24 March 2012

A grand stretch in the evening on the beach and marshes in Kilcoole

The channel and tide at the Breaches south of Kilcoole form a landscape that looks like moonscape – but a moonscape with water (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

At this time of the year, people in Ireland start saying: “There’s a grand stretch in the evening.”

An certainly there is going to more truth in that tomorrow, when the clocks have moved forward, summer time has started, and we have an extra hour of daylight in the evening. To add to the joys of that, the weather forecast this evening is promising temperatures up to 20 for much of next week.

With the temperature already reaching 16 this afternoon, two of us went for a walk on the long stretch of shingle beach at Kilcoole, Co Wicklow.

The railway line at The Murrough separates the long, shingle beach from the floodwaters that are trapped in a low-lying marsh, with its channels and saltmarsh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Murrough is a shingle bank stretching from Greystones south to Wicklow town. The railway line separates the long, shingle beach from the floodwaters that are trapped in a low-lying marsh, with its channels and saltmarsh.

A 15-acre field immediately south of Kilcoole railway station is a BirdWatch Ireland reserve, and there are splendid views of it from the path alongside the railway line.

The whole area holds a good selection of wintering waterfowl and in spring and summer these marshes, the reed beds and the shingle beach host a wide variety of nesting birds, with many rarities.

This long, straight, barrier beach was formed when the sea-level was higher after the last Ice Age. Alternate layers of marine and freshwater sediments in the marshes show that the sea has breached the barrier several times in the past.

We walked as far as the Breaches, a narrow channel beneath the railway bridge where the sea now enters the marshes. Occasionally in winter, this channel up blocks with beach material, causing the marshes flood extensively. But much of the original saltmarsh has been drained and claimed for agriculture.

Birds rising and circling above the beach and the marshlands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The open beach near the Breaches holds nesting ringed plover and oystercatchers and a small but important colony of Little Tern, which are the rarest breeding seabird with only 170 pairs on the island. Although their choice of nesting sites on the open shingle beaches leaves them exposed to human disturbances, tidal variations and predatory foxes, Kilcoole is now the most important breeding colony of Little Tern in Ireland. These graceful seabirds can be seen fishing in the shallow offshore waters and in tidal channels in the marshes.

The sun had yet to sink to the west behind the Wicklow Hills, when we walked back down on the shingle beach beside the Breaches. The channel changes shape and direction with the currents and tides, and here and there we could see isolated pools of seawater. The shapes formed by the channel and the tide in the grey shingle and the brown landscape gave the appearance of a moonscape – but a moonscape with water.

We walked back up to the car park behind Kilcoole’s simple railway station, and drove into Greystones, where we sat with a double espresso and a large Americano outside Insomnia, watching life pass by on Church Road on what could pass for an early summer evening.

Reeds lining a channel behind the railway station at Kilcoole (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

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