extent of the wide variety of natural capital with the services it provides – those that are obvious (food, timber), and those less obvious (climate, biodiversity, water quality)? This is the focus for the next phase of INCASE so watch this space!

  • When pretty much all the habitats that we met are facing increasing pressures from the needs of more people (and sheep!) in the catchment, how do we resolve the fact that those precious habitats – fragments of once more extensive and vibrant ecosystems – are already in BAD (and worsening) condition? Time to restore and invest in bringing our natural capital back to good health – but we need a resourced plan for that to happen.

One thing is for sure, there’s plenty of work for the INCASE team to do.


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