Fears for shrinking sand dunes as weather patterns, tides, currents and sand movements change

Fears for shrinking sand dunes as weather patterns, tides, currents and sand movements change

Old Mick Cahill used to say there was an acre of ground for every day of the year in the sand-dunes of his native Rossbeigh, on the Ring of Kerry.

“If he came back, he’d be surprised to find there’s less than half of the dune area there now,” says his grandson, Michael.

With relentless coastal erosion, similar stories could be told about many areas.

Much of the damage to dunes is caused by nature; changing weather patterns, tides, currents and sand movement.

People also undermine such fragile areas. Trampling on the sand can expose grass roots and that leaves dunes vulnerable to strong winds.

Quad-biking, sand removal and land reclamation are other factors. Remedial work includes planting marram grass.

At present, the Save Ballyness Bay campaign is opposing several applications for fish-farming licences, in west Donegal, where upwards of 3,000 people have signed a petition supporting a campaign to stop shellfish farming in the area.

Plans include a network of roads through the dunes to service the oyster beds. Donegal objectors say there is potential to destroy a Special Area of Conservation and that if dunes are weakened, areas behind them could also be vulnerable.

Separately, the UCC-based Deep Maps project focused on the West Cork coastline. As storms become more intense and waves get higher, the south-west coast is at the mercy of the elements.

Wave height in the Atlantic can increase by up to 0.8m per year. Deep Maps found Bantry Bay and Dunmanus Bay to be of particular concern, while areas like Castlefreke and the Long Strand can lose up to 10m of dunes in a single storm.

Sometimes, however, the damage can be short-term as sand can be replaced by natural forces and shifting sands can renew the dune environment over time.

At Rossbeigh, powerful waves broke through the dunes in a storm in Christmas 2008. A huge breach opened up, splitting the area in two and leading to the creation of a new island.

The aforementioned Michael Cahill, a member of Kerry County Council who has lived all his life in Rossbeigh, says the breach is now at least a half-mile wide and growing.

"There’s also a danger of waves breaking through in two other locations along the beach. Dunes are being eroded every single day and I can see changes every time I walk the beach,’’ he says.

In 2014, the council built a rock embankment which protects the roadway behind the beach and that is holding solid.

However, the skeletal wreck of the Sunbeam — a ship which ran aground at Rossbeigh in 1903 and was a landmark on the beach for generations — was dislodged in a 2014 winter storm and sadly is no more.

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