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Beach huts and biodiversity: add your voice

How our beach hut project at the POP shop made us rethink what it means to make a greenspace feel cared for. And now we’re sharing our voice, are you with us?

Walk along the newly cleared beach at West Bay in Dunoon, you could be fooled into thinking that this is a sandy beach. Above the high tide line, running alongside the footpath, shingle once supported coastal wildflowers like sea radish and mayweed. Living among these plants could be tiny shingle-loving insects like the rare gilkicker weevil. The roots of the vegetation helped to stabilise the shingle beach, reducing some of the risks from storm surges and the rise in sea levels.

Plantlife, shingle and the insects were scooped up by a digger on a maintenance sweep of West Bay in July 2023, following on from a smaller clean up in 2022. Surviving areas of shingle punctuate the newly exposed sands, small stone exclamations reminding us what was once there.

Why does this matter?

Biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate, and the UK is one of the worst offenders when it comes to depleting biodiversity. Actions like this beach clean-up can no longer go unexamined.

Biodiversity decline threatens the health of our planet so much so that a worldwide initiative, called for by scientists, to protect 30% of the world’s land and sea for nature by 2030 has been adopted by countries around the world – including Scotland – and is backed by the European Union and G7.

“To prevent reverse biodiversity decline and bolster resilience to climate change, scientists warn that we must protect at least 30% of our lands, rivers, lakes, and wetlands by 2030.” NatureScot

NatureScot are working on increasing protected areas for nature in Scotland to reach the 30%, which includes adding to our Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), and Special Protected Areas (SPA). While it’s pleasing to see this commitment from the Scottish Government, and action from NatureScot, it’s been disheartening to watch as the maintenance regimes of West Bay and other local public greenspaces in Dunoon don’t appear to be addressing the national and international response to biodiversity loss and climate change quickly enough.

Why are we interested in how our public greenspaces are managed?

At the POP shop, we are committed to creating community-led and heritage-inspired projects that engage people with Dunoon's story. We do this because by understanding our town’s history, alongside the current evidence of what makes a healthy and sustainable environment, we can help support solutions that make Dunoon a better place to live and work. Using evidence, research and local input, we aspire for our projects to drive forward change that work towards the wellbeing of the community. But we’ve hit a few stumbling blocks along the way and feel it might be useful to share our insights and learning with people in the hope that this supports positive, long term change that considers the environment.

Firstly, with our beach hut project, we delved into the history and natural heritage of West Bay to investigate how huts could return to the beach. Then, through our Green Map Dunoon training, we worked with people in the community to think about how our local green spaces and woodlands support a healthy ecosystem.

With each of these projects, the valuable cultural and natural assets of our town were reaffirmed. We are really lucky here in Dunoon – on our doorstep, we have sea, woodlands, beaches and pockets of open greenspace that make this a wonderful place to live, work and visit. There’s a lot to be proud of. But we also discovered that there’s room for improvement, and there’s a lot to be concerned about. We learned that our important natural assets can disappear in the blink of an eye. Even more worrying, after the shingle and vegetation were removed from West Bay, it became clear that there is no local plan for how to celebrate, protect or improve this public green and blue space for biodiversity or for the enjoyment of local people.

West Bay lies within the Dunoon Conservation Area, which is “an area of land that has been given protected status in order to preserve its natural features, cultural heritage or wildlife”. This leaves us wondering, if a greenspace in a protected Conservation Area has no visible management plan, if those natural features can be removed without discussion or explanation – we asked – then what hope do we have of preserving or improving other greenspaces?

Reimagining our beachfront

The clearance of native coastal plant life and shingle from West Bay is not a new practice. But for nearly two glorious years during the pandemic, plantlife was given breathing space to return to the shingle from 2020-2022. During our beach hut project, which began in Oct 2021, the vegetation thrived and this prompted us to reimagine a West Bay where both people and plant life could flourish together. We dug deep, looking through newspaper and museum archives, spoke to Argyll and Bute Coucill's own planning department, who highlighted the risk climate change and sea level rise posed to structures on the shore suggesting that permission would probably not be granted for any permanent structures.

We spent countless hours building a picture of how the bay has evolved and how people use it.

“While investigating the history of West Bay and the beach huts, I would take a break and go for a walk on the beach or a swim. I was intrigued to see all these flowers appearing,”

said Hannah Clinch, who runs the POP shop and the beach hut project.

