Special Report: How one man and his dog started an environmental movement in Cork

On day two of a three-part series Environmental & Sustainability Correspondent Pádraig Hoare discovers how a beach clean has grown into a 300-strong community group with a global outlook
Special Report: How one man and his dog started an environmental movement in Cork
Proinsias Ó Tuama of Ballynamona Clean Coasts walking his dog podge on the beach at Ballynamona, East Cork. Pictures: Dan Linehan

On a gloriously sunny July day, an average person standing on the beaches of East Cork, the cliffs around Ballycotton, the walkways of Youghal or the heights of Ardmore in West Waterford, would think it was as close as you could get to the perfect existence.

But nature in all its wrath is plundering these coastlines, and is now armed with an insidious new ally — human-made climate change.

Coastal erosion is a natural phenomenon, and is the price to pay for those living in such beautiful and tranquil communities. It is getting worse as our climate changes, with storms and weather patterns acting with increasing ferocity.

That does not mean local communities are accepting an inevitable fate. The rich and varied biodiversity of East Cork and West Waterford is one worth preserving and nurturing, according to the founder of Ballynamona Clean Coasts, Proinsias Ó Tuama.

Mr Ó Tuama is insistent that, while coastal erosion is a natural process, it is inconceivable that humans should contribute to their own downfall on the coastline, while there is so much worth fighting to keep.

He began cleaning the beach at Ballynamona strand in 2015, and soon the enthusiasm spiralled.

Proinsias Ó Tuama of Ballynamona Clean Coasts walking his dog podge on the dunes at Ballynamona, East Cork. 
Proinsias Ó Tuama of Ballynamona Clean Coasts walking his dog podge on the dunes at Ballynamona, East Cork. 

According to An Taisce, Clean Coasts Ballynamona acts as the main network support for many of the East Cork Clean Coasts groups, as well as arranging multiple clean-ups throughout the year.

“They are constantly engaging volunteers, schools, local politicians, and businesses in their efforts to keep the coastline of East Cork clean, and to raise awareness of marine pollution at both a local and national level.

The group successfully fund-raised for a quad and trailer which supports 40km of coastline cleanups in East Cork. They are currently fundraising for a rigid inflatable boat (rib) to help clean marine litter from offshore areas as well. 

Mr Ó Tuama said Clean Coasts Ballynamona began as a one-man show with two faithful dogs, and is now a 300-person community force.

“In year one, it was myself and two dogs, then it was myself and four people in a few months, then by the end of the year it was 20 people and two or three dogs. At the last count, we are up to almost 300 people and growing.

“I lived in Silver Strand in Ballycotton for five years. I would come at 7am and walk down and do my bit, and then after work in the evenings. You think 'someone has to do it', but that someone is yourself. You have to take a lead on it.

“There are 1.2km of beach, and we started here in Ballynamona. Then, before you know it, we’re down in Ardnahinch. Then the schoolchildren are asking can they come along — and, before you know it, the school has adopted eight beaches, and we are cleaning from Ballybrannigan over as far as Youghal. It’s 40km, or 1.5% of the Irish coastline.” 

Wild flowers on Ballynamona beach looking out towards the Ballycotton lighthouse in East Cork. 
Wild flowers on Ballynamona beach looking out towards the Ballycotton lighthouse in East Cork. 

Any conversation about coastal erosion must include biodiversity and climate change, according to Mr Ó Tuama.

“You can’t talk about coastal erosion unless you talk about biodiversity and climate change. The enthusiasm of the kids is what is driving an awful lot of it: When they ask with such passion, you feel you have to be able to tell them about the science and biodiversity. It is all intrinsically linked.

“It is one big huge sustainability jigsaw. You cannot look at one area without looking at the other. In the five years, I have brought about 800 students on the cleanups, and when you are adding in the community groups, you are looking at over 1,000. It’s a great way of building a rapport with students.

Cleaning a beach is a great way to get people to open their eyes between pointless plastic and what they are eating. It’s a way of getting people to look at the world around them.

“Protecting our communities from coastal erosion is going to be a process of hard engineering solutions, community initiatives like marram grass planting, and looking at our own energy footprint.

“Do you buy the apple from Tipperary or New Zealand, and the associated costs that come with that? Those simple decisions leave less carbon monoxide to produce all this. That will help with the increase in temperatures, sea ice melting, more fierce storm systems, and the like.” 

Corn sow thistle on Ballynamona beach looking out towards the Ballycotton lighthouse in East Cork. 
Corn sow thistle on Ballynamona beach looking out towards the Ballycotton lighthouse in East Cork. 

East Cork has a biodiversity network that would be the envy of anywhere in the world, he said. That heritage is worth the effort in salvaging dunes ravaged by increasing storms and human-made problems, he said.

“Here in Ballynamona, we have a dune system that includes 11 species of bird, it is a special area of protection. Because of coastal erosion, the freshwater lake here became an estuary — breeding numbers of birds here plummeted. This is still an internationally important place for birds. It is really important in the bigger scheme of things. On the whole of it, coastal erosion is key down here, the cliffs are collapsing and rubbish is being exposed.” 

The rubbish being exposed around Silver Strand is a stark example of the dangers of coastal erosion.

Back in the 1980s, a tract of land became a dumping ground, a de facto landfill, with all kinds of rubbish and rubble buried into the ground. Now that the cliffs are facing nature’s wrath, that historical rubbish has been exposed — plastic and metals from 30 years ago jutting out onto the cliffs of Ballycotton, blighting what is among the most beautiful seaside villages in Ireland.

The dunes at Ballynamona beach in East Cork. 
The dunes at Ballynamona beach in East Cork. 

