Full Episode
Ireland's Wild River

The Shannon is Ireland’s greatest geographical landmark and longest river. It is both a barrier and highway – a silver ribbon holding back the rugged landscapes of the west from the gentler plains to the east. On its journey south, the Shannon passes through a huge palette of rural landscapes, where on little-known backwaters, Ireland’s wild animals and plants still thrive as almost nowhere else. For a year, wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson lives on the river — camping on its banks, exploring its countless tributaries in a traditional canoe, following the river from dawn to dusk through the four seasons, on a quest to film the natural history of the Shannon as it has never been seen or heard or experienced before.

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♪♪ MAN: There aren't many really wild places left in Ireland.

But on the Shannon River, you still get that feeling no one's ever been there before.

I want to see this river in all its moods in every season -- not just how it looks, but how it sounds, how it feels -- I want to find the hidden places and the hidden creatures living there.

I'm going to have no fixed agenda, just want to wander.

Wander and explore.

This river is a lifeline for countless creatures who shelter in and around its waters.

I'm going to follow them, see where they take me.

[Birds singing] [Soundtrack playing over] [Birds singing] [Paddle stirring water] [Birds singing] MAN: Early mornings for me are some of the best times.

The dawn chorus comes and the reeds are full of birdsong, and it's a wonderful, happy time.

[Birds singing] It's a great time to be on the Shannon.

It's a time to find food, 'cause you've been building up an appetite all night.

Time to find a mate... A time to declare your intentions.

This is still my patch, this is my part of this riverbank.

[Birds singing] It's a wonderful, peaceful time of day.

And the light!

If you're out there at sunrise, sometimes the light is so, so special.

[Birds singing] Spring on the Shannon -- the great awakening.

And there's such a sense of purpose in the air.

The orange tip butterfly is one of the first of the season, and it's a real sign that spring is here.

[Birds singing] Just a couple of months ago, all this was under water.

And then the water recedes and they sort of appear out of nowhere and colonize these watery meadows.

They're the most perfect little creature -- their wings are so delicate and the colors are so rich.

[Birds singing] These must be some of the most beautiful natural wildflower meadows left in the country.

Never seen herbicides or pesticides -- it's just the way this rough grassland/farmland used to look in Ireland.

The landscape really hasn't changed, but there is something missing.

This place should be resounding to the cries of the wading birds -- the lapwing and the curlew and the ringed plover, the red shank... But they've all gone.

They've all disappeared within about the last 20 or 30, 40 years.

Some people blame the mink for this emptiness.

Ground-nesting birds, their little chicks and the eggs have no protection against a predator like that.

But you know, nature tends to be more complex than that.

The real reason sometimes for the rise and fall of different creatures can be very hard to identify.

[Birds singing] Our countryside has changed dramatically in the last few decades, and I guess the river is just reflecting that change.

[Birds singing] Now, you can travel for mile upon mile on this river and never hear the sound of the curlew, or the call of the lapwing, or the whistle of the redshank.

It's all gone.

[Birds singing] It's very, very few and far between.

There are one or two places left in the river where they still nest successfully.

[Birds singing] These low-lying fields are known as the Callows.

This is exactly what birds like curlew and redshank and lapwing need to breed, and the warning call of a redshank.

He says I'm too close.

[Calling] And it's a call that just says, 'Potential danger, await further instructions.'

Now, if I was to get close, if I was to get out of the boat, you'd hear a very different call, and that other call is the real warning -- it says, 'Not only have we spotted danger, but we actually have to react to it right now,' and it's a particular call they make, it's sort of a lovely, flutey whistle.

And tells the chick to go straight for cover.

They're relying completely on the parent's vigilance.

People sometimes call them the guard dogs of the Callows.

I have a friend who lives in a remote part of the west of Ireland that, the only way to get to his house is on foot, and he can always tell if there are visitors on the way because he'll hear that redshank calling, and he'll know there'll be a knock on his door ten minutes later.

So... [Birds singing] I don't see this as a journey from source to sea, I see it very much as a wander around the entire system.

