Rare plants and animals to be saved in sand dune project

A COASTAL project is to launch to conserve Barrow’s sandy oases. To help combat the biodiversity loss currently experienced by coastal dunes, the Dynamic Dunescapes project will remove layers of turf from sand dunes in Cumbria Working in partnership across important sand dune sites at North Walney, Sandscale Haws and Askam Shore, Natural England and National Trust will create five hectares of new habitat for threatened sand dune species this winter starting in December.

Richard Storton is Natural England’s Dynamic Dunescapes Project Officer for Cumbria. He said: “There are many specialist pioneer species that have adapted to colonise these areas, such as natterjack toads, northern dune tiger beetle, Isle of Man cabbage and dune pansy. These and many other species will benefit from a range of different work that we are carrying out to increase dune biodiversity over the next few years.”

Cumbria is known for being one of the few places in the UK that the rare sand dune-dwelling natterjack toad and northern dune tiger beetle can be found. But coastal sand dunes are the most threatened habitat type in Europe for biodiversity loss. The Dynamic Dunescapes project is restoring up to 7,000 hectares of sand dune in England and Wales by 2023.

It is funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund, and partners in Cumbria are Natural England, Cumbria Wildlife Trust and National Trust. One of the key drivers of the dunes’ ecological decline is a loss of nutrient-poor, bare sandy habitats within the dune system. As more vegetation grows on our dunes, the bare sand becomes stabilised by their roots and a more soil-like turf layer develops.

The toads, lizards and insects that burrow in the bare sand find themselves with less space to make their homes, and the plant species like wild pansy and the rare Walney geranium that thrive on bare sand conditions become smothered by turf-loving plants. Turf stripping exposes the bare sand below, and restores the type of habitat that has been lost in recent decades. An eight-tonne excavator and a six-tonne dumper truck will be used to remove the turf from the scrape area, and use the removed material to build into natural features on the site, which will reduce the amount of disturbance caused moving machinery on and off the site.

At Askam, areas of invasive Japanese Rose (Rosa rugosa) which are smothering areas of the dunes will also be removed. Darren Mason is an Area Ranger at National Trust Sandscale Haws. He said: “With no guarantee currently that countries can keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees celcius, habitats such as sand dune systems become ever more significant in helping protect vulnerable coastal communities and the biodiversity reliant on sand dunes against increasing pressures from climate change.

Turf stripping is a tried-and-tested technique used by sand dune site managers. Sarah Dalrymple, Cumbria Wildlife Trust, led the Dynamic Dunescapes-funded turf stripping that took place at South Walney Nature Reserve in the winter of in 2020/2021. She said: “Dune restoration at South Walney began in 2015 through the Dunes of Barrow project and has continued with the Dynamic Dunescapes project.

We have removed a thin layer of species-poor topsoil to expose bare sand underneath, encouraging rarer dune species and increasing plant diversity. “It’s been a great success, with almost five hectares of grassland restored to the dune habitats that would have existed here until 100 years ago.” The public are asked to keep their distance from the work, keep dogs under close control and to pay attention to signs on site.

Natural England are overseeing the works across all sites, and working in partnership with National Trust at Sandscale Haws.