“When I started looking into the significance of shingle beaches in Scotland, I was amazed to discover that vegetated shingle is recognised as an internationally important habitat.”

Vegetated shingle – shingle filled with native plants – is scarce in Europe. The small strip of plant life along West Bay, at the heart of our town, was a valuable natural asset.

“Not only was the beach ecologically important, it was also accessible to people who might not be able to get to beaches. To me it was beautiful to look at to, but I know not everyone feels that way” said Hannah.

Its location is also significant. Running alongside the shingle, the promenade made it possible for people with varying mobility needs to experience it. While the plant life ran the length of the high tide line by the promenade, natural openings formed where footfall disturbed the planting. You could see where accessibility ramps or paths could be installed to make the whole beach more accessible without having to dig up plants.

With support from Argyll and Bute Council's CARS project and the Dunoon Community Development Trust, we worked with a local boat builder and volunteers from the local community on the beach hut project. We talked with local swimmers, people who had been using the beach for generations. A collection of stories about the people, archaeology, buildings and plant life that have made our shoreline a unique place were weaved into an exhibition for residents and visitors to learn more about West Bay.

While we celebrated the return of indigenous flowers, others saw this as a sign of neglect. Not everyone saw beauty or value in sea radish, mayweed and the insects that they support. Before our beach hut exhibition was installed, one indiscriminate scrape of the beach in August 2022 lifted and discarded a layer of precious shingle and vegetation. We reached out to Argyll and Bute Council to find out why this was happening, and pressed pause on the exhibition to take stock.

Where do we go from here?

In the end, what is happening at West Bay is an example of the wider societal tensions faced in the ecological-crisis. The debate over the plant life at West Bay is caught somewhere between culture and ecology, management and conservation, status quo and ambition. Beauty was very much in the eye of the beholder. While our project came to a staggering halt, the whole event exposed the disconnect between local management plans, local community engagement and Scotland’s commitment to reversing biodiversity decline and doing what we can to slow climate change. Inertia trumped ambition.

Without local authority commitment and policy around managing greenspaces with climate change, and the 30% by 2030 ambitions in mind, this situation is going to repeat and repeat. By rethinking the management of the many small and large green spaces in Dunoon, in particular the protected areas, there is an incredible opportunity to improve our environment and pioneer a positive culture of appreciating biodiversity and the improved community and visitor experience of the place.

We are not living in a Victorian postcard view of West Bay or Dunoon. We are living in a time of change. A time where those with a responsibility to manage local heritage and environmental assets need to commit to new ways of working, to address the ecological crisis.

We believe that with a little community engagement and planning, it can be done in a way that is complementary to our beachfront.

Why we’re speaking up

To not rock the boat with our relationship with Argyll and Bute Council, to be careful to not upset local residents who were happy with the West Bay clean up, we tiptoed around how to express our concerns. What we’ve come to realise is that keeping with the status quo – and not acting on the evidence and learning from our community engagement and research – only allows the inertia to continue.

We’ve been asking ourselves hard questions about the outcomes of our project since we had to press pause on our West Bay exhibition. The exhibition will go ahead, but only with the support of all parties and an understanding that maintenance practices need to change to reflect the times we are living in today and to maximise the investment that has been made into the town via heritage based projects.

In the meantime, we can only hope that within the council, hard questions are being tackled with a similar aspiration. It is no secret that the public sector is under more pressure than ever to deliver change with dwindling budgets and working with biodiversity offers scope to deliver more with less, you just need to have a plan.

Facing hard truths, and being brave enough to highlight them, is the only way we stand a chance of building a thriving and resilient community. Keeping quiet won’t change anything. So we’re going to say it.

At a time of great ecological-crisis, when much of the rest of the country is rethinking what a cared-for public space is, the decision to clear all plant life from Dunoon’s shingle beach is out of step with the pace of change needed to create a more resilient and healthy community.

We know we’re not alone in thinking this. Now we need your help.

Are you with us?

If what we’re saying here resonates with you, please add your voice.

We are asking you to let Argyll and Bute Council and your MSP know that things need to change.

You can contact your local councillor or raise your concerns directly to the council. We have put some information together to make this process simple.

Key contact details:

Here are the Dunoon Councillors

Get in touch with your MSPs

Ariane Burgess Green Party here>

Jenni Minto SNP here>

Full list of Argyll MSPs here>

Examples of how to raise your concerns about West Bay here>

Link to Argyll and Bute Council's complaints guidance>

Want to know more?

Here are a few useful resources to read:


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