I want to be on different parts of the river at different times of the year.

[Birds singing] I've lived in Ireland most of my life, and I guess the Shannon is something I feel I've taken for granted.

I mean, this is the longest river in Britain and Ireland, and it divides our country in two, from sort of the wilder west to the gentler east.

You have this feeling of crossing the Shannon, you know you're going to another part of the country.

[Birds singing] You learn in your geography books it's something over 200 miles long, but it's much more than that.

The tentacles of the river fan out, and it's all the little streams and rivers that make it up.

They come from all over the country, feeding into this central basin.

This river has such a great sense of history.

There are signs of our past all over this water system.

It reminds you of how time passes and the lives that were once here, and you have to sort of wonder, what will we leave behind?

[Birds singing] Will the monoliths of the Celtic Tiger look as romantic as the castle ruins?

[Birds singing] I don't think so.

[Birds singing] [Animal calling] [Birds singing] [Squeaking] [Birds singing] Bats are one of the most unappreciated of creatures.

There are so many nasty stories associated with bats.

When you hear these stories and you see the movies, it's always about vampires, and giving them a bad reputation.

And that somehow seems to get ingrained in our consciousness.

[Birds singing] They are utterly harmless to human beings -- absolutely harm-- and they're not just harm to us, they really benefit.

I mean, any -- any creature that goes round scooping up midges in their thousands is a friend of mine, because some nights on the river, you wish you'd had an entire swarm of bats accompanying you every place you went.

[Birds singing] We have about 30 mammals in Ireland, and ten of them are bats.

If only we could totally reverse the way that many of us see them and look at them as the incredibly well-adapted, sort of, ancient creatures that they are.

[Birds singing] These are Daubenton's bats -- they're known commonly as water bats, and that's because they are perfectly adapted for life on the river.

If you look really closely, you can see the odd one just flitting by really fast.

And what they are doing is they are hunting over the water's surface -- they are looking for little insects which are caught on the top of the water.

As they struggle to free themselves from that surface tension, they make little ripples.

And what the bats are doing now, they are echolocating, finding where those little ripples are coming from, and they can sort of scoop up the insects -- either with their tail or with their feet.

They have extra-big feet, and they use those to just lift the struggling insect from the surface of the river.

Flitting back and forth there.

[Birds singing] The bats themselves live, I guess, in a different world.

They perceive the world in a different way to me.

Although their eyesight is as good as mine, it's not much good to you when you're flying about in the dark.

So, as they fly up and down the river, they have their mouths wide open, and they're effectively, sort of, screaming at the water and waiting for that echo to come back.

And that's how they discern their environment, that's how they see where they're going.

Incredible creatures.

[Birds singing] Beautiful creatures.

[Birds singing] This weather is really tough on the creatures that live off the river.

This wind has been really continuously blowing now for over a month.

Not quite what I had in my mind's eye when I set out on -- on this journey -- I imagined those lovely, fine, April evenings as the days start to lengthen, just listening to the birds singing, maybe sitting by a little campfire.

But for the last four or five weeks, I've just been huddled down like all the other creatures, waiting for this spell of weather to pass on.

This year, this weather came at just the wrong time.

There should be great hatches of insects -- and not just for the birds, but for the fish and everything, too.

They -- you know, everything is feeding voraciously at this time of year.

For nesting birds, it's not just that the parents might not be able to supply their chicks with enough food, but the chicks get actively hammered by the wind and the rain.

[Calling] But then it'll be amazing if the conditions do pass, and the first sunny morning, the whole place will just come alive again.

[Birds singing] There's nothing like traveling on the river, there's just that feeling of, sort of, peace and tranquility.

You can kind of drift in and out of animals' lives, and they don't even know you've been there.

You don't disturb them.

[Birds singing] When I'm paddling my canoe, I'm just wondering what's happening beneath me.

That whole cycle of life, things meeting and mating and breeding, and thing killing each other -- that's all happening in the water, but it's something that's hidden to us.

[Birds singing] There's one fish that's found throughout this river system, seldom seen, but at this time of year their presence becomes obvious, and that's because it's mating time.

