“I’m standing at the entrance to a low cave at Mewslade on the South Gower Coast. Behind me I can hear the waves as the tide recedes. I’m surrounded by people wielding knives and small saws and someone has a large iron crowbar but it’s ok because I have a knife of my own. And anyway, we’re all here with one common purpose. The Gower Seal Group have come together to remove a particularly large piece of ghost netting from inside the cave.”
Ghost netting is the cover term for any piece of rope or net that has been discarded by the fishing industry. It causes a particular hazard for marine wildlife, either when the unfortunate creatures get tangled up in the web of net or when they ingest the smaller fibres. Seals are particularly vulnerable as they like to play with things they find in their environment and can easily become caught in netting, which it is almost impossible to get free from.
“How difficult it is to remove the netting quickly becomes obvious to us as we begin to cut away at the net caught inside the cave. The nylon rope woven into the net is around 15mm thick and resistant to cutting, even with a sharp knife. Only those tools with serrated edges are able to make an impression and the position of the net means that it is difficult to get into a position to saw away without quickly cramping up.”
This net had first been noted around 20 years ago by one of the Gower National Trust rangers. It was firmly wedged inside the cave and all attempts to drag it free were unsuccessful. Over the years it had become more twisted and jammed with the action of the tides and the net had filled with sand and rocks. When Gareth and I checked out the location the day before, it was clear that there would be a lot of work to do and it would take most of the day to remove the bulk of the net. Fortunately, the Gower Seal Group volunteers were keen to get involved.
“The cave is cramped and only two people can work on the net at any one time. The darkness and confined space means that we have to be careful that it is rope we’re cutting and not another volunteer’s fingers. But quite quickly we manage to remove the first chunk of net and it’s dragged off to waiting rubbish bags. But we still have to get it up and off the beach along a narrow and, in places, rocky path. So the plan is to cut the net into smaller pieces to be distributed in several large refuse sacks. The National Trust have provided a pick-up truck and will store whatever we remove at their Gower HQ until it can be collected for recycling.
Most of the nylon netting and rope found washed up on our shores can be recycled in some way. Some companies make wristbands and necklaces from it. Many plastics from beach cleans are reused to make beach cleaning equipment such as pickers and rings to hold collection bags. But there are no facilities for recycling in Wales and so the rubbish has to be collected in bulk and taken away for recycling elsewhere.
With the first piece gone, it becomes clear that there is more net than we first thought and that it is partially buried by sand and rock. There follows some intense sawing interspersed with some novel swearing before the next piece is removed. Volunteers swap places and the work continues, with smaller pieces being cut clear to help expose the bigger mass of rope.
Meanwhile, the volunteers not cutting and clearing are on the beach doing an impromptu beach clean. Mewslade is a small beach and is not easily accessible so there are fewer visitors than at the more popular beaches. But rubbish is still washed up on the rocks and the beach cleaners are hoovering up anything they can find. They are joined by a few of the visitors on this grey January morning.
I’ve done a shift at the net and I take a breather and see to the other task I have today, which is to make a short video about the net removal. You can see the resulting video, ‘Ditch the Net’ on our YouTube channel. I’m filming some of the beach cleaning when there’s a shout that more net has been found. Following the directions, I spot Gareth climbing up on the rocks and dragging an orange net from where the previous hide tide had left it. The rope of this net is thinner but no less lethal to anything caught up in it. And this one was loose and could have been washed back out to sea again. It goes in one of the bags.
We take a short break for lunch, sitting on the rocks and watching the sea. On the cliffs to the left, Choughs fly around disturbed by the wind and the walkers peering down to see what we’re doing.
Back at the cave, a significant part of the net has now been removed and what is left is the tricky bit that has been twisted and pulled deeper by the actions of 20 years of tides. There follows a short tug of war session which loosens and removes another length of net but we are getting to the point now where the little that is left is beyond our ability to remove. We cut as much of what can be seen above ground away; this is nylon after all and any strands left may end up in the oceans so each little bit that is recovered is important.
The rubbish bags we brought have all been used. We re-distribute the netting to try and even out the weight across the bags. Finally, and a little reluctantly, we call it a day on the net and retreat back onto the beach. Now we have to get all the rubbish and tools off the beach and ready for collection. The National Trust ranger has taken one load with him but it’s still a tough ask for all involved in the day as we slowly make our way through the woods and up the valley, finally reaching the car park. It’s been 6 hours and we’re all tired but there’s a sense of achievement as we all gather around for the grand weighing.”
The Gower Seal group volunteers removed a total of 134kg of net, probably 99% of what was there in the cave, and 6.5kg of general rubbish from the beach. It was an absolutely incredible achievement for all involved and despite aching limbs and sore fingers, everyone was buzzing from the day’s activities.