The battle for the beach


Tenant farmers of Roundstone, Co Galway are winning their  fight against the Atlantic. Lorna Siggins reports

It was one of those memorable, final moments in Gabriel Byrne's film, Into the West - Papa Riley setting fire to his Traveller caravan and releasing his late wife's spirit as the white horse, Tir na nÓg, appeared before Riley's young sons, Tito and Ossie. But when Byrne, alias Riley, lit that match on Trá Garbh, he did so with a special permit. For the beach is part of a unique commonage arrangement involving a group of tenant farmers. It is also at the heart of a committed community battle against coastal erosion.

Now, some eight years after the first fences were put up and marram grass planted, the tenant farmers of Gurteen and Dog's Bay are winning their war against the Atlantic. For James Conneely, Joe Rafferty and Pat Mullen, it is particularly satisfying - although they realise that this will always be "work in progress", Conneely, a school bus driver and sheep farmer, Rafferty, a retired sheep farmer and Mullen, caravan park owner, joke about the fact that they aren't "your typical environmentalists".

Rafferty remembers the visiting doctor who first alerted them to the challenge. "She would notice the changes every year, how the sands and grass were being eaten away by the prevailing westerlies and the tide," Rafferty says. "She told us we were going to lose our beaches to the sea, and it took us a while to realise that she was right."

The spectacular Gurteen Bay/Dog's Bay landscape is characterised by a tombolo - where beaches are formed when sediment is deposited in the slack water between an island and the mainland. There are no more than half a dozen examples of this in the 32 counties, according to scientists familiar with the area, such as Dr J.M. van Groenendael of the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

The pure calcareous material which makes up the tombolo provides two "back-to-back" and almost "pure white" beaches, and the ridge connects to a large machair covered by grass sward. The area is a designated special area of conservation (SAC) under the EU Habitats Directive.

"Machairs themselves form a unique feature, with no more than a few dozen examples, many of which suffer from overgrazing and blow-outs once the sward gets destroyed," Dr van Groenendael notes. A large shingle spit, a lake surrounded by a brackish marsh full of orchids, and the visible origin of the Murvey fault which runs across Roundstone Bog to Clifden give the area some "unique flushes full of rare and characteristic plants", he says.

Among these are the blue green sea holly (Eryngium Maritimus), the Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes Spiralis), and many species of indigenous grass. The calcareous sands of Gurteen Bay and Dog's Bay are also famous for their foraminifera - tiny shells of single-cell organisms living on the sea floor.

Since about 1975, the Dutch academic and others have witnessed a continuous degradation of the tombolo ridge, with parts of it overblown, parts of it eroded into cliffs and parts of it "blown out". In 1999, he was pleasantly surprised to see a change.

Marram grass had been planted, vulnerable parts had been fenced off, and there were fewer livestock grazing, while there was a one-metre increase in dune height. By then, the trio - Conneely, Rafferty and Mullen - were already at work, in co-operation with Galway County Council. The Roundstone Beaches Environmental Project was in action.

Initially, their project was "rudderless", says Rafferty. "We talked, we consulted, we went down a few wrong paths." A former local councillor, John Mannion, gave them valuable support when they eventually presented a proposal to the local authority.

The first work began on October 1995, and the rest, Rafferty says, is "environmental history". The proposal involved a number of remedies, but overgrazing was never going to be one of them. The 16 tenants using the commonage, including James Conneely, had inherited a grazing pattern developed by their forefathers (see panel). Their first task was to identify the vulnerable areas, such as rabbit burrows which had become "sand blow-outs" through the prevailing winds.

"We checked from south Donegal to Clare then for a source of marram grass, which would help to hold the sand in place, and we found one outside Belmullet, Co Mayo, on property owned by the Land Commission," Rafferty recalls. "It can't be grown from seed, has very long roots, and the season for planting is October to March. Also, it has to be replanted within 24 hours, which put us under a lot of pressure."

The team went up with trucks and fish boxes to transport the marram. "We had to have trenches ready, at times we had to work through the night, but we were delighted with the effect," Rafferty says. "The beauty of marram is that it grows even better in areas where the sand is more exposed to the wind, and therefore more agitated."

Rafferty's granddaughter browsed the Internet to find out more information on marram. "And we discovered one of the world's experts, Alan Lees, living down the road from us in Moycullen!" Teagasc and Dúchas were also consulted, and fencing of fragile dune areas was carried out by Galway County Council. Gates were constructed to allow for visitor access on to the beaches. "We still found people trying to break holes in the fence, use posts for firewood, and even tear up marram grass," Rafferty notes.

A type of mulch, using seaweed and several stages of rye grass, was developed to spread over disused rabbit burrows, and brushwood was spread to trap sand in the short term. Gabions, or flexible steel-mesh boxes filled with stones, were erected in very vulnerable spots. Teagasc also advised that a boardwalk should be constructed above ground level to protect grass from visitors and to allow other vegetation to become established.

The graveyard headland at Gurteen, in which Bulmer Hobson and Maurice McGonigal are buried, represents one of the most exposed areas on which the beach project now wishes to focus. It intends to fence it and plant with marram, while also spreading mulch. It also plans to make a land bridge over the stream at "small Gurteen", one of the most popular beaches, and install walkways here as part of its five-year strategy.

"Yes, our main aim was to save the commonage, but also to keep this area for our tourists and for generations to come," Rafferty says. "When you take the population of the two caravan parks here, it reaches about 3,000 in summer - which is the size of a fairly large village. This can have a significant impact on the environment, but a positive one if we handle it right."

Rafferty and Conneely are anxious to pay tribute to the local authority, which has recently given the project another grant to fund information brochures. "We were the motivators, agitators, rejuvenators, but thanks to Galway County Council we have been able to carry this through."