Exploring Tipperary wildlife with Pat O'Dwyer.
It was a case of back to school as I joined Pat O'Dwyer from the environment section of Tipperary County Council for workshops exploring the diverse life found in the beds of rivers and streams.
Revealing this hidden world to the students is vital so that the next generation can make informed decisions around how to protect our most precious blue highways.
Many people will have happy memories of spending hours with jam jars and old tights, fishing in a pond and marvelling as strange creatures emerged from the murky depths.
When the students were asked if they had ever gone pond dipping very few hands went up. This shows the need for more workshops like the ones Pat delivered.
Over the course of a few weeks we were kindly hosted by Monastery C.B.S Primary School in Tipperary Town who have been working hard towards their green flag on biodiversity, as too have St. Michael’s Girls National School as part of their ongoing exploration of the natural world.
Pat was up early the morning of the visits and collected three ‘kick samples’ from rivers in the Glen and the Ara in Tipperary Town. Kick sampling is a proper scientific term that literally means going into the river with a net. You disturb the gravel bed with your foot, trapping and creatures in the net. This is then turned into a bucket ready to be examined. Alongside chemical analysis, kick sampling gives a very accurate picture of the health of streams and rivers in a catchment.
The schools main halls were taken over and the buckets were emptied into trays on desks. Each tray had a fascinating assortment of insects, and all the classes got the opportunity to examine and experience the amazing aquatic world.
In his introduction, Pat outlined what the students should be looking for. Lots of mayflies and stoneflies means good water quality, whereas too many worms or leeches indicates that there could be room for improvement.
The Mayfly, so beloved of fishermen, has three tails and most of its life is spent in water. In May, it gives up its watery life, and thousands break the surface of ponds and rivers. For one day the water starts to dance, and fish and fishermen wait eagerly for this bounty.
The students were equally fascinated and a little frightened as they though some of the creatures could bite them. But the workshop provided the opportunity to raise awareness and hopefully dispelled some of their worries.
While they might look fierce, the stonefly is no danger to humans. They have two tails and are underwater predators. They hide and stalk their prey among the stones.
Caddisflies are the camouflage specialists. They use silken threads to attach bits of stones and twigs to their soft bodies. They are very hard to spot and get some protection from their body armour. Many species of birds and fish feed on these under water creatures, and they support the food chain both above and under the water.
The leech was given a wide berth in case it sucked their blood, but appearances can be deceptive and it is of no harm to people.
The star attraction was a fully grown specimen of caddis fly. It was at least 6 cm long and a sign of pristine water quality.
All of the creatures moved in different ways with some pulsating their bodies, and others bending and stretching like an underwater yoga.
Air is also vital, and stoneflies have gills like a fish while others trap bubble of air like a human diver.
The kids were absorbed and so were the teachers, and at the end they were able to tell which sample had the best water quality. It was not the sample with the most insects but more importantly the right types consisting of mayfly and stonefly.
We also discussed different ways of protecting water quality, from not littering to been careful of what we flush down the toilet and sink. Next time they pass over a bridge they will be more conscious of the life living on the riverbed.
Rivers are a resource for future generations and we want to pass them on in better condition than went we inherited them.
Pat did a brilliant job and proved to be a natural educator with kids. The schools were delighted with the workshops, and hopefully this could be the start of a new educational programme for schools with the support of the Council.