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How to Protect Them

How to Protect Them

Our beaches and dunes are so popular that we put them under tremendous pressure. Where beaches take a lot of coming an going, dunes are much more fragile. The tough plants that bind dunes in place are actually not suited to being walked on and die back very quickly with human trampling. The sand is then free to be blown away.

It is well known that that vegetation on dunes is an essential feature in maintaining stability of the dune system. Damage to this vegetation caused by beach users treading a common path is sufficient to cause extensive instability over a large area due to the creation of vulnerable erosion routes. 

Recreational activities such as pedestrian traffic, cars, caravan parks, horse riding and scrambling can seriously damage dune vegetation and increase the rate of sand loss through wind erosion. This loss of sand reduces the overall mass of the beach and sand dune system which acts as a buffer to the sea. 

Pedestrian traffic resulting in the trampling of vegetation is the most widespread form of damage to dune systems caused by human activities. Probably the most seriously affected areas on the Irish coast are sand dunes that, when subject to unmanaged access can experience severe vegetation damage followed many instances, by soil and sediment erosion.

Through the development of networks of paths and tracks accessing the beach is where most of the damage generally occurs.  It is usually on the access routes to the beach through the development of a network of paths and tracks that most of the damage occurs.

These networks of informal paths become centre for erosion and are rapidly enlarged by the wind, eventually forming gullies and blow outs. Paths across the top of dunes are most at risk where wind speeds are higher and path slopes often steeper.
In some areas the cumulative pressures of vehicles, pedestrians, camping and sporting activities have caused serious deterioration of vegetation and increased the risk to the stability of dune systems.

Dune Blowouts

Blowouts are sandy bowl like depressions in a sand dune caused by the removal of sediments by wind. They tend to form when the wind erodes into patches of bear sand where there has been a reduction or damage to vegetation. At exposed sites even a few people occasionally walking across a foredune may disturb the vegetation sufficiently to initiate blowouts. 

Blowouts typically advance through various stages of development from erosional notches and hollows, to early blowouts, to large blowouts and then potentially to re-vegetating and stabilised blowouts. Where necessary, vegetation cover should be maintained either by keeping people out of the dunes or by appropriate infilling and replanting options. 

What can we do

  1. In places where the dunes are narrow (10s of metres wide), ENJOY the beach and avoid using the dunes in any way – sorry it is that simple
  2. In places where they are wider, stick to marked paths and respect local signage on how to use them
  3. Where erosion is a problem, help out (or form) a local action group. Dune planting, sand-fencing, involving many local groups & managing authorities, and awareness amongst users are the basics of ‘working with natural processes’ for restoration (this will only work where sand is naturally available).

Coastal Communities Taking Action

The design and implementation of appropriate and site-specific dune restoration works  along our coastline are being carried out by many coastal communities, local authorities and other groups, such as Cleancoast. This has also been supported by academic partners, such as NUI-Galway.

The focus of the efforts is not just limited to dune management works but also include human behavioural change and creating awareness of the importance and fragility of the dunes to beach users and the coastal community. This is probably the most important aspect of dune management in the longer-term as most dune damage requiring intervention usually arises from damaging human activities. Therefore, changes in beach user attitudes and behaviour are required for effective and sustainable dune restoration. 

Dune Management Options

Some of the dune restoration works being carried out by coastal communities, local authorities and other groups include:

Designated Pathway

The provision of well signposted and conveniently located paths to facilitate access to and from the beach while also protection sensitive dune revegetation, particularly the sand binding vegetation on the seaward dune face.

Information & Education

The provision of good signage and campaigns such #ProtectOurDune to make beach goers and coastal communities aware of the importance and fragility of the dunes and encourage them to use designated access routes and avoid cutting across the dunes. 

Dune Grass Planting

Coastal communities, local authorities and others have been involved in transplanting vegetation to the face of eroded dunes to enhance the natural development of the dunes. Marram grass is particularly effective as it thrives on growing dunes and is relatively easy to transplant.

Dune Fencing

Coastal communities, local authorities and others have constructed semi-permeable fences in some beaches along the seaward face of the dunes to encourage the deposition of wind blown sand, to reduce trampling and to protect aging existing or transplanted vegetation.

Maintenance of Vegetation

The maintenance of suitable sand binding vegetation to support the natural dune building and repair processes to prevent wind erosion damage is an ongoing effort. This also involves the control of problem plants and animal pests to eliminate any potential invasive species before they become widespread.

Coast for Kids

Coasts for Kids is a collaborative experience between children and their parents, coastal scientists, community artists, teachers, animators and coastal managers led by Irene Delgado-Fernandez, coastal geomorphologist, Edge Hill University, UK. They have produced wonderful series of short videos  aimed at kids from six years and older exploring coastal processes and coastal evolution. Episode 4 looks at how people affect the coastline and highlight ways we can protect our dunes.