'Part of the farm will be flooded and eaten away in 20 years'

Farmers in the south-east are fighting a losing battle against the impact of coastal erosion, reports Claire Fox

'The sea is our biggest threat': Jamie Ryan on his farm at Ballytrent, Rosslare, Co Wexford. The farm is being affected by coastal erosion to the extent that he can no longer operate machinery on some parcels of ground near the coast. Photo: Patrick Browne
'The sea is our biggest threat': Jamie Ryan on his farm at Ballytrent, Rosslare, Co Wexford. The farm is being affected by coastal erosion to the extent that he can no longer operate machinery on some parcels of ground near the coast. Photo: Patrick Browne
Erosion: ICSA president Edmond Phelan is losing a little bit of land to the sea each year at his beef farm holding in Fenor, Co Waterford. Photo: Patrick Browne
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

Wexford farmer Jamie Ryan is fearful that in 20 years' time, half of his farm will be flooded due to severe coastal erosion.

As a member of Rosslare Harbour RNLI, Jamie is well aware of the potential devastating affects the power of the sea can have, but now the issue of the sea's force is coming a bit too close to home for his liking.

Based in the scenic surroundings of Ballytrent House near Rosslare Harbour, which was the ancestral home of Irish Home Rule parliamentarian John Redmond, Mr Ryan is concerned that the farm which has been in his family for six generations could be eaten away by the ocean waves over the course of the next two decades.

"Parts of the coastline are very sandy. At the moment we can deal with the situation, but 20 years from now it could be a different story altogether. Parts of it will be flooded in 20 years and could be eaten away," says the farmer who tends to wheat, barley and oats on the 200-acre farm, along with 100 Limousin sucklers and weanlings.

Erosion: ICSA president Edmond Phelan is losing a little bit of land to the sea each year at his beef farm holding in Fenor, Co Waterford. Photo: Patrick Browne
Erosion: ICSA president Edmond Phelan is losing a little bit of land to the sea each year at his beef farm holding in Fenor, Co Waterford. Photo: Patrick Browne

"One particularly dangerous area of the farm is where there is a cliff drop of 40-50 feet. I can't top it or go near it with a fence or any machine as I would be wary that the cliff could give way."

Jamie estimates that he has already lost in the region of 30ft of land on the farm which is located on the sandy shores between Rosslare and Carnsore Point.

"The sea is our biggest boundary and is also our biggest threat because it's eroding the sand dunes that protect the coast, and in places many of the fences are gone."

Jamie isn't sure what the solution to coastal erosion is. He is aware of farmers who have tried to solve the problem with rock armour but knows that planning permission for acquiring these is difficult and that they are not the most attractive to look at.

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Potato farmer Patrick Pettit tried to solve the issue of coastal erosion on an area of leased land he has in the nearby St Margaret's Beach area by tipping soil near the coast, but he says every year, the force of the sea is eating away at his fields' banks.

"An action plan is needed for the coast to save the land. Periodic maintenance of the coast would be the best solution to prevent more erosion, but it would be difficult.

"It's a worry that every year another bit of the land will be gone," says the third generation tillage farmer who is based in Carne.

Karin Dubsky of Coastwatch Ireland, who has a small holding in Tintern Abbey, says that she is aware of farmers whose Single Farm Payment has reduced down through the years as their land area has reduced due to erosion.

"We do a coastal survey annually and coastal shrinking keeps coming up as an issue. People always say that coastal erosion is the number one threat."

Ms Dubsky says that a national erosion policy needs to be devised with the involvement of farm organisations as farmers have already suffered marked losses of land.

Climate change

Dr Eugene Farrell, who is a lecturer in Physical Geography at NUI Galway, says that approximately 30pc of the Irish coastline is at risk of coastal erosion, particularly on the south and east coasts and isolated areas on the west coast.

Some estimates maintain that over 200 hectares of land are being lost to the sea each year.

"The climate change projections of sea level rise (0.55-0.60 rise based on IPCC medium scale scenarios) and storm surge (30pc increase) for the foreseeable future suggest that areas in the south-west will most likely experience largest increases," says Dr Farrell.

"Average annual erosion rates vary between 0.2m-2m per year but there is large variability depending on local circumstances. There is also with evidence that these rates are increasing the past decade."

Dr Farrell adds that coastal management in Ireland is the "stepchild that nobody wants to talk about" and with the increased impact of climate change, coastal communities will only further feel the effects of erosion.

"More extreme weather events will become more frequent in Ireland due to climate change. Sea levels will also increase, which will allow storms to attack further up the sea. We need a national mitigation plan to be laid out and also community-led initiatives should be the way forward."

