Down By The Old Caol Stream

Skibbereen has a flooding problem and the flood-relief project is in full swing now. A lot of it concerns the stream that runs through the town, under several bridges, past Field’s supermarket and the West Cork Arts Centre, to empty into the Ilen River by Thornhill’s Furniture Shop. The stream is tidal, creating flooding hazards from above and below.

The lush growth along the stream: Buddleia (Butterfly Bush), Valerian, Twiggy Mullein and Bindweed; Red Valerian and Twiggy Mullein; Twiggy Mullein close-up.
Clockwise  from Left: Field Bindweed and Meadowsweet; Hemlock Water-dropwort (yes, as it sounds, poisonous!); Red Valerian and Monkeyflower

While the stream has enormous potential to be an attractive part of Skibbereen’s urban environment, nobody could call it beautiful – it’s neglected, choked with ‘weeds,’ and full of rubbish. But wait – it also happens to be home to an astonishing variety of wildflowers!

A sea of yellow. Clockwise from Top Left: Marsh Marigold; Marsh Ragwort (not the unwanted Common Ragwort); Monkeyflower; Yellow Water-lily

Or rather, it WAS home to the wildflowers. As the project advances, the flowers have become collateral damage in the march forward of the steel barrier that will (we hope) keep flood waters contained. Most of us who shop in Skibbereen cross the bridges over the Caol Stream (pronounced Kale, Irish word for ‘narrow’) several times a week, normally without a glance over the side.

This is Water Figwort, closely related to Common Figwort but adapted to an aquatic environment
Clockwise from Left: Yarrow – although Yarrow is mostly white, this one is a lovely deep pink; Short-Fruited Willowherb; Snow-in-Summer or Dusty Miller

I decided to record the biodiversity of the stream flora before it disappeared and took photographs over the course of the spring and summer. It’s amazing really, what flourishes in such an unpromising environment. This photo-essay is an homage to what I observed.

Clockwise from Left: Ivy-leaved Toadflax (look for it on the wall); Common (or possibly Long-headed) Poppy; Marsh-bedstraw

Purple Loosestrife

Stream beds are a particular type of habitat. Tony O’Mahony in his magisterial Wildflowers of Cork City and County, points out that riverine habitats provide a welcome environment not only for native, but also for naturalised alien plants. Combined with the fact that the Caol Stream runs through a town with cultivated gardens backing on to it, this means that many of the wildflowers I saw are non-native, naturalised species. But all, native and non-native, are uniquely adapted to this watery channel, even tolerating periods under water.

The area behind the steel barrier is being filled in with gravel. I don’t know if it will be topped with soil. Hoping so.
Left: Below the uppermost bridge. Right: the stream where it empties into the Ilen – the vegetation has already been stripped

Wildflowers are incredibly resilient. One of their favourite habitats is waste ground – no sooner is a plot of land disturbed than the flowers move in. My prediction is that, despite the seemingly barren and hostile environment created by the sterile gravel fill behind the steel barriers, we will start to see, as early as next spring, the shoots of little plants moving in to colonize the available space. The Willowherbs first, perhaps, followed by Loosestrife and maybe Figwort.  And of course good old Herb Robert (below), which seems to survive and thrive just about anywhere

This is a highly poisonous plant called Lords and Ladies – perhaps we could do without this one, although no doubt there are critters that depend on this too

Direct access to the water will no longer be as easy, though, because of the steel barriers, so the flowers may take on a different character. It will be fascinating to see what happens over the next few years. Keep watching!

The Community Orchard seems to be far enough upstream that it may escape major flood works. This is a beautiful and contemplative place. I was shown around by an eager young boy who knew the names of all the plants

This is what it looks like now – the view from the upper of the two bridges leading to Fields

What can you identify in this picture?

22 thoughts

  1. I just hate this Cement wall that has now replaced that lovely stone with such flora and fauna in the Caol Stream … if the trash was kept out of the stream much of this flooding would not have happened.


