Studland's sand dunes

Dune heath at Studland Bay

Studland Beach is enjoyed by millions every year – but not everyone realises that it hasn’t always been there.

Sand began being deposited on the eastern shore of the Studland peninsula only about 500 years ago: the beach we all enjoy is just the seaward edge of a dune system that has been growing ever since. 

In that time the dunes have formed a barrier that has separated Little Sea, a freshwater lake, from the sea itself. At the northern end of the peninsula the dunes are still growing at more than 1m per year, and the peninsula is nearly 1km wide.

Summer brings out dragonflies like this four-spotted chaser
A four-spotted chaser dragonfly

Dunes are formed as wind blows sand up from the beach into mounds and ridges, and they continue to blow around until they are stabilised by the dune specialist marram grass. 

The Studland dunes themselves are unusual, because they are made of acidic sand with very low shell content.

Meadow pipits can be seen parachuting over their nesting sites in spring
A meadow pipit

This acidity means that after about 60 years, when the roots of the marram grass have anchored the sand in place, they become colonised by heather, and most of the Studland dune system is characterised by an unusual habitat known as dune heath. With more than 75 hectares, Studland is the largest area of dune heath on the South Coast. 

As well as the marram, the younger dunes are home to an array of wildflowers throughout the summer, with the powder blue sheep’s bit and the golden yellow cat’s ear constant companions. 

Look closely and you will find much rarer plants as well: such as the red data book listed sea stock, or the seashore specialist prickly saltwort. 

Further inland and into the heather, the dune heath has fewer wildflowers, but it is home to particularly important lichen and fungi communities.

Cladonia or reindeer lichen carpets the floor even in winter
Cladonia lichen

There is nowhere on the South Coast where you can see so many of the Cladonia ‘reindeer’ lichens that carpet the floor, and Studland is the only site in England and Wales for the sand earthtongue fungus, a highlight of autumn that nestles between the heather and the marram. 

Sand earthtongue fungus appear in autumn where the heather meets the marram grass – the only site in England and wales you will find them
a sand earthtongue fungus

The dune heath is also home to all six native reptiles, birds including breeding nightjar and Dartford warbler, and many specialist invertebrates that thrive on the many sunspots on the south-facing slopes.

Difficult terrain means we rely on grazing animals to keep it from turning to scrub and woodland; rabbits and deer both play their part, but in the past cattle grazed on the Studland peninsula and we are currently looking at how we can bring them back safely.