Na­ture & Out­doors

There’s more to a beach walk than fresh air and swim­ming.

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Paddy Wood­worth

‘Achild’s world is fresh and new and beau­ti­ful, full of won­der and ex­cite­ment. It is our mis­for­tune that, for most of us, that clear- eyed vi­sion, that true in­stinct for what is beau­ti­ful and awe- in­spir­ing, is dimmed, and even lost, be­fore we reach adult­hood.”

It was strange to come across this quo­ta­tion from Rachel Car­son, the great Amer­i­can marine bi­ol­o­gist and en­vi­ron­men­tal cam­paigner, whose pop­u­lar books, like The Edge of the Sea, and es­pe­cially Silent Spring, are now more than half a cen­tury old, but are still en­joyed far be­yond her na­tive US.

It was strange, be­cause I was look­ing for the pre­cise word­ing of a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ( and elu­sive) Car­son quo­ta­tion, to the ef­fect that “the seashore is a place of ever-chang­ing land­scapes, never the same from one day to the next”. But her words on chil­dren and won­der linked to th­ese thoughts on the seashore seam­lessly, to cap­ture an ex­pe­ri­ence I had just had in an­other con­text, and had not ex­pected to be rel­e­vant to this ar­ti­cle.

I was walk­ing the beach at Mos­ney, Co Meath, with a group of asy­lum seek­ers from the nearby “direct pro­vi­sion” cen­tre, ten­ta­tively try­ing to in­tro­duce them to the de­lights of the Ir­ish nat­u­ral world. It was the morn­ing of May­day, but the rain was spit­ting at us ever harder, off a cold wind that was as cold as Fe­bru­ary. The out­ing was rapidly threat­en­ing to be­come a fi­asco.

But a woman from a coun­try on the other side of the world had brought her three- year- old child with her, and he soon be­came our guide and in­spi­ra­tion. Every stone was a source of plea­sure to him. As for the shells, with which the beach was richly strewn, he ex­am­ined, and ex­claimed at, every shape and colour, the tinier the bet­ter.

He par­tic­u­larly liked ra­zor shells, us- ing one first as a te­le­scope, then bran­dish­ing it as a minia­ture scim­i­tar. Next, his at­ten­tion was caught by the sight of sander­ling, the tiny wad­ing birds that run like clock­work toys along the sea’s edge. He waved at them en­er­get­i­cally, squeal­ing with glee.

By the time he had found the egg case of a spot­ted ray, which is like a black leather wal­let with a horn at each cor­ner, and the “wash-balls” formed by the massed egg cases of whelks, he had every adult present in­tensely in­volved and cu­ri­ous, our sense of won­der re­stored, the rain for­got­ten.

Brac­ing air

A few days ear­lier, I had trav­elled to Mur­lough Na­ture Re­serve in Co Down with Richard Nairn, to ex­plore the plea­sures that walk­ing the seashore can of­fer, be­sides brac­ing air, ex­er­cise and, for the hardy, the op­por­tu­nity of a swim.

Nairn knows the coastal en­vi­ron­ment in­ti­mately; he is the au­thor of Ire­land’s Coast­line and co-au­thor of the re­cently pub­lished Dublin Bay: Na­ture and His­tory. It was he who had men- tioned Car­son’s thoughts on the per­sis­tent changes that are essen­tial to the char­ac­ter of all coast­lines.

Fa­mil­iar as he is with this con­stant shape-shift­ing, Nairn was im­pressed by the dra­matic changes, in struc­ture and veg­e­ta­tion, in the pe­riod since he was a war­den at Mur­lough 40 years ago.

The re­serve is a broad penin­sula made up mostly of sand dunes. It ex­tends right across Dun­drum Bay, al­most clos­ing it off from the sea at North Point. Here the tide races through a nar­row chan­nel which sep­a­rates Mur­lough from Bal­lykin­lar mil­i­tary train­ing camp. Look­ing south, the beach of­fers one of the most dra­matic views on our is­land, im­mor­talised by Percy French, where the Mourne moun­tains so abruptly meet the sea.

Mur­lough holds a rich mo­saic of habi­tats, su­per­fi­cially rather sim­i­lar to Dublin’s North Bull Is­land, but it is an older struc­ture by six mil­len­nia.

The rain of so many cen­turies has made the sandy soil in the most ven­er­a­ble ar­eas of the re­serve acidic, cre­at­ing rare and spe­cially pro­tected zones of dune heath­land. The younger dunes, closer to the sea, are home to a great va­ri­ety of wild­flow­ers, birds and 748 species ( and count­ing) of but­ter­flies and moths.

Left to them­selves, sand dunes are the most dy­namic of land sys­tems, re­mak­ing their hills and val­leys eter­nally like slow mo­tion seas. Ad­ja­cent shore- lines ex­pand and con­tract as they al­ter­na­tively erode and ac­cu­mu­late sandy ma­te­rial.

Na­ture is no re­specter of noble rank, and the in­so­lent mo­bil­ity of sand dunes ev­i­dently proved vex­ing to the mar­quises of Down­shire, one of whom built a sub­stan­tial man­sion on the penin­sula in the 19th cen­tury. To their dis­may, they found that the sea might come per­ilously close to their sum­mer res­i­dence in one decade, while it could be in dan­ger of be­ing en­tombed by the dunes in the next.

So they did what peo­ple faced with sim­i­lar prob­lems have often done all over the world in re­cent cen­turies, usu­ally cre­at­ing new prob­lems as a re­sult. They planted ex­otic veg­e­ta­tion – sea buck­thorn in this case – to “sta­bilise” the dunes. Very rapidly, the buck­thorn came to dom­i­nate much of the land­scape, ex­clud­ing most na­tive plants and an­i­mals wher­ever it spread (though pro­vid­ing some habi­tat for birds).

Buck­thorn re­moval is a chal­leng­ing but nec­es­sary con­ser­va­tion mea­sure, and it has ad­vanced sig­nif­i­cantly since Nairn first worked at Mur­lough in the 1970s, restor­ing con­sid­er­able ar­eas to some­thing ap­proach­ing their for­mer con­di­tion.

Dra­matic changes

The most dra­matic changes we saw, how­ever, were at the point where the dunes drop down to the beach. Storms four years ago had blown out a small moun­tain of sand, al­low­ing tides to reach in­side the dunes, cre­at­ing pe­ri­odic salt wa­ter pools in the new hol­low. But you would not eas­ily know that to­day, be­cause wind and sea have al­ready driven enough sand back into the open­ing to build a new em­bry­onic dune bar­rier more than a me­tre high.

Dy­namic changes like th­ese oc­cur most vis­i­bly in dune sys­tems, but every tide also of­fers fresh sur­prises on rocky shores and shin­gle beaches. Nairn rec­om­mended a lit­tle field guide, Ire­land’s Seashore, by Lucy Tay­lor and Emma Nick­elsen, to help you un­der­stand the strange things that the sea may have placed on your path.

And he also rec­om­mended that the best way for an adult to ap­pre­ci­ate the de­tail of any type of beach land­scape is to al­ways go ac­com­pa­nied by chil­dren. A few days later, by com­plete co­in­ci­dence, the ex­cur­sion to Mos­ney proved his point.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: GETTY

■ Mur­lough na­ture re­serve in Dun­drum, Co Down: su­per­fi­cially sim­i­lar to Dublin’s North Bull Is­land, but it is older by six mil­len­nia.

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