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Conserving the UK’s dynamic dunescapes

(c) Rupert Hawley

Rare plant species are gradually starting to reappear in some of the UK’s most threatened habitats thanks to a pioneering partnership project which aims to conserve sand dunes across England and Wales.

The Dynamic Dunescapes project has seen Plantlife, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, the National Trust and local wildlife trusts join forces to rejuvenate and proactively manage these unique habitats for the benefit of native species.

It comes after sand dunes became among the most threatened habitats across Europe and the UK, where they have declined by a third since 1900. Much of the remaining two thirds is in poor condition, in turn leading to the loss of both individual species and species abundance.

Dynamic Dunescapes aims to reverse this. The project started life as a trial at Braunton Burrows on the north Devon coast, which is the largest uninterrupted sand dune system in the UK. Concerned about the deteriorating habitat quality and species loss, Plantlife worked with Christie Estates, which privately owns the dunes, to carry out pioneering trials removing rank vegetation and scraping areas back to bare sand.

Braunton Burrows is home to nearly one third of UK native plant species, including Round-headed Club-rush and Water Germander which are both recorded in only one other location.

Other threatened species include:

  • Sand Lizard
  • Great-crested Newt
  • Amber Sandbowl Snail / Sand Amber Snail / Sandbowl Snail

The trials quickly proved successful, with sheets of newly regenerated Round-headed Club-rush and isolated Water Germander shoots appearing, along with a wide diversity of more common species. The results were used to shape a successful funding bid to the EU LIFE programme and National Heritage Lottery Fund, which has been used to kickstart Dynamic Dunescapes so that techniques developed at Braunton Burrows can be replicated across the UK.

Building on the management which took place as part of these original trials, Plantlife has continued to lead work at Braunton Burrows, which is the largest conservation intervention ever seen on British sand dunes. Significant areas have been surveyed during 2021/22 and more than 400 items of unexploded Second World War ordinance safely removed. Nearly 90 acres (36 hectares) of scrub have been cleared by diggers and more than 25 acres (10 hectares) scraped back to create large areas of suitable habitat for dune specialist species.

Botanical surveys carried out in areas which have been scraped have revealed a range of exciting finds, including a rare liverwort called Petalwort.

As a result of this ground-breaking work, just 3% of the Burrows are now bare sand compared with around 50% in the 1950s. Feedback from visitors has also been extremely positive.

Image credits: Header image - Rupert Hawley

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