June 27th, 2018
Impressive sand dune systems are iconic features of the Welsh coast. But what lies within them? We discover the inner life of our dunes and feature two stunning places to visit.
The sand dune is one of the coast’s most prominent contradictions. These vast areas that dominate the coastline of Wales are home to sprawling and enormous walls of shifting sand; at once both huge and impenetrable but also incredibly delicate and fragile.
A grain of sand on its own is tiny and insignificant, but when nature clusters hundreds of billions of them together the effect is maze-like and compact. The sand unites to create towering dunes that stand tall above the human footprints that tread softly across them or the plants and animals that make them their home.
Sand dunes are some of the most important eco-systems along the coast, providing safe habitats for small animals, insects, plants and birds. They are also invaluable barriers against rising tides and floods for the hundreds of coastal communities that live behind them.
It’s no surprise that many of these important but fragile environments are heavily protected. According to figures from the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), over 75% of the coastline of Wales between the high and low tide lines are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). These special designations serve to protect the sites from development, erosion and building.
But, sand dunes are continually under threat, and not just from human impact. Changes in weather and environmental habitats can all have an effect on the life of our dunes.
Sand dunes usually develop where there is a wide, stretching beach and plenty of space for the wind to whip along it, pick up sand grains and drop them further inland where they will be protected from strong coastal gusts. The sheltered inlet at Aberffraw on the west coast of Anglesey provides the perfect environment for dune systems, and the dune fields here are some of the finest in the country.
The dunes at Aberffraw, and nearby Newborough Warren, are renowned for their rich and fertile grounds which are home to numerous species of plants and fauna. Shore Dock is one of the rarest plants of the Welsh coastline, but it can be found among the dunes at Aberffraw, along the damp edges of ponds and streams. You might also see plentiful orchids, violets and clover hidden among the spiny dune grasses, and the complex ecosystem here supports one of the wealthiest populations of invertebrates in the local area.
Some of the dunes here are ever changing and moving, with the wind, rain and tides all playing a part in the periodic shift of the sands. Many areas of dunes however are much more stable, and this is largely thanks to a clever plant called Maramm Grass. This grass is one of the most common “building blocks” of sand dunes – the long spindly leaves cleverly trap sand grains between them and it’s capable of growing without much moisture, so it’s perfectly suited to a dry and sandy home.
Aberffraw is strewn with areas rich in marram grass; indeed, during the 16th century the area rapidly grew up around a marram grass cottage industry as it was used to make nets, rope, baskets and matting. Not much of the industry remains today, but the vast expanses of rich, fertile and beautiful dunes serve as a reminder of our dependence on these stunning natural phenomena.
Ynyslas Nature Reserve
And a little further south, the dune systems at Ynyslas on the Ceredigion coast at mid Wales are one of the most renowned in the country, and they are known not least for the enormous numbers of birds and wildlife that make their home in the rolling sandy hills.
The dunes are part of the Dyfi Valley Nature Reserve, and last year provided the wild location for the 2011 BBC Springwatch series. Animals that live here include lizards, stoats, rabbits and voles, not to mention the vast numbers of birds that swoop, hover and fly over the dunes and banks, making their nests or on the look-out for pray. Skylarks, ringed plovers, gannets and manx shearwater birds are all regular visitors to the Ynyslas dunes.
Sand dunes look arid, dry and unwelcoming, so their ability to support huge varieties and numbers of different wildlife is astonishing. What is it about sand dunes that make them a haven for small animals and birds? One reason is that the range of different conditions that usually exist in sand dunes, from dry to moist and from open to sheltered for example, make them attractive homes for a variety of animals.
The dunes’ proximity to rich muddy plains when the tide recedes is what makes them good homes for many wading birds. Shelducks particularly like sand dunes because they often nest under shrubs or in old rabbit holes.