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The State Of Things (Part 1)

on Oct 20, 2012 | General | 0 comments
For the most part this blog is meant to be a positive thing, a chance for me to look at the nature around me and enjoy it. However I do believe that every once in a while you are allowed to have a moan about something; especially if it is an issue that you feel strongly about.

I spend a lot of my time outdoors here in Wales. Whether that is just outside on our small holding or working on one of the Universities ecology courses or out with my friends walking. There is still much of this country for me to discover and I am always looking to see something new.

I don't know if it was a case of 'rose tinted glasses' but when I first came here everything looked better than in my very urban location in England. The hills were green and forests full of natural wonders, and in many ways they still are (please don't misunderstand me), but if you know where to look our natural idyll is fraying around the edge. 

Perhaps I need to be more specific. When you listen to the news these days it always seems to be doom and gloom and environmental issues are amongst this news (though not normally high enough up the agenda for my liking). Normally I find that many of these stories wash over me, there is often that feeling that I can't do anything to change the situation, but recently one such story was brought home in a big way. It was the news that an unprecedented amount of Welsh beaches are likely to lose their 'Blue Flag' status within the next year!

For those of you who don't know, The Blue Flag Programme is owned and run by the non-government, non-profit organisation the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE); and is concerned with setting out a strict criteria for  improving Water Quality, Environmental Education and Information, Environmental Management, and Safety . Over its 25 year history Blue Flag status has been awarded to 3850 beaches and marinas in 46 countries.
I remember when they first brought out the 'Blue Flag' status in 1987, at first you almost didn't see any Blue Flags, and then we seemed to go through a boom period as local people made the effort to clean up their beaches. It was realised that the Blue Flag almost automatically increased the amount of tourists in an area, as people flocked to clean beeches. I remember recently listening to a story on Radio 4 of a how a man in South Wales watched as his area was transformed by the efforts of a community; and such stories are heartening. However one has to ask where have we gone wrong?

Maybe there is simply too much pollution! I remember listening to another radio programme following a team of scientists monitoring the amount of plastics to be now found in the environment. They looked at a cross-section of beaches around the world, and found that even in those hundreds of miles away from substantial human populations i.e.: West Coast of Africa, Canada, Antarctica and Siberia small plastic particles still make up a large proportion of the sand on the beach and they can be found floating in the sea where they are ingested by organisms at the bottom of the food chain such as plankton and krill. Harmful chemical pollutants such as DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants), and chemicals such as BPA (Bisphenol A) are then passed up the food chain. I think that one of the problems of the Blue Flag programme is that it seems to deal with separate beaches in isolation of each other. A single beach has to stick to strict criteria for obtaining Blue Flag status (follow this link to find out more), whilst just down the coast can be a great big pile of rubbish.

This is in fact what happened to me, I came across a great big pile of rubbish! At first I didn't think that much about this news story, I heard it, thought it was worrying but then the concerns of everyday life took over. I wasn't reminded of this until I was on Aberystwyth beach teaching photography a week or so later. My photography group had been down to the beach on several occasions but it wasn't until our fourth trip that we really noticed the pollution. An earlier high tide had deposited a line of rubbish halfway up the beach. This however wasn't the pinnacle of my rubbish experience.

We went down to Oxwich, a small village on the south coast of the Gower Peninsula, and walked around the headland (Oxwich Point) through the Oxwich Wood Nature Reserve. It was a pleasant walk until we came out of the nature reserve and started heading along the coast, slowly the rocky headland gives way to a series of small beaches and it was here that I found my rubbish pile. At first I didn't notice, but after a while I became aware that I was walking along what amounted to a coastal tip, it was quite bad, particularly at the high tidy mark where almost every rock had something on it. A large proportion of this rubbish was plastic; there were some big pieces, whole plastic barrels, part of a car, that kind of thing. There was a strong wind blowing on to shore and that may have been helping the rubbish find its way there. As I don't know this area I can't be certain of how quickly that rubbish took to build up, how often the beach is cleaned if whether because of local conditions this is a bad spot. I realise that it is probably unfair to blame the local people, this rubbish could have easily come from tourists, passing boats, further down the coast or even North Devon and beyond. What I can be certain of is that this is indicative of a wide problem and these beaches are not alone.

I did some research after getting back from this trip and the facts make grim reading. Apparently there is a pile of plastic rubbish out in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, drawn together by local currents, that covers an area of around 500,000 square miles. In this area pieces of plastic outnumber marine life-forms 6 to 1. Each year some 100,000 marine mammals and 1,000,000 sea birds die from ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic alone. When you add in other kinds of pollution it is a wonder that we have any remaining marine environments. It can take between 500 and 1000 years for a piece of plastic to completely break down.

If we go back to the Blue Flag status of Welsh beaches; Oxwich point is positioned in the middle of a line of Blue Flag beaches. The Blue Flag beach of Port Eynon is just under 3 miles to the west and there are 3 Blue Flag beaches in the Mumbles area only about 5 miles east. If you go up on to the headland around Oxwich you will find dozens of businesses that rely on tourism. Wales has 40 beaches and 5 marinas with Blue Flag status, it is apparently in danger of losing a third of its Blue Flags within the next year and according to the media the main problem isn't even plastic it is a rise in levels of bacteria due to the wet weather. My suggestion is that we start by cleaning up the whole coast, in every way that we can, that way we might not just safeguard our existing Blue Flag beaches but create some new ones too! In case you were wondering we don't have a beach but we do have a river and I will be out tomorrow pulling rubbish out of it.

The photo never lies? The breakers come ashore off Oxwich point; but you wouldn't want me to take a photograph facing the other direction.

Oxwich Point



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