[Birds singing] People call them the barracuda of the Shannon.

It's very much the creature that, if you were a fish, you'd want to avoid.

They're superbly adapted for their environment.

They can move very, very fast if they have to.

Any fish that comes within striking range has no chance whatsoever.

Some people look at predators as being cruel and this sort of thing, but that's really not the case.

If you were an animal that's been injured in nature, be you a deer in the forest -- if you've got a tiger round, the tiger will kill and injure deer -- if it breaks a leg, instead of dying slowly, a tiger will spot it and kill it.

And the pike are sitting there at the bottom of the lake, they're just not randomly chasing any fish -- they're looking for the ones which are moving a bit slowly or aren't doing so well, so, they're, um, maybe sort of like an anesthetic -- they put people out of their misery -- they put [Birds singing] People are always talking about climates and changing, and these are changing, and that sort of thing -- the natural world doesn't lie.

[Birds singing] You can see an increase in temperature.

Things are moving north and west all the time, because they're able to tolerate living in those sort of warmer conditions that are now on offer there.

[Birds singing] So, you'll get this gradual influx in species, and the Shannon is going to, you know -- things are going to start being able to live here that couldn't live here before.

[Birds singing] I remember the first time I saw egrets, it was in the south of Spain, and I thought they were the most exotic thing I'd ever seen.

I was walking up in the hills and I came over by this little lake, and there were these beautiful, pure white birds wading around in the shallows.

And I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing, and little did I know that, within, I suppose, 20 years, that those birds would have made it to Ireland, and they're breeding alongside our herons.

That's something I never thought I'd see.

[Birds calling] There's something about herons, too, when you see them sort of hunched-up, they can look sort of a little bit angry, a little bit, sort of, fed up with life.

The egrets are like, the new, beautiful cousins have just come along, and they're kind of taking their limelight or something.

And they seem to put up with them.

And the egrets, I guess, are just so much more elegant.

[Birds singing] Everything seems very calm -- it's as if they've been living together all their lives.

The two species seem to, sort of, accept each other's presence... even though they must be in competition for feeding sites and nesting sites.

My guess is there's so many fish in the river that there's no big competition.

[Birds calling] [Birds singing] Great sounds.

One of the parents has just come in and they're all just going for it.

It's a real survival of the fittest.

All the chicks have to be on their feet, as it were, and scrambling for food, and that's what it's -- it's known as 'scramble competition' -- you've got to make your presence known to your parents so that you'll be fed, because if the parent doesn't spot you and you start missing out on your meals, you'll end up getting weak and not making it.

[Birds singing] My fear is that little guy has no chance, no future.

[Birds singing] It's sad.

Nature can be tough.

[Birds singing] [Bird calling] That's a sound now that's really rare in these parts.

That's a corncrake.

[Calling] I remember the days when they were so common, they were found in pretty much every field in Ireland.

And I used to listen to them just a few miles from Dublin city center when I was growing up, but now they've really disappeared from so much of the country.

When you cut silage, you cut it early in the season.

So, when you have a bird like the corncrake that nests in long grass, it's just gotten to the stage of finding a mate and the female's sitting on their nests, sitting on her eggs, and that's when the grass cutters arrive.

So, they don't have time to raise their young, so year on year, corncrakes have just disappeared all over the country -- and it happened very quickly.

And here on the Shannon they've been making a bit of a stand down on the Shannon Callows, probably because that land was used a little less intensively than other parts of the country.

And unfortunately, they've done really badly the last few years, and I've heard this year that there's actually just one male left calling.

[Calling] He's calling to establish a territory, but to let a female know that he's about.

Because if you're a corncrake wandering round in the deep grass, you can't find each other.

So, it's up to him to call in the female.

And if there's a receptive female in the area, she should come and have a look at him.

But it seems very likely, very possible, that there's no one out there for him.

[Corncrake calling in distance] When I go to sleep tonight, there's a good chance when I wake up in the morning that little guy is still going to be calling, because the only thing on his mind right now is finding a mate -- that's why he's flown here all the way from Africa.

