Crofters on South Uist have started laying old fishing nets over sand dunes to try and save their island from the ravages of the rising sea.
In an innovative bid to protect the island’s low-lying coastline from the storms and floods blamed on climate pollution, islanders yesterday began a project to stabilise the dunes. The hope is that the nets will encourage the growth of grass which will help prevent erosion.
The project is one of the first practical attempts in Scotland to adapt to the changes that global warming is expected to bring. The west coast of South Uist is one of the most vulnerable places in the UK to rising sea levels.
Islanders say that in places 30 or 40 metres of farm land has already been lost to the sea in their lifetimes. Some fear that the island could end up being sliced in half by water.
Seamus MacDonald, a retired crofter, pointed out that there was no land between South Uist and Canada. “So you have got a lot of ocean hitting this coast,” he said.
“If you see these breakers coming towards you in the winter you just feel like running, and you wonder if they are ever going to stop. It can be frightening.”
He added: “I dread to think what future generations are going to see unless we do something now. Action has to be taken, and the sooner the better.”
In January 2005, five members of one family from South Uist were drowned when they attempted to escape a fierce storm by driving across a low-lying causeway near their home. Large areas of the island were submerged.
But MacDonald is worried that future floods could be worse. “The land was covered in sand, shingle, seaweed and rock picked up by the tide,” he recalled. “It happened at night but had it happened during the day I’m sure people would have packed their bags and left the island.”
According to James Curran, the director of science at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, average sea levels in the area could rise by between 37 and 61 centimetres by 2080. Most of the seasons in South Uist are expected to be wetter, and storms could become fiercer and more frequent.
The plan now is to lay fishing nets recycled by a local company across the dunes along a five-mile stretch of coastline near Kilpheder towards the south of the island. This should help anchor the sand with marram grass, and strengthen the barrier against the sea.
The work is being supported by Oxfam Scotland, which has organised a public meeting today to discuss the impacts of climate change. “We’re already seeing the effects of climate change in Uist and in countless other communities around the world,” said the charity’s Caluna Campbell.
“It’s heartening to see people come together to find an innovative and sustainable solution. Oxfam is supporting communities at home and abroad as climate change leads to more erratic and extreme weather events.”
Alasdair Allan, the MSP for the Western Isles, praised the islanders for taking proactive action. “South Uist faces a major problem, but I think this weekend's events prove it has an active community willing to find practical solutions,” he said.
For 14-year-old Megan MacDonald, who is learning how to look after a croft on the island, stabilising the dunes is about trying to ensure her future. She is worried that her land is being eaten away by the sea.
“It can be scary sometimes,” she said. “I was out in the tractor with one of my relatives doing the baling, and I got to where the land used to be and there wasn’t really anything else there.”
Her hope was that the dunes would help hold back the sea. “If you put up a little barrier to stop all the wind and the erosion, then it might slow it down, if not stop it,” she suggested.