A plan by Mayo County Council to ban dogs from beaches between noon and 6pm as part of a bid to maintain Blue Flag status has been widely condemned by councillors in the Westport-Belmullet Municipal District.
At their monthly meeting held in Belmullet this week, Cllr Paul McNamara stated: "I think the beaches should be managed differently. It is mostly the local people who keep them clean, I see them out doing so on our beaches here in Achill every week. Where are the people meant to go with their dogs if this ban occurs? All beaches here are accessed by commonage areas, so it cannot be policed. We need to have common sense, to ban dogs on the beach or even from 12 to 6 is ridiculous. Mayo County Council needs to stand up to the mark. This weekend marks the third bank holiday of this year already and here in Achill we are still telling the council we need the toilets open, and the bins available. I oppose this proposal very strongly.”
Cllr Christy Hyland said: “We have the longest coastline in the country in our municipal district area and as Cllr McNamara said, of course we all want blue flags. But I think this is a cop-out by senior members of Mayo County Council. We are put in a position where, if we don’t ban horses and dogs and pass other bylaws for the beaches, the council can say, blame the councillors, as we made recommendations on how to get blue flags back that have been lost on beaches. You are not going to ban everyone going in to pubs on Bridge Street in Westport on a Saturday night because there are a few deviants, are you?"
He added that Old Head beach lost its blue flag status a decade ago and the environment section in MCC had been overseeing this for those ten years and stated: "Surely that team should have it solved by now, instead of saying that dogs and runoff from the land are the factors here - or do we need to get a garda forensic team in to do the work?"
Cllr Hyland suggested the issue could be sorted out 'by having rangers, and also you could double up with lifeguards, to police the beaches' and added that councillors should note that the proposed bylaw will also require 'any film company or photographer wanting to do work on the beach, be it a wedding party or filming - to obtain a permit', which, from his research into other counties, could amount to a charge of €800. "These are films and videos that promote our beautiful area and now you are telling people to get in touch with Mayo County Council and buy permits. There has to be another way of addressing the blue flag problem. This is a cop-out by management and the environment team", he said.
Cllr Peter Flynn said: “It’s an international standard in regard to the blue flag so ultimately, it is up to the thirty Mayo County Councillors who will decide in two weeks if we want blue flag status or not in future. In my view, the finance department in Mayo County Council would be delighted if we lost it, as it would save a fortune not having to maintain the standards. In relation to dogs, there has never been as many households with dogs, and people love to walk their dogs on the beach, but there is a balance to be had on this. What this all comes down to is a very straightforward decision - do we want blue flag.”
Cllr Gerry Coyle said there were other major issues that required attention - such as raw sewerage flowing into Newport Bay and people in Belmullet not having proper water in their tap. “Don’t you think you need to get that in place first?”, he asked council management, adding: “I remember when the blue flag came to Elly Bay, and next thing, one reason given for a refusal of planning was because the property was adjacent to a blue flag beach. Take this town of Belmullet, the sewer was and still is in places, going in to the canal, and then we tell people they can’t walk their dog because of the water quality. It just baffles me. We, as people in rural Ireland, we are being talked down to all the time.”
Cllr Johnny O’Malley said he supported his colleagues, adding: “I think it’s a cop-out to be blaming the dogs walking on the beach. I support dogs being on a lead and having a poop scoop with you - and a lot of people do. The EU and international powers are great at pointing the finger at rural people living in rural areas, they do the same with the farming community; farmers are blamed for everything. The fact is since 1966, raw sewerage has been going out to the bay from a town as busy as Newport and there is not a word about it. I totally object to this proposal.”
Cllr Sean Carey said it was a ‘complicated situation’. He had received calls from local people walking the beach who were concerned and afraid of dogs roaming the beach. “Some middle ground has to be got; if blue flag status is being lost because of dogs, we have to retain the blue flag status. Mullaghroe and Elly bay are our two blue flag beaches here and an awful lot of locals and tourists visit these beaches. I think there has to be further investment, for example in managing car traffic at Mullaghroe, the facilities are just not in place. Also, the dogs have to be kept under control; it is not fair on those who have a fear and a phobia of dogs, where they are not controlled.”
Cllr McNamara said he was not opposing blue flag beaches and had a proposal ‘that all dogs in common public areas and beaches should be on a leash’ and 'poop scoops can be provided by Mayo County Council if they are serious about resolving this problem - and kept in the lifeguard huts'. "Mayo County Council needs to step up to the mark and take An Taisce head on on this,” he added.
Cllr Christy Hyland proposed that the environment section of Mayo County Council be invited to the next meeting and said he wanted to know if Irish Water treatment plants at Carramore and Old Head are operating totally efficiently - "and maybe then we can talk.” Cllr Johnny O’ Malley added: “Every water treatment plant should be checked because I am of the opinion and I’m not alone, that they are not being checked.”
Cathaoirleach Cllr Brendan Mulroy said he fully supported his colleagues and wanted an update on the Newport treatment plant also. He added: “To be fair to Cllr Flynn, it will be up to us to take on board what people say to us on this, in our vote in two weeks time. I would say that, particularly in a time where mental health concerns are so high, dogs are a best friend, and walking their dog on the beach could be the best bit of good mental health people do on that day. Also, a dog gets people through hard periods in their life, so I would be very slow to take that liberty away from anyone, to walk their dog on a beach.”