Dune conservation at Portstewart Strand

Porstewart strand dune conservation

The spectacular sand dune system at Portstewart Strand has been declared an Area of Special Scientific Interest due to the rare and fragile habitats and wildlife that it supports. Often under the threat of coastal erosion, this unique eco-system faces another danger – sea buckthorn, a highly invasive coastal shrub characterised by dense, thorny branches and striking orange berries.

If left unmanaged sea buckthorn will readily colonise the sand dunes, turning them into a dense scrub/forest mosaic and threatening the native wildlife here, including rare plants and 18 recorded species of butterfly.  Rare plants at risk include seaside centaury, bee and frog orchids.

Project partnership with NIEA
An exciting buckthorn control project has now begun in partnership with Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) who is funding the £100,000 scheme.  
‘Substantial work is underway to remove areas of buckthorn from the sand dunes,’ explains North Coast area ranger Barry Crawford. ‘Mechanical clearing to remove approximately 3.5 Ha (8.6 acres) of buckthorn from a 35 acre selected site is the first stage. This will be followed by the installation of stock fencing, water infrastructure and finally the introduction of grazing cattle onto the site to maintain the dune grasslands. The protection of developing dunes will also be supported with low level post and rope along the edge of part of the strand. These initial works were all completed in April 2017. Further good news includes additional NIEA funding for further sea buckthorn removal works during winter months of 2018/2019. This includes 3.1 hectares (9.1 acres) of buckthorn. Further embryo dunes fencing is also happening, again low level posts.

Conservation methods
Cattle grazing is a tried and tested conservation method that has been used in other areas of the dune system at Portstewart to great effect, significantly reducing grass sward height and allowing rare plants such as orchids and winter annuals to flourish on the short turf.

Cattle grazing ocurs for six months of the year (no grazing during period May to September inclusive), using up to 20 cows. Grazing areas currently include the saltmarsh, but by April grazing will be confined to sand dunes only using the new paddock fencing. Due to a large area of sand dunes now fenced (117 acres), more cattle are to be brought in October 2018, being increased to 35 cows.

The dunes are an Area of Special Scientific Interest
Porstewart strand dune conservation 2
The dunes are an Area of Special Scientific Interest

The dunes are undoubtedly magnificent, but their structure is fragile, and so another vital part of the conservation project is to improve public access through a series of boarded/stepped entrance points, kissing gates and stiles. ‘We want people to come and enjoy a walk through the dunes but we recognise that in order to protect them, access needs to be managed,’ adds Barry. ‘ The public access gates and stiles are now all in place, completed in April 2017.

The appropriately sited boarded entrance points and stiles will provide a clear guided route into the dune system, allowing access to specific points, as well as protecting the surrounding wildlife and fragile habitats.’

Long-term maintenance
Once the project is complete the Trust will continue to maintain the dunes through the spraying of any buckthorn seedlings re-growth, management of the cattle grazing through a farm tenant, and ongoing maintenance of the fences and paths.

‘Our rangers, with the support of the volunteers at Portstewart Strand will ensure the ongoing preservation and conservation of this important dune system,’ says Barry. ‘Come spring, visitors will be able to walk through the cleared dunes and enjoy the rich and diverse wildlife that live there.’