The Maharees and Castlegregory in west Kerry have been described as the best worst-kept secret in Europe.
On a sunny July day, that statement is hard to argue, with the rolling hills, glorious beaches, and mighty waves all combining to create a holidaymaker’s nirvana right here in Ireland.
However, the raw beauty and sense of wellness is in danger. Those of us who have flocked here to feel alive are paradoxically helping to kill it by stealth.
Coastal erosion is a natural phenomenon that we must accept — what nature giveth, nature must taketh away.
But people, without realising it, are exacerbating the problem, oblivious to the fact that simple activities such as walking on a sand dune can make nature’s wrath even more vicious.
The Maharees Conservation Association has been hailed by groups such as An Taisce as a beacon of community activism, held up as the paradigm of good practice when it comes to fighting back to save their precious resources from the threat of nature’s ferocity.
Association secretary Martha Farrell said that, while the community loves its tourism industry, it could do with more help from a national authority point of view in preserving it.
There will be no tourists coming if the Maharees becomes impenetrable in the future due to nature’s wrath being compounded by people’s inadvertent harmful behaviour.
“This area is designated as a special area of conservation, and it just has a rich natural heritage here.
"There is amazing biodiversity — from the natterjack toad, with 80% of the country’s population here in The Maharees, rare species of orchid and more — and they need to be protected.
“We don’t have a ranger for the area, and we don’t have a site officer.
"The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is an excellent service but it is underfunded. Kerry County Council has been excellent when we need action taken.
"Local politicians have been excellent when we need to highlight an issue. But that overall national strategy — one vision to tackle the issue of coastal erosion and preserving our biodiversity — is lacking, and that is a real worry that we have to live with until it is taken seriously,” Ms Farrell said.
Historically, people in the community have tackled pinch points of coastal erosion themselves, many at great cost, according to Maharees Conservation Association chairman Martin Lynch.
"The council would do it in parts, private individuals have done it at great expense, with €40,000 being spent in some cases.
“A lot of the pinch points have been solved, protected by rocks. But the longer you go on, 20m of a high dune is gone, back into the low dune, and it becomes a free-for-all. You see the coastal squeeze.
"When you are on the beach, there is effectively very little damage you can do — it is the transit here that causes the problem.
"But you don’t see the damage done by wild camping and walking on the dunes in the heart of summer.”
It is only in wintertime, when nature is at its most ferocious, that the damage of storms and the dangers of coastal erosion are seen, he said.
“The storms in 2015 were very serious. Everyone is up in arms when something has to be done when it comes. But when there are benign winters, the urgency to tackle it goes.
"That is what happens when dunes are trampled and wrecked in the summertime. Nature is claiming back what is hers, and coastal communities are at serious risk,” Mr Lynch added.
Ms Farrell said the fragmented nature of responsibility for areas of conservation and communities prone to coastal erosion had to be resolved once and for all — not bits and pieces being assigned to various Government departments.
“You ask where the responsibility lies and, at the moment, it is in housing, because that is where the NPWS is gone.
"There is a bit in heritage, then you have tourism. I don’t know if it really is appreciated what is happening here. We accept the point made that tourism is a short season.
“This area is crying out for the authorities to take it on.
"Camping, driving, and the like destroy the marram grass, and when the wind comes, barren areas of sand are blown out. One small hole becomes a very big one over storm seasons.
“The council has tried to help us with car parks, but it is very difficult with the fragmented designation of various areas. A co-ordinated effort as part of a serious national strategy is needed now.
"The Government needs to really fund if it is serious about biodiversity. We don’t have a ranger, we don’t have a site officer.
"This area would have seriously deteriorated if not for our interventions as a community. The NPWS give us as much support as they can but, without a ranger or a site officer, it is very difficult.”
Kerry County Council has engaged a coastal erosion and flood mitigation study from Brandon to Ballyheigue, which will help, according to the community activists.
Ms Farrell said: “We are at an emergency stage. When we started the Maharees Conservation Association, we didn’t even realise what we have here.
"We are trying to make people aware of it, but it could be done in a more organised, structured, and managed way.
"People will do their best to protect it and be mindful of their responsibilities if they are guided to do so,” she said.
An example of that action was the association tackling the area known as Magherabeg Cut.
“Here in The Maharees, there is the main access, the main right of way," Ms Farrell said.
"About 500m south of Magharabeg Cut, another access point was evolving. It was unofficial, people began camping and walking over the dunes, and we had the beginnings of another breach in the dunes.
"We fenced off the area and planted it. That dune has risen, with the marram trapping the sand.
"A lot of people would have been critical because it prevented people from parking or from sitting there, but I think a lot of people now realise it was worth it.