    • For me this prison like concrete walling up of a lovely little stream is a sacrilege!!! There are better, and more aesthetic ways of preventing flooding!! For a start narrowing the width will only encourage a higher tide and a worse clogging of reed and weed!! Instead of sand and concrete stone blocks encased in wire cages could have been far more environmentally friendly as well as pleasant on the eye and encouraged regrowth of natural fauna; and as for removing the trees that were holding the banks together as well as absorbing much of the surplus water; well !!!!!!
      Several years ago, before the flood, I lied in Warners Lane, and could often walk along the stream via the car park, morning and evening, and even stand and watch the goings on. The family of swans with their fingers dipping their heads beneath the water as they slowly we need upstream. The few mallard ducks swimming along once the swans had passed. I even saw a couple of egrets, which were the first I’d ever seen, and often a heron would be found standing under one of the overhanging branches, still as a statue for long minutes until he decided to step elegantly a few yards further along to again stand sentinel, while his mates stood on the roof of the supermarket across the way. That flood even washed away the hole in the bank where a jewel of a kingfisher lived. I never saw him again, so never new if his young had survived.
      There were rats running along the garden banks, and otters galore!!? I watched for over an hour two otters playing about just out from the little bridge to the right of Fields. Only the slight sound of sliding water and a few muffled squeals of pleasure let one know they were there. I remember one very warm Saturday afternoon a seemingly young otter attacked and drowned a shag which put up quite a fight!!! That rent took over 30 minutes while folk came and went into the shop, and cars parked and pulled out. Nobody but I noticed, and certainly the otter took home of the busy shopping crowd !!!
      Under the two foot bridges lived the bats that came out as the day set, flying swiftly to catch the midges or to scoop a few drops of surface water, dodging the odd shopping trolley thrown into the stream, as if it had been just another riverside bush growing out of the mud!!
      There was other wildlife too to be seen and heard. An evening blaackbird, and I’m sure also a nightingale!!! I’ve only ever heard a BBC recording of one, but I’m sure it was similar!!! It should sit in the beautiful magnolia tree , which also become a victim of the workmen, as did the hedgehog that always made its rounds at 10o’clock of an evening, followed about half an hour later by a fox, or rather two or three! One was a black one, which was very eerie seemingly in the dark. An owl came by one night and could often be heard calling close by. I remember one sat on the Christmas hanging that Fields had put up over the carpark. It appeared as though he was Santa’s companion and I’m sure nobody would have noticed any difference.
      Now I don’t live in Warners Lane any more and don’t get to the shops often either, but when I do I don’t see any wildlife, I can’t even stand at the edge of the stream any more, and the cement wall is now almost too high to see over anyway!!! I never had a mobile phone t that time so was never be to take pictures of what I saw, but I do still have my memories of a busy trafficking of natural wildlife that I will never forget


  2. Curious to know what you think now that the works are complete. I was there in July and it looked grim. Flood works will soon be coming to my neighbourhood.


  3. Stunning! Just stunning. All of that treasure right under our noses and no one even notices! I never underestimate the power of mother nature to recover. You may even find He wants appearing, adapting to the different surroundings. A fantastic project, Finola. Xxx


  4. Dear Finola,
    The power of the natural world is immense. In my Spa area of Mallow the floods were a recurring problem every autumn. The main contributor was a little stream named “the canal” which joined the River Blackwater. Some landlord had it canalised in the 19thc. Like your Skibbereen stream it was a delight to the children of the 1950’s with its extensive flora and fauna . A huge barrier in the 90’s was built to contain its flood waters , so much so that it now has become , especially in summer , a minute choked stream full of “weeds”. It is not pleasant. No rills. No charm! Just the dull safety of weeds ,but no flooding in that part of the town anymore! Bobby Buckley.


    • It’s such a dilemma, isn’t it? Everywhere humans interact with the natural world conflicts like this arise. But look what you learned as a child, from that stream!


  5. This is very depressing, the before and after photos are sobering, but as you say, hopefully wildflowers are resilient and will regain ground fast. Quite a few in there I didn’t recognise especially the short-fruited willowherb. Great pix too.


  6. I enjoyed all your wild flowers, They are so beautiful. When I worked in a health wood store for some years we sold many of them as herbs for medicinal purposes. I recognized quite a few of them.


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