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A summer of fun on our sand dunes could cause decades of damage

Pól Ó Conghaile


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Bertra, Co Mayo. Photo: Michael Mc Laughlin / Fáilte Ireland

Bertra, Co Mayo. Photo: Michael Mc Laughlin / Fáilte Ireland

The remains of a campfire by the coast. Photo: An Taisce / Clean Coast

The remains of a campfire by the coast. Photo: An Taisce / Clean Coast

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Bertra, Co Mayo. Photo: Michael Mc Laughlin / Fáilte Ireland

There are lots of blowouts happening this summer. We’re travelling, gathering, celebrating. And when the weather’s good, we love doing that on beaches.

But there are other blowouts happening, too — ones I’m only beginning to learn about.

‘Blowout’ is also a term for the hollows or bowls carved out of sand dunes by the wind. Such shape-shifting can be natural, but it can also be forced by us.

The grasses holding dunes together are very sensitive to trampling, and once that wind gets in, it can do a lot of damage. Blowouts can erode critical buffers between the sea and coastal communities.

“While that vegetation can deal with a lot of storms and stuff, it’s very vulnerable to trampling and human activities,” says David Mellett of the Atlantic Seaboard North’s Climate Action Regional Office (Caro). “Once the sand blows away out of that coastal cell, it’s lost.”

Ireland has four Caros, and together with local authorities, communities and NUI Galway, they’re running a #ProtectOurDunes campaign to raise awareness of the importance and fragility of our sand dunes (caro.ie).

In a way, I wish I hadn’t heard about it.

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When I think of sand dunes, a big smile crosses my face. I imagine climbing up and sliding down, working up a sweat before belting into the sea at places like Curracloe, Portsalon, Brittas or Barleycove. I think of coastal walks in Bertra or Dollymount. I don’t think I’m trashing the environment.

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The remains of a campfire by the coast. Photo: An Taisce / Clean Coast

The remains of a campfire by the coast. Photo: An Taisce / Clean Coast

The remains of a campfire by the coast. Photo: An Taisce / Clean Coast

While one person or family may not make a difference, however, those people add up. Think of summer crowds walking, playing or lighting fires. Think of sports teams training, of campers, horses and dogs. Think of quad bikes scrambling. To a lesser or greater extent, they all take a toll.

Lots of Irish coastal communities are doing inspiring work protecting and enhancing dunes, but a busy summer “could set these sites back decades,” Caro says. “What looks like coastal erosion can often be human erosion.”

Why protect dunes?

In our age of climate change, they can provide natural defences against coastal erosion and flooding. The Netherlands is protecting dunes as an alternative to expensive coastal protection works, for example, and visitors to The Maharees in Co Kerry will notice the difference efforts like chestnut fencing and marram grass planting has made.

In Gran Canaria this year, I noticed signs asking beachgoers to stick to trails on the famous Maspalomas dunes. Global awareness is growing.

Coastal dunes “can be a big part of our fight against climate change and storm impacts,” says Dr Kevin Lynch, a geomorphologist at NUIG. “They are an excellent, flexible coastal protection.”

As habitats, they can also be home to orchids, toads, lizards and ground-nesting birds.

“This was new to me too,” Mellett says. “I used to love running up and rolling down dunes as a child. But it’s just to raise awareness of it... I suppose the basic message is to try and stay off them.”

Stick to the beach, he says, or follow designated pathways and local signage.


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