Mr Ó Tuama said that historical rubbish from a time when climate change was not an emergency in people’s minds should act as a warning that we must act now to preserve the best of what we own.

“In year one, we removed 12 tonnes of marine litter from this beach, in a few beach cleans. The East Cork Biodiversity Group has been an excellent example of communities and Tidy Towns organisations coming together with a common purpose of public good — we've consulted on 450 acres and how we can help with a biodiversity plan on food, shelter, and safety.

But the good fight must go on. We’ve seen wild camping, broken glass, fires, rubbish left strewn everywhere. The fire brigade has to come here every year. To clean up takes hours on end.

“A national strategy to tackle coastal erosion would be the ultimate goal. We would love to see it. However, if that is not going to happen any time soon, then we at least need agencies and organisations like the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) properly funded.

“The NPWS is so underfunded that we have only recently got our ranger back. If we are serious about issues like coastal erosion and preserving and enhancing biodiversity in areas like East Cork, then we cannot pay lip service, it needs proper resourcing,” he said

"The communities have shown they are willing. Now we need back up politically."

'Climate change actions need to be shaped by local situation' 

Eugene Farrell: The marine spatial plan could fail to address the historic problems observed in local communities. Picture: Dan Linehan
Eugene Farrell: The marine spatial plan could fail to address the historic problems observed in local communities. Picture: Dan Linehan

One of the most respected authorities in the world on coastal erosion, Cork native and NUIG Galway lecturer Dr Eugene Farrell, has been looking closely at Ireland’s first marine spatial plan, expected to be completed by the end of 2020.

Dr Farrell, who has assisted the Maharees Conservation Association in Kerry in its efforts to fight the ravages of coastal erosion, said he feared the marine spatial plan would fail to seriously address the historic problems observed on the ground in local communities.

“We hear and read about climate change impacts every day in the media; we have new statutory laws for climate change legislated by our Government; and we research climate change science in our university," said Dr Farrell.

“What we don’t do effectively is (1) communicate science to the policymakers and planners; (2) engage with the relevant stakeholders for whom the new laws are supposedly designed to benefit — landowners, residents, visitors, managers; (3) create and mobilise scientific knowledge that can effectively inform and direct collective action with respect to the environment.” 

In relation to the national marine plan, Dr Farrell said from talking to leaders in the Government departments and workshops with planners, in charge of implementing new climate action policies, he observed that very few local authorities have a dedicated climate action co-ordinator.

Ballynamona beach in East Cork. 
Ballynamona beach in East Cork. 

Project teams in local authorities comprise mostly of engineers, with very little scope for geographers, geomorphologists, or environmental scientists to contribute to planning long-term protection projects, he said.

Land rights and land ownership issues are steeped in history in Ireland; the concept of not protecting an area from erosion is simply not talked about, said Dr Farrell.

“We must learn to accept that we cannot afford to protect the whole island against chronic erosion. We need to change a whole culture on how to manage erosion. Engineering is appropriate in some cases but nature-based solutions also have a place.

Local authorities do not have the resources to implement climate action plans at the moment. We can have the best policy and plans for erosion and flooding mitigation but without resourcing local authorities, then the changes will not occur.

It is very difficult to keep up with the constant stream of white and green papers on climate action; many of these documents are very technical and very dense, said Dr Farrell.

“Probably 95% of the climate action is currently focused on mitigation — solar panels, electric vehicles, retrofitting houses, etc, with a token to adaptation. We're not seeing any emphasis being put on things like a national coastal erosion management plan or a national coastal management plan. Historically, we relied on engineered solutions that mostly was, 'let's build a wall; if that doesn't work build it higher'.

“In terms of planning for erosion and flooding, in order to have any weight, erosion adaptation projects or plans need to be a Section 28 guidance document that councillors have to refer to when making the county development plans and zoning land. 

"If the climate adaptation remains simply as a national policy document, and it is not linked to planning legislation, then it is very hard for a planner to implement the contents.” 

Wild flowers on Ballynamona beach.
Wild flowers on Ballynamona beach.

Protecting planners to make the hard decisions needs to get better, said Dr Farrell.

“They come under pressure from politicians and land owners, for example. There are very clear OPW guidelines for local authorities for erosion and flood risk areas that very clearly state that you can’t zone land for residential use if it is at risk of flooding.

“These guidelines need to be explicitly stated within section 28 guidance documents on climate change adaptation so that there is no scope for decisions that go against these guidelines."

Dr Farrell and colleagues in the SFI Research Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine research and innovation, MaREI, are currently working to deliver a roadmap for coastal communities to deliver climate action adaptation plans.

This two-year project is funded by EPA and Marine Institute.

“Climate change adaptation does not occur in a vacuum," he said. "Any actions will need to be shaped by the existing situation in a local community. Some national policies will not be relevant, and some local needs won’t be covered by policy.

The effort to understand a local situation might also have a positive effect on local buy-in to proposed measures. We are using lessons learned from Maharees to Youghal in East Cork, and hopefully vice versa.

“In this project, we draw on specific examples from two case studies in Ireland that demonstrate the gap between local- and national-scale plans. The sites are quite different in geological and socio-ecological terms, and both face unique short- and long-term climate change-related pressures. The locations are also very different in terms in how far along both communities are in designing and delivering climate action plans to increase their resilience.

“Despite these differences, our research highlights specific shortfalls in the planning system that impact both of them. We also suggest how some of these shortfalls might be addressed or mitigated and, in doing so, we respond to some of the key topics in new national climate policy such as the role of collaborative practices in marine spatial planning processes and continual learning through marine and terrestrial planning comparisons and the opportunities for integration.”

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