The improvement we have seen over four years since we tackled it in 2016 is proof of that," she said.
The community wants people to come here to enjoy and appreciate The Maharees and Castlegregory.
“It is beautiful and it is precious," Ms Farrell said.
"It is an outdoor classroom. It’s quite complementary to have those experiences along with the likes of surfing at our beaches, 11km along Brandon Bay.
“But we are at a stage where areas like this and Banna in the north of Kerry, Derrynane in south Kerry, Ballynamona in Cork — they need protection as coastal erosion strikes and is made worse by human activities.
"You can’t leave it to volunteers to do it, I think, in the long run."
The Maharees Peninsula is dominated by unique ecosystems that have diverse plant life.
Dr Farrell and his team conducted a study in The Maharees as part of ongoing research in the area.
The Maharees Peninsula is a 6km-long tombolo extending into the Atlantic Ocean on the north side of the Dingle Peninsula. The area is dominated by coastal sand dunes that are unique ecosystems with diverse plant communities and the occurrence of rare, endemic species.
Dr Farrell said: “The area has been classified as a Natura 2000 site in order to protect these niche habitats and the biodiversity they support [eg, natterjack toad]."
Unfortunately, these fragile dune ecosystems have become increasingly impacted over the past decades by stronger storms causing chronic dune erosion and flooding, as well as damages caused by misuse and overuse by tourists and residents, which has a population of about 250.
Dr Farrell said: “The ongoing loss of dunes in the Maharees — an average shoreline retreat of 0.75m since 2000 — has been repeated in other parts of the world.
“Beach-dune systems are incredibly important coastal features, offering a diverse array of ecosystem goods and services, including recreation, coastal defence, carbon sequestration, and critical habitat to many plants and animals.
"These goods and services, however, are susceptible to the effects of climate change and anthropogenic activities,” he said.
Half of the beaches in the world might have disappeared by the end of the century, due to coastal erosion, according to a study by the Joint Research Centre of the EU.
However, according to the study, published earlier this year in Nature Climate Change, climate action could prevent 40% of that erosion.
A substantial proportion of the world’s sandy coastline is already eroding, and that could be exacerbated by climate change, the study found.
The scientists combined 35 years of satellite coastal observations with 82 years of climate and sea-level rise projections.
They also simulated 100m storm events and measured the resulting, global coastal erosion.
They found that reducing greenhouse-gas emissions could prevent 40% of the projected erosion.
However, even if global warming is curbed, societies will still need to adapt and better protect sandy beaches from erosion.
The study’s abstract read: “Sandy beaches occupy more than one-third of the global coastline and have high socio-economic value related to recreation, tourism, and ecosystem services.
"Beaches are the interface between land and ocean, providing coastal protection from marine storms and cyclones.
“However, the presence of sandy beaches cannot be taken for granted, as they are under constant change, driven by meteorological, geological, and anthropogenic factors.
"A substantial proportion of the world’s sandy coastline is already eroding, a situation that could be exacerbated by climate change," the study found.
“Moderate greenhouse-gas emission mitigation could prevent 40% of shoreline retreat.
"Projected shoreline dynamics are dominated by sea-level rise for the majority of sandy beaches, but in certain regions the erosive trend is counteracted by accretive, ambient shoreline changes; for example, in the Amazon, East and Southeast Asia, and the north tropical Pacific.
“A substantial proportion of the threatened sandy shorelines are in densely populated areas, underlining the need for the design and implementation of effective adaptive measures.”
The EU Science Hub said the bloc’s Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change aims to make Europe more resilient and minimise the impact of unavoidable climate change.
It stressed that coastal zones are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which challenges the climate resilience and adaptive capacity of our coastal societies.
“This requires a strong EU strategy, and preparedness actions by member states aimed at reducing the vulnerability of their citizens and economies to coastal hazards, in order to minimise future climate impacts in Europe.
“The EC floods directive requires member states to assess if all water courses and coastlines are at risk from flooding, to map the flood extent and assets and humans at risk in these areas, and to take adequate and co-ordinated measures to reduce this flood risk.
“Maintaining healthy, sandy beaches is an effective coastal-protection measure, and has environmental benefits. Several sandy environments are included in the EC Habitats Directive, as they are related to protected species and many of the Natura-protected areas include sandy coastlines.”
20% of the Irish coast is at risk of erosion and 6% is in immediate danger, says a world-renowned expert
It never hurts to have a world-renowned expert on coastal erosion on your doorstep.
Dr Eugene Farrell is a Cork native who lectures in the Department of Geography at NUI Galway.
He is the director of NUI Galway’s MSc programme 'Coastal and Marine Environments: Physical Processes, Policy and Practice', and his expertise in coastal erosion is widely respected around the world.