He doesn't know that there aren't any other corncrakes here.

He doesn't know that there aren't any females.

Poor little guy out there alone.

[Corncrake calling] He'll be calling all night.

All day, too, probably, if he doesn't have any luck.

[Birds singing] Shannon's going to flow through this area, now, and not hear that call again.

[Calling] [Birds singing] It's like being in another world.

Very peaceful, just the sounds of the reeds themselves, blowing gently in the wind, and... But all this activity that's going on that's unseen, all the birds building their little platform floating nests, sitting on eggs, chicks hatching, that's all going on now all around here.

Just by listening to the sounds, you can tell that's what's going on.

None of the residents in here can see each other, either.

[Birds calling, water splashing ] So, that's why they're constantly calling.

Letting each other know where they are.

Contact calling -- it's lovely to hear.

[Birds singing] There's always one animal every year that sort of somehow gets into your mind and just starts to fascinate you, and for me it's been the great crested grebe.

[Birds singing] The eggs hatch on different days, because as soon as the first egg is laid, the female starts incubating it.

[Birds singing] Both parents are very diligent.

They have these amazing parental instincts.

[Birds singing] The little grebe chicks must be some of the cutest chicks on the river.

Their beautiful little striped pattern, so different looking than their parents.

Grebe parents will actually pluck their own feathers and feed them to the chicks.

It's a remarkable thing to see.

[Birds singing] Beautiful birds.

[Birds singing] Amazing how the whole world seems to have gone silent now.

It's -- every year I notice around the 15th of July or so, it's as if someone had just flicked a switch.

The Shannon is no different -- all the birds just stop making noise.

And that's 'cause the breeding season is over and they don't have to sing anymore, they don't any longer have to defend breeding territories, they don't have to attract females.

There's no reason to sing, and that's why they've stopped.

But it really seems to happen over a matter of a week or so, it just, suddenly, just goes quiet.

Absolutely quiet.

[Birds singing] The greatest angler on the river has got to be the kingfisher.

They're just master fishermen -- and they've got to be, because they can pretty much eat their own body weight in food every day.

[Birds singing] Most of the time, you just see a flash of blue.

But to really see how beautiful they are, you've got to slow them down.

[Birds singing] I'm starting to see subtle changes in color on the riverbanks.

Autumn isn't far away.

[Birds singing] Great to see the red squirrels around.

The Shannon, which formed a barrier to people long ago, has been really important for the red squirrel in Ireland, because when someone decided, in their wisdom to bring the grays here, the grays never actually managed to cross the Shannon.

And so that's why the reds are still here.

The poor little blighters, they just can't compete.

It's not that the grays are physically fighting with them, it's just that they find the food quicker.

They'll take food that's still sort of raw -- raw nuts and that sort of thing.

And these little guys just can't compete.

And so, they -- the females don't put on enough weight, and so they don't breed.

Earlier I found some pine marten scat.

There's some sort of evidence that maybe they are able to catch gray squirrels, easier than reds.

Reds are a little more agile, they can get to the outer branches of the trees, maybe where the pine martens can't catch them.

It may be that with the rise of the pine marten again, that grays are going to be disadvantaged and the reds might make a comeback.

That would be great if that happened -- and it just might.

[Birds singing] For anyone who spends time on the water, they know that sound.

That's just the sound of the Shannon in winter.

Wonderful, haunting sort of call, the sounds of the whoopers arriving.

The end of the autumn and beginning of winter is when they tend to arrive, and they've been chased from their northern breeding grounds by the cold weather up there -- they fly south to avoid it.

They come to the Shannon because there's a great big larder here to keep them going for the winter months.

[Birds singing] You really have to watch swans taking off to see that flight doesn't really come all that naturally to them.

They really have to push those bodies up into the air.

[Birds singing] You'd think that they'd be a bird that maybe couldn't fly all that far, but they can fly all the way from Iceland to here, nonstop.

[Birds singing] [Honking] Once you make a decision to undertake that flight, there's sort of no turning back, because you've nothing to turn back so, no matter what obstacle they hit, or what weather they hit, they just have to keep going.

