Another Life: Shoreline shifts as tides come to reclaim loaned land

The storms of the past few weeks highlight the complexity of Ireland’s sand dunes

Tracks of Thallabawn: grey dunes backed by machair. Illustration: Michael Viney

Tracks of Thallabawn: grey dunes backed by machair. Illustration: Michael Viney

Sat, Jan 18, 2014, 01:00

The wilder the shore, the more natural the impact of stormy seas. It’s only when man-made works are undermined or demolished – sea walls, car parks, cemeteries, Mesolithic middens – that there’s much headline stuff to report. Thus, news of natural change at Thallabawn is offered with deference to more troubling human costs elsewhere. Besides, getting into my waders to ford the river channel is becoming a bit of a struggle.

First signs of inundation: far-flung tidelines of seaweed and plastic bottles in the fields behind the strand and a long way up the boreen. First signs of wind speed: tawny curtains of dead marram grass, wrenched from the dunes, cladding every fence along the shore. Plus sheets of plastic borne from Connemara, across the bay. Then lifebuoy posts at drunken angles, newly bereft of their rings.

Coastal erosion, of course, around at the seaward side: great shark bites into the dunes, spilling random gobbets of sand and marram. Scattered around them, sea-pink cushions snatched from the tops of far island cliffs. A few bare driftwood tree trunks, rushed ashore too soon to grow gooseneck barnacles. Leisurely tides may bring stranger things.

Just one drowned sheep, or what the ravens had bloodily left of it, lay in a tattered mattress of wool. But below the ravaged scarp of the dunes, on scallops of new sand, the hieroglyphs of wildlife tracks brought the same news as always: the dainty commas of pattering rabbits, pursued, here and there, by an early-morning fox; the precise, crisply defined prints of an otter. Out at the edge of an ebbing tide, the little flocks of sanderlings sifted to and fro, as usual. After storms, life – and death – goes on.

Ireland’s sand-dune systems are the product of 5,000 years, as offshore glacial sediments were reworked by waves and wind. From little embryonic dunes clustering around tideline plants – salt-tolerant lyme grass and sand couch – to slopes and ramparts built and anchored around deep-rooting marram, to the inward “grey” dunes felted by mosses and lichens and the first herbs and shrubs – even, sometimes, trees. At Thallabawn – part of a system mapped as Dooaghtry – the grey dunes are backed by machair, the soggy, storm-levelled lawns unique to the northwest coast.

The ecological value of dunes lies in the life of their many microhabitats: wetter or drier, exposed or sheltered, pristine or vulnerable to hoofs, boots or tyres, or the more misguided defences of county councils. Between waves and terrestrial land, in constant shifts and successions, all the habitats are interdependent, along with their plant life, snails, bugs and beetles, and birds (the chough, for example).

Monitoring survey
Their complexity is all too clear in the 140-odd foolscap pages of the latest wildlife manual from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. It is a monitoring survey for the European Commission of some 40 prime sand-dune systems spread around the Irish coast, six years after they were last examined. It took four ecologists (from BEC Consultants) 18 months, armed with digital mapping gadgets and much impeccable “expert judgment” to assess 10 kinds of dune habitat and the conservation prospects for their future. Some of their multitude of sampling marches needed 16 monitoring stops, at which, among other demands, the presence and condition of any of 45 listed plant species needed consideration. There were, here and there, access problems – memorably, a bull at Sheskinmore, Co Donegal.

None of the habitats – all chosen as threatened or rare – has yet reached the prized “favourable” status. Here at Thallabawn, I am sad to see, “historic dumping and overgrazing have combined with the extreme weather conditions which affect the west of Ireland and have led to considerable erosion of the fixed dune area”. We’ve lost 1.68 hectares, apparently, since the last check, which is a lot. This all before the last storms.

Given the dramatic reports of damage at Tramore, Co Waterford, I sought news this week of the great bar of sand dunes that protects the remarkable tidal lagoon of the Backstrand beside the town, subject of the €25 new, absorbing and deeply lovely book by the poet Mark Roper and photographer Paddy Dwan. The dunes have a narrow and vulnerable neck, and beside it is the old mass grave dating from the shipwreck of the Seahorse in 1816.

Mark Roper tells me that, although the storm surges swept over the neck into the saltmarsh and covered it with boulders, it withdrew without further harm. His text, with Dwan’s splendid pictures, shows what natural and communal riches would be lost if the Backstrand were bared to the ocean. But, as he writes in passing, “all land is a ghost given up for a while by water, then taken away”.

The Backstrand (€25) is available from

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