Field Notes: Beach cleaning at Sandwood

Carrie Weager, the Trust's conservation officer at Sandwood Bay, reports on successful beach cleans following winter storms

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The second half of winter on the west coast of Scotland has seen some of the most sustained wet and windy weather on record, with each storm following hot on the heels of the last. A sad consequence of this has been the amount of marine debris deposited across vast stretches of coastline. Beach cleaners around the country have been busy, and will have plenty to keep them occupied for months to come.

The coastline around the Sandwood estate has not escaped this influx. Beaches that people called pristine only a few months ago, such as Polin and Oldshoremore, have been badly affected. Added to this, erosion of the sand dunes at Oldshoremore has destroyed the steps giving people easy access to the beach and making it more difficult to remove large pieces of debris.

To try and restore the beaches to their previous condition, we arranged a beach clean for Polin at the end of February, and another at Oldshoremore two weeks later.

Seven hard-working volunteers turned out to help at Polin, removing 18 bags of rubbish, and larger pieces including fish boxes, bundles of rope, and plastic oil drums.

Volunteers - Feb 2020

^ Volunteers working hard to clean up Oldshoremore

Oldshoremore was in a far worse condition, with more debris than most can remember seeing at any time previously. People who walk the beach regularly have been upset to see it in this condition, and individuals have been removing what they can whenever they visit. This may account for the fantastic response we got for this beach clean, with 26 people showing up over the course of the afternoon to get stuck in. An incredible 39 bags of rubbish were taken off the beach, along with five bundles of rope and sections of plastic pipe.

Along with debris from the fishing industry, domestic rubbish removed included lots of cotton bud sticks, bottles, plastic cutlery and cups, polystyrene, toys, lighters, and myriad unidentifiable plastic fragments. One well-preserved washing up bottle from 1988, most likely uncovered as the dunes were eroded, served to demonstrate the longevity of plastic even in the harshest environments.

Litter at Sandwood

^ Just some of the litter taken from Polin

Most concerning of all was the amount of microplastic – tiny fragments of broken plastic and nurdles (pellets used in plastic manufacturing) – jammed into rock crevices, buried in the sand, and packed into every pile of seaweed. Without an efficient solution for dealing with this kind of debris, it would take weeks of careful sifting to begin to make a real impact on it. This problem is set to get worse in the future as increasing amounts of plastic break down into smaller and smaller fragments.

Despite the success of these beach cleans a lot of debris remains. Further cleans will be scheduled in due course. However, these will be postponed due to the unfolding coronavirus (COVID-19) situation. Until then, people can continue to remove what they can while out walking. Every little really does help!

Header image credit: David Balharry