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Islands partially removed from Westport’s Mall river

News

CONTROVERSY One island remains on The Mall, running along the wall across from Westport Credit Union. Pic: Frank Dolan

Local reaction to volunteers’ actions sharply divided

Oisín McGovern

THE Cathaoirleach of Westport-Belmullet Municipal District has defended the partial removal of controversial silt islands near the Westport Mall.
Cllr Christy Hyland was among a group of volunteers who undertook works to remove some of the vegetation from the islands on the Carrowbeg River last week.
In a statement issued yesterday (Monday), Cllr Hyland said that the islands were causing ‘serious damage’ to the river.
Mayo County Council and Inland Fisheries Ireland have both denied responsibility for the management of the islands, which became a source of public controversy when a large amount of vegetation began growing on them.
The islands are said to have been originally ‘placed’ along the river as a resting ground for ducks, though others argue that the deposits have formed naturally.
“These islands have caused serious damage to the riverbed and goes totally against the engineering and craftsmanship that was done 200 years ago when this manmade [section of the] river was created,” Cllr Hyland stated.
The Independent councillor explained the islands’ presence was speeding up the flow of the river, thus eroding the cobblestones at the riverbed which had restricted the flow.
Concerns have previously been raised that a more rapid flow could make the Carrowbeg river more prone to flooding along the Mall, which is currently designated as a flood plane.
The Mall section of the river – which last flooded in 2015 – was cleaned annually in order to prevent a buildup of vegetation.
“At this stage the damage to the riverbed is very serious and if allowed to continue will have serious consequences and uncertainty for the  river into the future,” Cllr Hyland said.
“I believe it is wrong to now allow vegetation dictate which way the river flows and goes against the excellent engineering that created this beautiful [part of the] river in the first place.”
Cllr Hyland added that he supported biodiversity, but said that the islands could ‘compromise’ the river if left unchecked.
“I would urge everyone to take a step back and put some thought into the original planning, engineering and craftsmanship that created this beautiful river in our town. Nothing should ever compromise it.
“These engineers over two hundred years ago knew what they were doing, and I will never go against their work that has served the river well.”

Engagement
Cllr Brendan Mulroy told The Mayo News that councillors from the area had engaged with the Inland Fisheries Ireland prior to the works being undertaken.
He said that the largest river island was left partially intact in order to ‘maintain some biodiversity’.
A handful of protestors voiced their objections to the removal of the vegetation while the works were ongoing, while the rights and wrongs of the action were hotly debated on social media.
“We checked with the council and [Inland Fisheries Ireland], they said they didn’t own the river. [Inland Fisheries Ireland] gave us the go-ahead to clean it out once we’re out of the spawning season, which is the beginning of October I’m told,” Cllr Mulroy said.
“Part of the deal was that we’d take away a bit of the island that’s gone and we’d leave a certain amount of the other island to make sure there was a flow of water going through it.
“We’re all for biodiversity, absolutely everyone is, but not at risk of the town flooding. That is the difficulty,” he added.
Local resident Dr Oliver Whyte told The Mayo News that the measures taken would not slow the flow of the river, and said works should be undertaken to repair damage to the river basin.
“That’s been flooding there 200 years … I can’t see it [the removal of the river islands] having that huge of an effect. But if there is a problem with the river basin somebody should check it out,” Dr Whyte said.
“[The islands] would have been a great centre of biodiversity,” he added. “You could have had a few information boards. It would have been a statement for Westport.”

‘Waste of time’
WILDLIFE filmmaker and television presenter, Westport resident Colin Stafford-Johnson said that the actions taken made ‘no sense’ and had ‘nothing to do with flooding’.
Mr Stafford-Johnson said that the removal of the vegetation was ‘counter-intuitive’ and would result in large loss of biodiversity within the town.
“The hydrologists I spoke to said it was a complete and utter waste of time,” Mr Stafford Johnson told The Mayo News.
“It’s got nothing to do with flooding. That was just thrown around. Essentially people didn’t like the look of it.
“I’ve heard lots of different reasons for people wanting to do it. I think it was just that people were used to the Mall looking a particular way; very neat. But when it’s very neat you don’t have have any life. That’s the problem.”
Mr Stafford-Johnson suggested that having objects in the river would in fact make the area less prone to flooding.
“People have this strange idea about [flood prevention], that you want to turn the river into a channel. In fact, you want to do the opposite,” he said.
“You’re trying to slow up the water. If you create a gutter you get flooding. Having stuff in the river is actually a good thing.  
“Removing a few inches of soil for a couple of islands has got no effect on anything,” he added.
“It was just that people didn’t like the look of it. I think people were looking for excuses.”