28 July, 2014.
“Turlough” is an Irish word which has transferred into the international language of limnology. It has been translated in various ways such as the contradictory “dry lake”, but it is generally agreed that it means a place which dries out. In Ireland turloughs are associated with the hydrology of karstic limestone areas.
According to Micheline Sheehy Skeffington in “Secrets of the Irish Landscape – The Story of the Irish Landscape is the Story of Ireland” (2013): “Turloughs are temporary wetlands which usually flood in late autumn to produce a lake-strewn winter landscape in and around East Galway and Mayo, where they are common. They drain in spring, exposing wet grassland, which by summer shows little or no trace of water. The flooding and emptying is a function of rainfall intensity so that in wet summers they can re-fill for many weeks. Over 400 have been documented in Ireland, where they were once thought to be unique, but one has been identified in Wales and now a few in Slovenia.”
There is a distinct pleasure in revisiting places after a long absence. Perhaps this drew me to visiting Coole Park and it’s turlough near Gort, County Galway. The house which once stood here is well known as the former home of Lady Gregory and her literary and artistic guests, such as Augustus John, George Bernard Shaw and W.B. Yeats. The water body was one of my Ph.D zooplankton sampling site, when I did see the wild swans of Coole which inspired a poem by Yeats.
Today it was overcast but very mild. The guide at the visitor centre seemed to understand why visitors might request directions to the turlough. She gave us a map. We needed to go along the path past the pump house where once a horse walked in circles to provide unfiltered water for Lady Gregory and her household. Although there was consternation when leeches were found in the bath!
We were told to check out the pictures on the nearby shelter of the severe flood and freeze event in the winter of 2009-10. Basically, high water levels in the turlough corresponded with very cold weather. Ice formed on the water surface adhering to submerged tree branches and created a still discernible ‘snap line’ of broken branches when the water retreated. The incorporation of recent events into site interpretation really does help engage visitors.
It was a visual shock to emerge from the dark woodland into the open vista of the turlough. The classic vegetation zonation first described by Robert Lloyd Praeger was laid out before us, with the species most tolerant of submersion in the bottom of the basin. The path lead through the Potentilla zone, alongside some of the last remaining clusters of flowering Fen Violet, Viola persicifolia. The surrounding walls demarcating the woodland were black with moss, probably Cinclidotus fontinaloides. Alongside the river flowing into the remnant lake, cattle and horses grazed on the emerged summer pasture. There were no swans today but there was a silhouette of a flock of ducks on the distant lake.
I took an excursion into the lower part of the basin alongside the river. Although the soil was dried out and cracked, it was still soft under foot. The only clue to the aquatic seasonality of the turlough was the desiccated aquatic snail shells. But this stressed environment provided ideal conditions for the mudwort, Limnosella aquatica, a plant.
Then I looked up and the little brown terrier appeared. It sped around me in circles at high speed barely making the tight turn to pass between me and the river. Its paws kicked up small clods of soil like a horse in the Galway Races! Turns out this little rascal was evading capture from a leash being brandished by its family, Mum and two small children. The dog paused to catch its breathe midway between us. It had a choice – do an encore circuit with my encouragement or return to its owners. I was not surprised it gave in to temptation but this time the dog’s brakes failed and it made an undignified dive into the river to everyone’s amusement. It quickly scrambled out without assistance. At least the dip washed off the turlough mud and cooled the dog’s enthusiasm. We exchanged a few words of reassurance with the owners that the dog would probably be dry by the time it was back to the car.
Then we returned along the path through the woodland. Interpretation boards reminded us we were walking through the seven woods of Coole which inspired W.B. Yeats:
“I walked among the seven woods of Coole:
Shan-walla, where a willow-bordered pond
Gathers the wild duck from the winter dawn…”
Turloughs are a priority habitat for conservation under the EC Habitats Directive.