Wexford beef farmer has lost 40 acres of his farm to the sea

Farmers in the southeast are losing stock and land to coastal erosion and the problem is set to escalate

William and Brian Barry on their farm in Maytown, Co Wexford. Photo: Pat Moore.
William and Brian Barry on their farm in Maytown, Co Wexford. Photo: Pat Moore.

Claire Mc Cormack

Wexford farmer Brian Barry has lost 40 acres of land to the sea since 1975.

The sucker farmer, based in Maytown, Tagoat, said the erosion has escalated over the last 15 years due to the crashing waves of severe winter storms.

"Our land is on the sea side of a railway bridge, we used to have three fields in front of it but there is only half a field left. We've lost a metre every year for the last 15 years," he said.

"We have to deal with the loss of the land, the loss of the grazing and it's dangerous for animals, we've lost a lot of them over the years too," he said.

Mr Barry said cattle are lured towards the treacherous cliff edges because the grass is sweeter.

"The grazing is sweeter and then they slip down and you can't get them back. They end up breaking their legs and they have to be destroyed," he said.

"It's getting worse, it's getting too unsafe to graze on the cliffs at all. We lose a calf or a bigger animal every two or three years. The beaches aren't accessible so we can't even travel to save them, it's a major operation" he said.

Although Mr Barry has electric fences along the edge, he claims holiday makers regularly take them down or batteries lose power.

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"The coastal erosion got really serious when the viaduct from the pier was closed. The sand used to come in and keep the beach high but now the sand has gone down by at least two meters so the cliff is much steeper and higher with less protection up to the grazing land," he said.

Mr Barry, whose family has been based on the land between Rosslare Strand and Rosslare Harbour for generations, is frustrated that local, regional and national authorities are not acting on coastal erosion and it's impact on agricultural land.

William and Brian Barry with som of the cattle on their farm in Co Wexford. Photo: Pat Moore.
William and Brian Barry with som of the cattle on their farm in Co Wexford. Photo: Pat Moore.

"We need direct protections, huge big walls of rocks, that would save us.

"I always had hope that there would be action the closer the sea got to the railway line but it just doesn't seem to be a priority," he said.

"It's a big worry for all the people living here no matter what time of the year it is. We can't control the weather but more could be done to protect us, at the rate it's going into the sea there will be no farm left for my family," he said.

Gerry Forde, senior engineer in the environmental department at Wexford county council said 90pc of the Model County's 250km coastline is prone to erosion.

"The bulk of our coastline is soft and sandy so it's very vulnerable. There are a few places where the coastline is extended out but the bulk of it is receding.

"In certain parts of the county we would have gone beyond the 2025 levels already because there have been some severe winter storms," he said.

Areas that have suffered acute coastal erosion include: Kilpatrick, Courtown, Donaghmore, Rosslare, St Margaret's, Morriscastle, Poulshone, Ardamine and Kimicheal and others.

Last year holiday homes in Donaghmore had to be abandoned because they were in danger of collapsing into the sea.

Last month Wexford county council implemented anti-erosion measures to protect a church and graveyard in the same area as they qualifed as public property.

However, Mr Forde said there is very little hope when it comes to protecting agricultural land from coastal erosion as it's too expensive.

"The OPW fund that goes into protection works has to pass a cost benefit analysis so it's very difficult to justfify spending money on defending agricultural land because there is no value for money in it.

"It could cost anything from €1m to €2m per kilometer to protect coastline with a tiered barrier of large rocks.

"If a farmer has a half a km of coastline, it could cost half a million to protect it and he might only lose a couple of acres so it just doesn't make financial sense in terms of state funding," he said.

Mr Forde said the situation is having a long term psychological impact on farmers in the affected areas - mainly beef farmers.

"It's difficult for farmers because they have a great affinity to the land and the sea and when they lose their land it's very sad and unfortunate.

"But the reality is that it's unlikely that we are going to get funding to protect these areas so farmers will continue to lose land," he said.

Although Mr Forde believes the county is over the worst of it for this year, the situation will be closely monitored ahead of next winter.

"It's not a recent phenomenon but it is accelerating and that could be the affects of global warming as well, we get more severe storms and sea swells.

"It's not the first couple of storms that do the damage it's when you get a succession of storms that sweep the sand out and that makes the coastline very vulnerable," he said.

'Beach nourishment could halt the march of erosion'

The Irish coastline will be 30 metres further inland  by 2050, a leading engineer has warned.

Dr Jimmy Murphy, senior lecturer school of engineering at UCC, says coastal erosion is "not a critical priority" for the Government. He also stresses that people living in vulnerable areas need to be better educated on the future threat to their land.

"Coastal erosion is always happening but it's only when you have a big storm that it comes to the forefront.

"On average the Irish coastline erodes one metre per year, if you project that forward in 30 years time the coastline with be 30 metres further in than it is now," he said. He said Ireland is lagging behind the EU by not having an overall strategy on how to manage the Irish coastline.

"There isn't a plan in place in terms of protecting a particular coastline and what we do if a coastline starts eroding at a faster rate. Do we let it happen? Or do we have a managed retreat where we move everyone out?"

"In the UK they are currently looking at whether farmers should be compensated or whether property owners should be relocated through policies of managed realignment."

He believes better education is crucial going forward.

"Erosion is a natural process, but people need to be better informed as to some of the hard decisions that might have to be made down the line in terms of paying millions to protect their home if they buy or build along the coast."

As well as drawing up a long term coastal management plan, Dr Murphy believes the Government should consider alternatives to expensive revetments - sloping rock structures placed on banks or cliffs - to protect areas.

"Internationally they look at beach nourishment. If you dredge sand from offshore and dump it on the beach the beach will be better protected.

"That is a natural solution that works but we don't employ it in Ireland," he said.

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