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Our work at Woolacombe

A ranger with a litter picker claw on a beach clean at Woolacombe
A ranger on a beach clean | © National Trust Images/Hannah Burton

The North Devon Coast was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) more than 60 years ago. At the heart of the AONB lie the sand dunes of Woolacombe, which the National Trust help to care for and conserve to this day. Find out more about how we protect these precious dunes and tackle the unending problem of litter, particularly plastics.

Past sand dune management

Traditionally, we thought sand dunes needed to be protected from disturbance and should remain stabilised. Over the decades this has led to very stable dunes that have become overgrown with vegetation as the dunes had nothing to keep them dynamic.

Allowing invasive species to thrive

Invasive species have also become a big problem; when plants or animals which aren’t native to a dune environment end up in a sand dune, they flourish quickly and overwhelm the other species which have adapted to live there.

With this comes species loss and decreased biodiversity. All the extra plant growth means the sand has become more enriched with nutrients too, encouraging even more plant growth and stabilisation.

Now the dunes in North Devon are becoming smothered by scrub and trees. The previously open sandy habitats are being buried and rare wildlife that needs areas of open sand to thrive are being pushed out.

Dynamic Dunescapes

The aims of the Dynamic Dunescapes project are to slow the acceleration of plant growth, restore their mosaic landscape and bring back the dynamic nature of the dunes into a self-regulating system.

This is a large and ambitious nationwide project targeting sand dunes across England and Wales, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the EU LIFE programme. Our project is a partnership between Natural England, Plantlife, Natural Resources Wales, The Wildlife Trusts and National Trust places including Woolacombe and Studland Bay.

Cattle grazing on the Warren at Woolacombe
Cattle grazing on the Woolacombe Warren | © National Trust Images/Joshua Day

Conservation grazing

The work on the dunes at Woolacombe includes removing and breaking up dense scrub. To move away from using mechanical mowers, the North Devon ruby red cattle, known as ‘the ladies’, break up the bramble on the dunes as they graze, creating a range of height and variety in the plant life. This makes the dunes a much healthier habitat in which insects and wildflowers can flourish again.

In an innovative initiative led by the National Trust, their grazing area is marked by cables buried in the dunes. When the cattle approach this border, the collars they wear sound an alarm to let them know not to go further. This means obtrusive physical fences and turnstiles are not needed, allowing the rolling dunes to retain their natural character. 

Bringing back bare sand

Our work at Braunton Burrows will create new areas of bare sand. This will give threatened sand-loving wildlife such as sand lizards, as well as a huge variety of plants, places where they can thrive again.

As we remove scrub to allow the dunes the freedom to shift again, we’ll also be removing invasive plant species such as Japanese rose and sea buckthorn. Left unchecked, these non-local plants can grow very quickly and outcompete native species.

We also want to subvert the presumption that walking and playing on the dunes will harm them. Instead, we want to inspire people about these beautiful habitats and encourage them to visit the dunes of North Devon.

A visitor on a beach clean at Woolacombe
A visitor taking part in a beach clean | © National Trust Images/Mel Peters

The problem with litter

Litter has always been a big problem on beaches and in the countryside, as it is hugely damaging to the wildlife and environment.

Here on the golden sands of Woolacombe we employ seasonal beach rangers to help care for the beach in the busy summer months. They not only carry out essential maintenance work and daily beach cleans, but also engage with visitors and the local community to make it a communal effort to keep Woolacombe beach clean and healthy.

However the team are now keen to expand this initiative throughout the entire year. Surprisingly little waste actually comes from visitors to the beach – the majority comes from the sea itself. Indeed, winter is often one of the worst times of year for beach litter as a lot of debris is washed up in winter storms.

Dealing with plastic and ‘nurdles’

Unsurprisingly, plastic is the most common material washed ashore – in 2019 a staggering 90% of beach rubbish collected on Woolacombe was plastic or polystyrene, with the other 10% made up of a mixture of materials including metal, glass, cardboard and ceramics.

Nurdles are small plastic pellets used by industry to make nearly all our plastic products. Tiny and often overlooked, they are actually one of the most harmful and prevalent pieces of plastic accumulating on beaches across the world. Nurdles are dangerous primarily because:

  • Their similarity to fish eggs and small crustaceans means they are often mistaken for food by seabirds and marine animals and enter the food chain
  • Like all other plastics, they do not go away; just break down into smaller plastic particles
  • They attract and concentrate environmental pollutants to highly toxic levels

It is now alarmingly common to find plastic in the stomachs of seabirds – a recent study by the environmental charity Fidra revealed that over 95% of fulmars in the North Sea contained plastic; one even had 273 nurdles in its stomach.

This is why we focus our efforts on removing these harmful pieces of plastic.

How you can help

Our team in North Devon have been working closely with partner organisations such as Keep Britain Tidy, Beach Care, 2 Minute Beach Clean and the Marine Conservation Society.

The data gathered from these organised beach cleans can be used to make a real difference by providing evidence to petition for change.

We've got plenty of beach cleans and litter picks happening across the country. Why not find one near you?

Thank you

With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.

A surfer running towards the sea in winter at Woolacombe, Devon


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