Hideous concrete structures may not be needed to protect beautiful coastlines from vanishing into the sea, according to research from the University of Sheffield, writes Martin Ince.
The university's environmental consultants, Ecus, found in a study for the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) that it is often possible to use sand dunes and shingle beaches instead of concrete to prevent erosion.
Chris Routh, Ecus managing director, said: "Architects often propose hard concrete structures such as sea walls. This report suggests that more design care could produce something far less intrusive."
About 75 per cent of the Welsh coastline is designated as having some form of landscape value as a national park, a site of special scientific interest or an area of outstanding natural beauty. Dr Routh said: "Many of these coastlines are subject to heavy erosion, especially with sea-level changes. We have a duty to make the ways we slow the erosion as unintrusive as we can. You can spend a lot of money playing King Canute but if land has been in a family for generations farmers can be very emotional about it."
John Briggs, seascapes officer at the CCW, said: "The Sheffield report is already being used in Scotland and other parts of the UK. Often a beach that is being eroded is doing so because material is being removed faster than it can accumulate. This report shows that instead of building sea defences, the status quo can be maintained if you provide material such as sand and shingle that replaces what is lost."
Sometimes it is also necessary to repair damage caused by sea defences elsewhere along a coastline. Mr Briggs said: "There are many parts of the coast of Wales where there are towns, railways or other valuable assets.
There, hard concrete can often be acceptable, or even traditional. But often architects add heavy rock armour that is intrusive and prevents access to the beach.
"You have to remember that the coast is in danger from heavy seas only about 5 per cent of the time but you want the benefits for the other 95 per cent."