However, Dr Farrell feels that farmers will find it hard to "fight the economics of coastal erosion".

"Farmers will lose out on the cost/benefit of it all. It's very expensive to protect farmland from coastal erosion, especially if it will have to be replaced every few years.

"Authorities have to make decisions about who to protect. They've to weigh up options. For example, protecting a road that will need access for ambulances and saving homes are more important to protect than a field eroding."

He explains that a number of farmers feel very threatened by the loss of their land and that it is also impacting them emotionally.

"The loss of land for farmers can hurt them psychologically as land means a lot to them. Farmers are struggling to find a voice in this debate. The argument is also there that farmers get compensated when their land is purchased for roads by authorities but don't get any compensation when it's taken away by natural processes."

Senior engineer at Wexford County Council, Gerry Forde, says that 90pc of the Wexford coast is soft and sandy which makes it vulnerable to the sea. His department is currently in the process of devising a report as many areas of the coast have already eroded more than predicted.

"We're looking at the various reports that have been done on coastal erosion, we're walking the entire coast and using drone footage which we will package together to see what is the best solution. Erosion has also escalated in some of the more exposed areas more than what we thought it would have. It's hard to put a finger on how much of Wexford has decreased. One of the most iconic examples is of a road in Ballyconnigar which was built 30-40 years ago and already needs to be fixed due to erosion."

Rock armour

Mr Forde says the council will seek funding from the Office of Public Works, but acknowledged that it would be hard for farmers to reap the rewards of the funding as it costs €1-3m to protect 1km of coast which would have to be maintained every few years.

"Farmers are often also not allowed to get planning permission for rock armour as lots of the coast area are Special Areas of Conservation which cannot be interfered with."

Mr Forde says that it will approach the OPW for funding to protect the heavily populated and tourist hub of the Rosslare region and that it has contacted Irish Rail about a stretch of the cliff near the railway line which could be in serious danger of disappearing. Local Independent councillor Ger Carthy feels that more emphasis should be put on the affect coastal erosion is having on farmers.

"A lot of the coastal area is made up of farmers. It's having a detrimental impact on agricultural land and no action is being taken to help them. Farmers are willing to buy rock armour and do what they can to protect the land, but it is so difficult to get a foreshore licence. Farmers are losing acres and acres of land."

Recently elected ICSA president Edmond Phelan is losing a little bit of land to the sea each year at his beef farm holding in Fenor, Co Waterford.

"We lose a little bit of land each year, if we get very wet weather in the winter a bit of the cliff collapses and we'd keep the animals and the electric fence well back from the cliff.

While coastal erosion is a concern on Edmond's farm, he says trespassing is a more pressing one.

"Last year during the height of the drought some people took down the stakes holding our wire and used them for firewood, if anything happened the place could have gone up in flames. Other times I have collected buckets of rubbish left behind from trespassers."

Why West Clare farmers are hoping Trump clan will build that (sea) wall

It's not only farmers on the south-east coast of Ireland whose farms are feeling the effects of coastal erosion, farmers in west Clare have been battling with the elements for decades.

Farmers in the region are still reeling from a storm that battered the county's coast in February 2014, and while some repairs have taken place, Doonbeg suckler farmer and Clare IFA chair Willie Hanrahan said farmers are struggling to get allocated money for erosion damage.

"There doesn't seem to be a willingness there to help farmers. There was supposedly €1m for us but farmers lost out on the cost benefit analysis of it all. Farmers are concerned about the huge potential loss of land," said Mr Hanrahan.

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John Flanagan

In an effort to tackle coastal erosion to the Trump International golf resort in Doonbeg, Co Clare, the Trump family plans to build a 38,000 tonne coastal barrier at the resort to prevent further erosion to the golf links.

The plan was given the green light by Clare County Council in December 2017 but is currently pending a decision from An Bord Pleanála, while a petition against it has received over 100,000 signatures.

Local suckler farmer John Flanagan (pictured) recently told the Farming Independent that locals support the plan as they know if something isn't done now it could end up costing millions of euro to do in 20 years' time.

Destroyed

"Our coast is being destroyed by the force of the Atlantic Ocean.

"My farm is below sea level here because of the force of the ocean most days. Something has to be done," said Mr Flanagan.

"Environmentalists are shouting that it'll ruin the natural landscape, but they're not providing any other solution and are just whingeing."

An Taisce, Save the Waves Coalition and Save Doughmore-Doonbeg Beach community group were some of the groups that appealed the decision made by Clare County Council, however Trump International has warned that if action isn't taken, 36pc of the dune habitat could be lost over 50 years.

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