Thrift on the South Devon coast
Blasted by salty sea winds, steep cliff edges with thin dry soils which are often in drought conditions, the beautiful thrift or sea pink thrives in conditions where many other plants would suffer.
The coastal slopes in South Devon are important for many plant species, as well as rare lichens, invertebrates and breeding birds. Many of these sites are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), in recognition of the importance of the wildlife and geology which make up the dramatic landscape.
Despite the perception that we are ‘soft southerners’ with mild winters and palm trees; the coastal areas around Prawle Point, Bolt Head to Bolt Tail and Wembury Point are very exposed sites. Strong salty winds batter the cliff faces through the winter. These conditions mean that you will notice very few trees on the coastal areas but lots of low growing scrub. This is made up mainly of gorse and blackthorn, both adapted to surviving in exposed conditions. The scrub areas are important as they offer shelter, nesting sites and are a source of nectar early in the year with their fantastic shows of yellow (gorse) and white (blackthorn) blossom.
Managing scrub growth
One of the many challenges of managing coastal areas is working out the best way to control the scrub growth, as these plants will take over. They form huge dense areas of scrub which have less value in terms of wildlife habitat than a mixed landscape with scrub patches and areas of open grassland. We have been working hard to improve the conditions of our coastal slopes in South Devon. The tenant farmers can be reluctant to stock these areas with sheep or cattle, due to the steep cliff edges and poor grazing conditions. However some of our tenants specialise in coastal grazing and species of cattle and sheep as well as the hardy Dartmoor pony thrive in these conditions. As well as concerns of losing livestock over the cliff edges, these areas are understandably very popular with walkers so dog attacks and dogs chasing livestock off the cliffs are a serious issue.
Where our coastal grasslands are in the best condition the areas are grazed by a mix of livestock. This is because sheep, cattle and ponies graze in different ways and give different benefits. For example the hooves of cattle and horses are very effective at trampling the young bracken shoots as they emerge, helping to keep this vigorous plant under control. Ponies eat the freshly emerging gorse and blackthorn shoots during late winter and the sheep are very adept at accessing large areas of steep coastal slopes where the larger livestock would not be able to graze.
Another way the scrub and bracken is kept under control is through mechanical cutting. We use specialist contractors who have tracked machines with flails. They cut areas of scrub through the winter on steep coastal slopes. Once these areas are cut the animals can then access them to maintain the grassland areas. This process takes years of work and lots of investment, but is vitally important in improving the condition of the SSSI. The areas we manage are in Higher Level Stewardship agreements so a large amount of the funding comes from Natural England. However this doesn’t cover all of the costs and the National Trust still has to contribute towards the costs and of course staff time to deliver the work.
Thrift is one of the plants that relies on the coastal slopes being well managed; without grazing and scrub management it would not survive in good numbers. Thrift along with many of the coastal plant species needs open, dry areas which are lost when scrub takes a strong hold.
I find this aspect of my job incredibly rewarding. Being able to contribute to landscape scale conservation work and see the benefits of years of work on an area is a real buzz. I started working in the conservation field 20 years ago because I wanted to make a positive difference to our environment, the work we do with Natural England and the local farmers to achieve a common aim is really rewarding. We also have volunteers that support this work, giving up their time to cut scrub and carry out survey work on the sites.
Thousands of people enjoy the coastline daily, whether walking the dog, going for a run or heading out for a family get together. It is really important the work to maintain these coastal areas is supported; many grants are still being cut so it is more important than ever to support the National Trust in investing in the management of these areas so thrift can continue to be a spring spectacle to look forward to.
Each mile of coast costs us £3,000 to look after each year - that's nearly £1million annually for the South West coast.