Braunton Burrows is my ‘go to’ fieldwork site for Geographers and Biologists wishing to explore sand dunes.
What makes Braunton Burrows such an exceptional location is simply the sheer scale of the dunes themselves. The Burrows is the largest psammosere in England and spans an area of 13.567 km2 (roughly 1000 football pitches!), across which is divided high ridges and low slacks accommodating the complete successional range of dune plant communities.
470 species of flowering plant, 11 species of orchid, 33 species of butterfly, and 5 of the 6 reptile species found in the UK call the dunes home. 14 of the rarest examples of flora and fauna are protected with UK Biodiversity Action Plans; the Amber Sandbowl Snail only occurs in one other site in the country.
The affectionate name ‘Burrows’ comes from the rabbits, whose descendants enigmatically hopped an escape from Roman cook pots some centuries ago. Decades of diligent nibbling kept the invasive scrub levels down, achieving a steady plagioclimax allowing plants and flowers to thrive and keeping biodiversity high
Declining rabbit numbers in recent years mean that cattle is now used to graze the undergrowth, consolidating clearance work undertaken by local volunteers and wardens. The herd is made up of Devon Reds, a hardy traditional breed - indigenous to North Devon - which graze between three dedicated zones throughout the seasons. The human volunteers are equally robust(!).
Due to all this, a plethora of life so carefully conserved, Braunton Burrows enjoys a collection of significant designations; UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, National nature reserve (part), Site of Special Scientific Interest, Ramsar site, Special Area of Conservation, North Devon AONB, and North Devon Heritage Coast. When tutoring students in how to justify their chosen fieldwork location within their investigation report, I often liken these designations to a list of qualifications held by a candidate in a job interview scenario; the interviewer needs to critically evaluate the relative boasts of each interviewee to justify a singular job offer, and a fieldworker choosing the perfect fieldwork location must do much the same.
Braunton Burrows is a location easily justified.
Rich in natural history, the Burrows also has an interesting association with World War Two. It was chosen as the site to establish the Assault Training Centre by the American Army as it prepared for the D-Day invasion. Between 1943-1944, over 10,000 American GI's trained in the sand dunes and remnants of this era remain in the form of mock concrete landing craft and a bazooka wall – very popular with lizards basking on a hot day.
However, sand dunes across the UK look very different today than in times past. Since 1900, sand dune habitats have declined nationally by a third putting endangered species at risk. Sand dunes are listed as the habitat most at risk in Europe, with rich biodiversity smothered by invasive plants, vulnerable embryo dunes stampeded by visiting holidaymakers, and naturally mobile and dynamic dune systems locked in place by management to become static and sterile grassy hillocks.
Thankfully, a pioneering partnership, Dynamic Dunescapes, is now offering a radical new approach to managing sand dunes in the UK that aims to reverse over 100 years of decline. Natural England has teamed up with the National Trust, Plantlife, The Wildlife Trusts and Natural Resources Wales to combine industry expertise and achieve a sustainable future for sand dune landscapes working closely with landowners and communities.
£4 million of National Lottery funding is to be spent on improving the condition of nine identified dune cluster sites in 2020:
Anglesey and Gwynedd
Lincolnshire Sand Hills
North Cornwall Coast
Studland Dunes, Dorset
Swansea, Neath, Port Talbot
Braunton Burrows, North Devon Coast
“This is a really exciting project with a pioneering approach to dune management. In recent decades the approach has been to keep dunes where they are by using fencing and vegetation. We now know that this is bad news for some of the rare species that make their homes among our dunes and they need to be able to naturally move – to be Dynamic Dunescapes.
“It’s not easy to get the balance right – we need dunes to move but we don’t want them to end up in people’s gardens or taking over the beachside car park. Thanks to this National Lottery funding and the expertise of the partnership organisations, this project can begin to find ways of addressing these pressing issues.”
Drew Bennellick, Head of Land and Nature Policy UK at The National Lottery Heritage Fund
“I am delighted to be part of this fantastic project supported by new funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Sand dunes are some of our most precious landscapes, providing a home for a treasure chest of wildflowers and other species. Sadly they are also the most at-risk habitat in Europe.
“People can now enjoy a habitat they have long been encouraged to keep off. We know now that walking and playing on dunes can help create bare sand and crevices for the special wildlife that lives here to colonise. That’s why we’ll be inviting more people to become citizen scientists and discover the fantastic heritage at the top of the beach.”
Marian Spain, Interim Chief Executive of Natural England
“Sand dunes evoke some of my happiest memories of beach holidays both as a child having picnics or as an adult watching the ravens soaring overhead. So many of us have those memories but as a society we have taken our dunes for granted and lost too many to erosion and development. As a result they are now critically endangered. It is fabulous that The National Lottery Heritage Fund is helping The Wildlife Trusts and other partners to do something about this.”
“The National Lottery Heritage Fund is behind a major programme to halt the decline of our sand dunes and restore them to dynamic and mobile ecosystems. Not only will this help to save the wonderful plants and creatures that live within and around the dunes, it will also re-establish their important role as a natural flood defence. We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to experience the joy of the sand dunes around our coasts. This programme will mean that thousands of people from all walks of life have that chance and gives that opportunity to future generations.”
Stephanie Hilborne OBE, CEO of The Wildlife Trusts
Good news for Geography and Biology fieldwork at Braunton Burrows next year in 2020!
The majority of our students explore the extent to which abiotics have an effect on observable biotics throughout different areas of the dunes. Antecedent environmental variables such as wind speed, temperature, ground moisture, and soil pH have a profound and obvious effect on the plant species that students are able to identify and record in a gridded quadrat across a belt transect.
Students are able to ‘pair’ certain dune characteristics with certain species of plant, understanding that an area bereft of soil humus coupled with high exposure to onshore gusts means that only plants with distinct adaptations can enjoy success in such a hostile habitat. As the ecological niche widens with gentler habitats, biodiversity blooms as a greater abundance of plants are able to flourish. Careful maintenance of a plagioclimax ensures that not one species or type of plant grows too dominant at the cost of greater diversity.
The unique nature of sand dune morphology offers a strong environmental gradient across a distance, offering students the chance to explore conceptual theories such as plant succession that would otherwise only occur over a span of time.
Essentially, abiotics and biotics change as you walk inland away from the shoreline. The ability for students to ‘walk a timeline’ of UK plant species, from hardy pioneers such as Marram grass through to climax vegetation such as oak trees, coupled with microclimates found in variations between exposed ridges and sheltered slacks, is an incredible opportunity to study a unique ecosystem and allows for some fantastic datasets to interrogate.
More complex fieldwork investigations use the data to form evidence towards a decision-making assessment of the efficacy of dune conservation management plans. Areas of frequent grazing can be compared and contrasted against areas without frequent grazing, for example. Student fieldworkers contribute their primary field data to vast reserves of secondary data which can help support observations of biodiversity pattern change over time.
I would predict that a fair amount of Geography A'Level NEA Independent Investigations will be looking at the work of Dynamic Dunescapes quite carefully.
Grab a quadrat and a soil probe, 2020 will be a great year for Sand Dunes!