Dr Farrell completed the Earth Science Bachelor of Science programme at UCC in 1995 and the Masters of Science programme in geography during his tenure at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in 1998.
He worked in geographic information systems (GIS) in the California real estate industry for four years, mapping natural and environmental hazards, before moving to Italy in 2003 to work at the Università degli Studi di Firenze on coastal research and management projects along the Tuscany coastline.
He completed a PhD in Geography at Texas A&M University in 2012, is a National Science Foundation (NSF) fellow, and visiting scholar at James Cook University, Queensland, Australia.
In January 2012, he was appointed postdoctoral associate at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Science, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
He also happens to adore coming to the Maharees, and did not have to be asked twice to assist the Maharees Conservation Association in its bid to preserve the precious coastal heritage.
He said the impact of humans can be equally damaging on the coast, which "will deteriorate even further if predicted population increases come to pass — an extra million people on the island by 2040 according to Ireland 2040, which is the guide for strategic planning and development across the country over the next two decades and beyond".
“The impact of people is something we can control but only if we empower local residents and communities to work with local authorities and management agencies," he added.
Real planning is needed to tackle dangers such as coastal erosion in Ireland, especially vulnerable areas like the Maharees, Dr Farrell said.
“We need to focus on extreme storms — we cannot prevent but we can adapt and build better models," he said.
"We need to focus on visitors and users of the coast — increasing numbers, which we can control, and larger planning structures — we need rapid change via legislation and national policy.
“Solutions from these need to be implemented on the ground in collaboration with local communities.
"Engineered solutions are appropriate sometimes. Other times, nature-based solutions are more suitable; sometimes we simply do not know.”
One stopping point has been the very slow enactment of the Marine Planning and Development Management Bill, Dr Farrell said.
“We are hoping this legislation gets signed off soon as part of Ireland’s first marine plan. Until such time, the coast remains the problem child that no authority or department wants.
"No one department has the requisite resources to manage it correctly and be able to resolve conflicts between all the different stakeholders — residential, commercial, recreational, scientific, environmental, cultural.
"Therefore, the case for building resilience in our coastal regions is urgent, given that changing ocean climates will produce more extreme storm events in the North-East Atlantic and increased pressures from human activities and visitors are already creating pressures on rural coastal communities and coastal ecosystems.
"These two diametrically opposed pressures require very different management interventions,” he said.
The southwest region is particularly vulnerable, Dr Farrell added.
“The climate change projections of sea-level rise and storm surge — a 30% increase — for the foreseeable future suggest that areas in the southwest will most likely experience the largest increases.
The EPA Report 223, 'A summary of state of knowledge of climate change impacts for Ireland', states that 350km2 of land is vulnerable if sea level rises by one metre.
“Increased coastal flooding will also occur from impacts of sea-level rise and storm surges, which will impact coastal communities and land/water quality.
"Average annual erosion rates are varying between 0.2m and 2m per year but with large variability, depending on local circumstances.
"There is also evidence that these rates are increasing the past decade. Some estimates have over 200 hectares of land being lost to the sea every year,” he said.
The Heritage Council and Fáilte Ireland recently published a report, ‘Climate Change, Heritage and Tourism: Implications for Ireland’s Coast and Inland Waterways’ that examined the potential impact of climate change on the tourism industry and our natural heritage.
Dr Farrell said: “They recognised that many of our cultural heritage sites located on the coast — Martello towers, castles, historic houses, and promontory forts — are highly vulnerable to storm damage and erosion, which will adversely impact visitor enjoyment.
"European-funded projects like Cherish are working with coastal communities in Ireland to develop mutual understanding of coastal erosion to local heritage assets and reduce the impact of climate change on local economies.
“Without investment in basic amenities such as parking, toilets, clean water, camping, RV facilities, dumping, the user experience is not only impacted but the existing coastal ecosystems such as sand dunes will continue to break down.
"These dunes are the first line of defence from storm surge.”
It is a bleak forecast unless action is taken.
“What we do know is that Ireland does not have the money to defend the whole coastline and the cold reality is that the social fabric of rural communities, already tearing at the seams, will break down completely as areas are left to defend for themselves and eventually be abandoned for higher ground," he said.
"We already see this occurring in many areas along our coast.
“The Government clearly acknowledges this and has responded accordingly by providing both policy and legislative frameworks to make the transition to 'climate resilience' by 2050. There are now climate action regional offices (CAROs) set up to help plan how we can transition to a state of climate resilience.
"However, these offices require support on the ground with expertise in the science and a planning structure that enables change, as opposed to repeating legacy practices that will not be suitable in the future.”