[Honking] [Birds singing] They must be very, very pleased when they see the ribbon of the Shannon River from the air.

[Birds singing] Maybe they're calling because they're just happy to be here.

[Birds singing] They must use up a huge amount of energy on that flight.

But when they get here, they're as graceful as when they took off -- you'd swear that they'd just come from down the road.

They're just looking absolutely perfect and pristine.

[Birds singing] Some journey to undertake.

But one thing's for sure, when they arrive here there's loads of food.

They're vegetarians, they come here to feed on the grass, is what they like to eat, and there's no shortage of grass in Ireland.

[Birds singing] We tend to spend so much of our lives indoors now, and in cars, we may be losing touch with those sort of seasonal markers which give you a sense of a time of year and where you are.

[Birds singing] Our houses are probably as warm in winter now as they are in summer, and we eat any kind of food we want at any time of year, so those sort of traditional markers of the seasons are sort of disappearing.

And in the natural world, of course, they're very much still there, they're still driven by the climate, angle of the sun, day length -- all those things, that wonderful sense of a year -- something cyclical.

[Birds singing] [Thunder rolling] [Birds singing] This is a rare cold snap and it won't last long.

As soon as the temperatures rise, things will start moving again.

[Birds singing] That's a great sound... Guess, to lots of people, birdsong is the first sign of spring, but for me it's the croaking of the frog -- breeding season has begun.

Male frogs, lots of them, calling to lure in the females.

[Frogs croaking] [Birds singing] Males await the arrival of the next female.

This is an annual opportunity, and they want to make the most of it.

Some of these little males have spent the winter at the bottom of the pond, hibernating there.

It means that they're in position, they're in the breeding pond, when the females arrive at springtime.

Females can be scattered out over this entire area.

Something wakes them up -- the same sort of cues, I guess, that wake up the males, wake up the females.

They've been wintering under stone walls or under bits of boulders or under logs.

And some of these females have to make this arduous journey across the land, laden with eggs.

[Birds singing] Some sort of instinct drives them back towards these breeding ponds.

And then it's the calls of the male that lure them in.

[Croaking] [Birds singing] The poor females, you got to feel sorry for them, because all these males have only one thing on their mind right now.

[Birds singing] She's on the edge of the pond, thinking, 'Oh, will I, won't I?'

And when she makes that final jump in, all hell breaks loose.

[Birds singing] Now, these little males, what they're trying to do is, they're trying to grab the female.

They have special pads on their little hands, and what they're trying to do is get into the right position.

They will wrestle each other, and she is stuck in the middle.

[Birds singing] Once they're really tight on there and in the right position, they will hang on for dear life.

And for the next few days they will not leave her.

Life for a female frog is not very easy.

[Birds singing] The other males sort of know and they give up.

Right, she's taken.

And then they wait for the next one to arrive.

[Croaking] Love frogs.

[Birds singing] Every evening... every evening this happens.

[Birds singing] Small flocks of little starlings come together to form bigger flocks.

[Birds singing] Just remarkable how so many birds come from the entire surrounding countryside.

They all make their way back to this one little spot.

[Birds singing] And those flocks start to wheel just a few minutes before they actually hit the reed beds.

There's just those extraordinary abstract patterns, from a distance they could be Ireland, or a swarm of locusts, or a swarm of bees -- it's very hard to get a sense of scale.

[Birds singing] Many ways, this is the greatest natural spectacle in Ireland.

It's just some sight.

And the sounds -- the sounds of myriads of beating wings.

[Thrumming of wings] [Birds singing] Amazing sight -- just amazing.

[Birds singing] My journey is coming to an end now, and I've learned so much along the way.

I've experienced this river in every season, I've gotten to know its moods, gotten to know its creatures.

Somehow, it's sort of gotten into me and feels like it's a part of me know.

It's no longer river... Kind of my river.

[Birds singing] But it's our river.

Its future health and wellbeing is up to us.

[Birds singing] [Birds singing] [Birds singing] [Birds singing]