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River Shannon: Drifting into a secret world



Canoes allowed Colin Stafford-Johnson to get close to the wildlife wonders of the Shannon for a new RTE documentary series.

ONLY the sound of my canoe gently slipping through the water and my paddle break the silence. It's a misty dawn on the flood plains around Big Meadow.

Half-submerged gates and trees loom out of the fog in this almost alien landscape. Barely a mile away, the earliest commuters are just leaving Athlone, but they might as well be on a different planet.

I've been paddling the waterways of the Shannon over almost two years. Before, like many people, I've known her only as a quick flash of liquid as I fly over on a bridge heading for the west coast, or as a great playground for boats and daytrippers at the built-up harbours along her major artery.

But this time I've taken a journey to uncover the deserted back-channels and forgotten islands of this truly great river system. Seeking out her wild residents on bank and on bed, I've been looking to tell her secrets.

This morning's elusive prize will be a glimpse of the wary whooper swan. Their deep, honking calls mark the onset of winter in the Shannon basin as they swoop in from their astonishing 1,200km, non-stop flight – the longest of any bird of its size.

Unlike their cheeky, bread-begging cousins, the mute, these whoopers are cagey and flighty. Getting near them long enough to film is a challenge, but a patient, silent wait in these hidden backwaters is rewarded.

It's one of many rare or first-time pieces of footage we capture on this long journey making the two-part documentary The Secret Life of the Shannon with Crossing the Line. It was produced for RTE with the assistance of the ESB, Waterways Ireland, the Heritage Council, NPWS and BAI

Among the reed beds, along the banks and under the water, we capture plants and creatures in action with a cutting edge Phantom camera, used to such great effect in Christopher Nolan's film Inception.

Dramatic hunting bats, acrobatic squirrels, the mating dance of the ferocious pike – all seen as never before on Irish television, with every sinew, scale and wing beat in glistening, super slow-motion. Perhaps most dramatically of all, the kingfishers, rarely seen and often only as a blue flash disappearing downriver.

One of the many tributaries we explore – the River Inny that flows through Longford at Ballymahon – yields up a spectacular high-definition sequence of that darting angler fishing underwater, each twist and shimmy at more than 1000 razor-sharp frames per second.

Rather than telling the Shannon's tales from source to sea, we are following her journey through the seasons and through the day, but I make the journey along her length many times over.

Ireland's greatest geographical landmark is the longest river in these islands. For 340km, she carves her way through the heart of the island, almost splitting it in two. 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.

It's a thrill to stand at the bubbling source of this beast at the Shannon Pot, a dark pool welling up from underground with a sliver of a stream heading west and south that gathers into the mighty snake to the sea.

It's also wonderful to explore the great honeycomb of caves where the waters rise up and gather. Most of these dark reaches are wild and inaccessible to the general public, although the greater network can be explored in the magnificent Marble Arch caves in Fermanagh.

After many days' paddling and camping, it always came as a relief to fetch up to a warm bed at Athlone in an unexpected outpost of comfort and quirky charm at the Bastion B&B. Peruvian wall hangings, Irish art and there's even a stuffed otter, quietly mocking, I fancy, our thus-far empty hunt for the real animal in the wild. A warming feed at the fantastic Al Mezza Lebanese restaurant next door has me ready to face another freezing dawn on the river.

Always on any particular film, there is one creature that makes a special impression on me. This time it's the great crested grebe, an extraordinary-looking punk of a bird, once almost hunted to extinction for its exotic plumes. I had thought them quite scarce here until, along my journey, I discover almost every reed bed houses its own pair.

We spend quite some time with one couple, filming in intimate detail how they pain-stakingly build their lavish floating nests and tend their tiny chicks.

I fall for their grace, their parenting and their helpless, fluffy young. I've been fortunate that my work has led me to many little-seen and wonderful sights.

I've filmed with jaguars in South America, elephants in Africa, monkeys in Indonesia and tigers in India.

And still, one of the most breathtaking spectacles I've seen in nature I find here on the sleepy banks of the Shannon – the starlings gathering at dusk.

Trickling in slowly at first, then gaining volume and pace, these tiny birds finally draw into a pulsing, living cloud, forming and reforming truly extraordinary shapes in the evening sky.

This delicate monster, known as a murmuration, breaks like a wave over your head, a gentle roar of a million wings rising and falling. It's one of the quiet marvels happening unheeded every day on the banks and in the skies around this great life-giver.

On its journey, 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. Sadly, the endless changing beauty among the reed beds and the various domestic dramas playing out go largely unseen and unknown.

Perhaps this look behind the reeds and under the water may prod more people to go and explore for themselves the secrets of the Shannon's banks.

Colin Stafford-Johnson presents the two-part documentary 'The Secret Life of the Shannon' on RTE1 at 6.30pm tonight and next Sunday.

To view YouTube preview clips of the programme, go to www.rte.ie/tv/rtegoeswild/

Irish Independent