Northern Ireland

The beach operators keeping Northern Ireland beautiful

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Media captionGill McIlmoyle went from her office job to managing a beach

Northern Ireland's beaches have long been renowned for their natural beauty and scenic sands.

Many will have bucket and spade and sunny day memories of visits to the Whiterocks, Portstewart or Benone.

It's probably no surprise that eight Northern Ireland beaches currently hold a Blue Flag, the globally recognised award that only the world's best beaches achieve.

But it may be a surprise to hear that those coastline havens aren't completely au-naturel. They need a little touch-up now and then.

That's where the beach operators come in.

Who are Northern Ireland's Blue Flag beach operators?

Image caption Portstewart's beach operator Gill McIlmoyle

In the north west, two main operators manage the region's Blue Flag beaches.

Richard Gillen, Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council's coast and countryside manager, looks after each of the north west's sites, with the exception of Portstewart Strand in County Londonderry.

It's managed by Gill McIlmoyle of the National Trust.

"I worked in an office-based banking job for 34 years, but for all my life I wanted to be outdoors," Mrs McIlmoyle says.

"You only need to look around you to see why.

"I love the place. I love the people. I love sharing what we have here with others because they are completely blown away by it.

"Not everybody has something as beautiful as this on their doorstep, so it was always in the back of my head that this is where I want to be."

How do you get a Blue Flag?

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Image caption The beaches rely on volunteers participating in litter pick ups to keep the beaches in award-winning condition.

Blue Flags have been awarded to beaches across the world for three decades.

Over time, the qualifying criteria has evolved.

At present, there are four main assessment areas:

Mr Gillen says some aspects of beach life, like water quality, are beyond the control of beach operators.

But there are many aspects they can influence.

"That includes lifeguard provision, so we work with our partners in the RNLI to provide the beachgoers with the highest possible standard of safety that we can," he says.

"We also have to manage activities on the beach, the use of vehicles, facilities on offer such as showers, toilets, bins and dog-free zones, so it's all about making the beach as accessible to people as possible."

If a beach operator feels that their site meets this criteria, they can apply for a Blue Flag through their country's national operator.

Who oversees the Blue Flag scheme for Northern Ireland?

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Image caption Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful launching Clean Coast Week

Northern Ireland's national operator is Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful.

It has just launched its latest project - Clean Coast Week - which is a series of community-based litter picks and clean ups.

Dr Jade Berman is its environmental and business development manager and works to help beaches achieve Blue Flag accreditation.

"One of the things that I do is act like a guide to help share the best practices between the various beach operators across the country," she says.

"I'll also help them fill in their application forms to make sure that they cover all of the criteria and, if not, I'll go back and ask them to make changes if anything is missing."

Image caption Benone Strand is one of the eight beaches in Northern Ireland to receive a Blue Flag

Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful organises an independent, national jury to look over the applications.

If a beach gets through this stage, it goes before an international jury.

If all the boxes are ticked, a Blue Flag is awarded.

Why is receiving a Blue Flag significant?

Image caption Portstewart Strand's 2019 Blue Flag

The international director for the Blue Flag programme, Sophie Bachet Granados, deems the Blue Flag a sign of the highest standard.

"It's incredibly important to us that we only award the beaches that fully comply. We're very strict and stringent and do a lot of checks before, during and after the season, so it means we're known by the public."

'There is a real sense of ownership'

Image caption Despite the grey clouds, bathing season has officially started now that it's June

Working on a beach might sound like a glamorous job, and as much as Mrs McIlmoyle has a passion for it, some days can prove to be a challenge.

"Some of our volunteers are here picking up rubbish at six in the morning to make sure it's presentable, but the most difficult thing is those really hard winter days when you're doing that litter pick for the sake of a few visitors.

"It can be very cold sitting down there where we have no heaters. It's freezing, but it's the warm welcome that we give that gets us over it.

"So we're very proud to be showing off our beach, and I'm very proud to do the job I do."