In 2009 the Sheep’s Head was awarded the title of European Destination of Excellence –Tourism and Protected Areas.
This competition was designed for destinations that have developed the tourism potential of their protected areas in a sustainable manner. So why is the Sheep’s Head so desirable as a destination? There is no doubt that the stunning, unspoiled, mountainous scenery and rocky coastline enable beautiful walking, cycling and driving. From the coastal roads and paths one can see many species of seabird. If you venture onto the water you may see dolphins, whales and seals.
The Irish Underwater Council lists no less than ten sites of interest for snorkelling or scuba diving in Bantry Bay. Kayaking, sailing and fishing are important tourist activities.
Bantry Bay catchment includes 20 Natural Heritage Areas, Statutory Nature Reserves, Refuges for Fauna, Wildfowl Sanctuaries, Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation.
A groundbreaking, consensus based strategy for Integrated Coastal Zone Management, known as the Bantry Bay Charter, won the prestigious National Planning Achievement Award 2002 (awarded by the Irish Planning Institute) as well as a Special Merit Award for its ‘innovative participatory process’ awarded by the European Council of Town Planners. The intended outcome was the establishment of informal contracting between stakeholders, to secure agreed strategies that respect sustainable development and integrated use of Bantry Bay. The Charter addressed sustainable tourism as part of a complex mix of user needs and demands of this marine and coastal area.
Many of these tourist activities, along with the marine fisheries so important to the area, are dependent on Kelp, a seaweed which represents some of the most diverse and productive habitats of the Earth.
Functioning as an ‘ecosystem engineer’ the canopy of the kelp forest alters light levels, water flow, physical disturbance and sedimentation rates, modifying the local environment for other organisms.
The older fronds of kelp break off, creating detritus that, along with the slimy mucus, which the kelp secretes, rich in organic compounds, directly provides the building blocks of a marine food chain.
Kelp forest habitats are vital for a number of molluscs and crustaceans, which in turn are fed upon by lobster and crabs. Indeed the Kelp Forests provide a nursery for many commercially important species including Atlantic Cod, Sea Bass and Pollack.
From the coastline you can watch as seabirds land on rafts of broken kelp fronds; and seals feed on the fish that live in the kelp forest.
A 2005 National Parks and Wildlife Service report on ‘The Role of Kelp in the Marine Environment’ noted that “Constant removal of kelp will never allow the macrofaunal community to re-establish itself fully and it must be accepted that the licensing of such activities effectively sacrifices that area of seabed of ever becoming a natural community again, that is, until the activity stops permanently.”
The Community Group, ‘Bantry Bay – Protect Our Native Kelp Forest’ have been opposing the mechanical harvesting of kelp in Bantry Bay, in and out of the courts, since the licence was first issued in 2009.
On July 10, 2020, following Judicial Review, Judge Deirdre Murphy stated that the License to Mechanically Extract Kelp from Bantry Bay was incomplete, as the State had not published the Minister’s Decision to grant the licence.
The State legal team have lodged appeals against the judgement, as it believes that the licence is valid and complete.
Having been obliged to seek an injunction in the courts in order to stop the mechanical harvesting from being started prior to the Judicial Review, as well as returning to court for that Judicial Review, the Bantry Bay community is now raising funds to return to court on October 16 for a virtual hearing to decide whether the Case can leapfrog on to the Supreme Court. They will appeal the Judge’s decision, in which she stated that they were premature in taking a Judicial Review against the awarding of the licence and thus could not be awarded costs.
In the mean time the community are continuing fundraising
You can find them, more detail of their story and fundraising activities and events at bantrybaykelpforest.com and on Facebook @bantrynativekelpforest.
To virtually swim through part of the kelp forest that without this community would be ‘sacrificed’ from Bantry Bay, go to vimeo.com/418062943