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Wild Waters by Richard Nairn: Study of Ireland’s rivers and lakes is a timely contribution

Ecologist’s latest book completes a compelling trilogy on Ireland’s natural history

Wild Waters: The Magic of Ireland’s Rivers and Lakes
Wild Waters: The Magic of Ireland’s Rivers and Lakes
Author: Richard Nairn
ISBN-13: 978-0717197576
Publisher: Gill
Guideline Price: €18.99

On an Ireland awash with rain, the freshwater life of lakes and rivers still has to fight for survival. Most human effort has gone into rushing its homes to the sea. Between straightening and deepening them into canals and then polluting them, most Irish rivers are now, writes Richard Nairn, ”in the emergency ward”.

Nairn is an experienced ecologist with decades of research and fieldwork. Wild Waters follows his previous books – Wild Woods and Wild Shores – and the trilogy makes a timely and deeply felt contribution to Irish natural history.

The new work takes Nairn on wide exploration from his home in Co Wicklow, but his most eloquent riverside moments are on the county’s beautiful Avonmore River, with its dippers, goosander ducks and kingfishers. Its wooded banks lean over a natural flow of riffle, glide and pool with the richest mix of freshwater life. This is the model for river restoration – known now as “rewriggling” – of the many Irish projects Nairn is happy to describe.

His story of “draining” the Shannon is more troubling. “Dredging a barely-moving river,” he writes, “and piling spoil along its banks simply repeats the misguided hard-engineering responses of the past.” He urges more respectful use of the river’s natural and valuable floodplains. And given how little power now flows from the “antiquated” turbines of the Ardnacrusha power station, completed in 1922, he argues for phasing out “this unnecessary infrastructure” and letting the river back to its natural channel.


Dams built by beavers also slow down rivers, but in a good way. Nairn cites their reintroductions in the UK and the Netherlands, creating pools rich in plants and wildlife. But he doesn’t quite advocate bringing them here officially. In time, he suggests, unauthorised introductions, like those of wild boar and muntjac deer, are “much more likely”.

For immediate”rewilding”, he urges digging more ponds. Studies of Irish farmland ponds by the Environmental Protection Agency found that they have more animal and plant species than rivers, streams, lakes or ditches. Nairn had one dug on his own land and found its busy life “a joy to watch”.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author