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Coastal, General

Wild November, Mild December, New Year

Photo credit: Andrew Butler

In the glassy December stillness after a high energy November, traces of this stormy and violent month made themselves apparent in our marine ecosystem.

The legacy of swell after swell which finally ceased a week into December to a calm orderliness groomed by light easterlies revealed itself if you bore the cold and looked carefully enough over the Christmas holidays. At the north end of the beach waves broke in a place they normally don’t; enough sand had been displaced by the wave action and its accompanying rip currents to form a shallow sandbar just far enough outside the beach to be notable. The sand had been scoured deep around it, focusing the wave energy on the centre, a powerful and perfect wave for those lucky enough to access it.

Such events have a capacity to unearth, to claw at our moveable shores and reveal, more sometimes than is at first apparent. Inside the new sandbar, the beach had lost a few feet of its sand rudely exposing a bed of rocks from their summer covering.  Scattered amongst these new additions to the shore’s topography were small rods and fragments of kelp, our perennial indicator of what is happening in the elusive offshore kelp-beds. Contrary to what is often thought (and sometimes taught) the presence of sea rods on the shore is usually determined more by the plants’ life cycle than the action of the ocean. In this instance however, the masses of short, thin fragments littered on the shore implied that the juvenile Laminaria and Alaria species which should be hanging on in their unknown strongholds between Carrownisky and Inishturk for a few more years were interrupted by an extraordinary month.

And not only the deep, but the past was evoked by the legacy of November 2009. A little further down the shore and sand again was divulging its secrets. A section of the cliff bluff, which is nothing more than sediment held in place by resolute marram grass, had given way to incessant westerlies undermining its base. Here, 20 feet above the high tide mark, crumbling out of the cliff face were periwinkles and bairneachs. Many winters ago, somewhere between mesolithic and medieval, these mollusks of the low tide rocky shore made their way to someone’s mealplace by hand. The people who identified a shellfish which would ultimately be harvested and sell well in France (the periwinkle, the bairneach’s taste never found popular favour) laid down their rubbish in a shell-midden for us to consider our past months with as we turn on a New Year. The January sea continues December’s theme steadily bringing us a newer, colder agenda from the north. The winkles and bairneachs make their way back down to the ocean and the sediment as new legacies are deposited and secrets are covered up again by the stealthy sands.

Bairneach is the local name for in English what is called the common limpet (Patella vulgata). It is a marine Gastropod related to periwinkles and land snails all belonging to the Mollusca phylum. It grazes algae when the tide is high and its feeding trails can be seen on the rocks it inhabits in the intertidal. Bairneachs clamp themselves to the rock with remarkable force if disturbed and are presently been studied in Ireland for their bio-adhesive properties. Bairneachs were commonly eaten in coastal areas until recent times.

This article appeared in The Mayo News in the 19/01/2010 edition.

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