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Our work at Sandscale Haws

Grasses at Sandscale Haws, Cumbria, with the Duddon Estuary beyond and a rainbow and wind turbines visible on the hills in the background.
Grasses and willowherb at Sandscale Haws | © National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

While this rugged landscape may appear to be the handiwork of Mother Nature alone, there’s a lot of human help that goes into looking after this special place. Learn how our work at Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve is a year-round effort, helping wildlife to thrive, sand dunes to breathe and improving visitor experience.

Sandscale Haws 40

This year, we're celebrating the 40 anniversary of Sandscale Haws coming under the National Trust’s care. It's a time to reflect on this unique and important nature reserve, and what it means to the people who visit and care for it.

The sandy estuary of the River Duddon, with its wild, grass-covered dunes and panoramic views of the Lakeland fells, is a much-loved local gem for residents in Barrow and Askham. Dedicated rangers and volunteers work year-round to keep the rugged landscape a happy home for wildflowers and wildlife.

Keeping the sand dunes bare

Areas of bare sand provide the right kind of habitat for so much wildlife at Sandscale Haws and it’s a constant job for the ranger team to stop the whole of the sand dune system from turning into grassland.

Shifting sands

Sandscale’s dunes are constantly changing and the oldest dunes here are around 400 years old.

Every year, especially in winter, they face constant battering by winds and sea, building them up and blowing them along the beach to create new dunes.

We call these new dunes ‘embryo’ dunes. They’re the little hummocks of sand which are made when the blown sand forms around grasses like sea lyme grass or sand couch. Their strong roots help to anchor the sand and slowly a dune develops.

The grass takes over

Once the embryo dunes start to get more established and the grasses are completely engulfed by sand, the fast-growing marram grass takes over. It can survive the moving, shifting sand and can grow up to a metre in height every year. Most of the dunes at Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve are now completely covered by grasses which eventually make the whole dune stable.

When it stops growing, other plants and grasses start to move in. These new dune grasslands are rich in wildlife, but the crucial pioneer habitats are gradually lost.

Since 1946 open bare sand habitats at Sandscale have dropped to under 2%. Mobile dunes are now only around the seaward edge of the nature reserve – everywhere else has been covered by grasses and scrub.

Keeping an open habitat

To help create a more open habitat the rangers have been trialling different methods:

Firstly, they’re creating bare patches of sand in the dunes using hand tools. Creating more open areas in the grassland to helps those rare pioneer plants to grow.

Secondly, sand is being encouraged to move inland. By creating weak points in the taller dunes which edge onto the beach, their aim is to encourage the bare dune sand to move towards the land and form openings (blowouts).

This helps to change the shape of the dunes and create new wet hollows (dune slack). This natural movement creates crucial pockets of bare sand which help rare pioneer plants to grow and solitary bees to burrow.

At wet times of year this creates a shallow pool which provides an ideal habitat for breeding natterjack toads and plants such as variegated horsetail.

Rivulets cross the wet sand with dunes beyond and blue skies above at Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve
Low tide on the beach at Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve | © National Trust/Paul Harris

Conservation cows

Cows are our conservation heroes. Look out for them grazing the dune grassland as you walk around the reserve. Without them, the sand dunes would be covered in a thick blanket of scrub.

By eating the coarse grasses and young scrub like hawthorn, cows are helping us create space for the less competitive and sensitive plants and flowers around Sandscale Haws.

A natural solution

Letting cows graze also mimics a more natural way of grassland management, providing different heights of grassland which can attract all kinds of insects and wildlife.

Where the rangers have carried out grazing experiments, they can see that the grass in areas which hasn't been grazed is thick and coarse but in those areas which have been grazed they are rich in wildflowers.

Choosing cattle

Conservation grazing uses traditional breeds of cows such as Highland cattle and Galloways because they’re happy to eat some tougher, thornier plants and can survive quite happily all year round. Our rangers work closely with National Trust tenant farmers to graze the right numbers of cattle in the right place and at the best time of year.

Each breed of cattle has a different sort of temperament, and our tenant farmers carefully plan which animals they are going to choose to graze sites with lots of public access.

Walking dogs near cattle

Cows can be alarmed by dogs which are not under control so please keep your dog on a lead around cattle.

Looking after natterjack toad pools

Nature creates the best habitats for wildlife but sometimes it needs a helping hand. Managing pools created for the natterjack toads is a big annual job for the rangers and volunteers.

The pools are fed by water from the nearby Hawthwaite Beck. A sluice controlling the water level allows the rangers to keep the pools wet in the summer months for the toads when other natural pools have dried up.

Protecting toadlets

It's a cold, wet and muddy job in the winter for the rangers and volunteers as they clear the plants and debris out of the pools. If this wasn't done, the pools would become too shaded for the toads and their toadlets to survive.

Up to 20 pairs of toads have bred in these pools. One year there was a count of 80,000 toadlets in one pool making them perfect ‘nursery pools’.

Clearing a way for the flowers

Tall grasses and scrub like hawthorn, gorse and bramble can eventually take over the sand dunes as they get older. Climate change, amongst other things, has made the conditions perfect for scrub to spread and grow.

Cutting down scrub

Even with cattle grazing the young scrub, hawthorn, gorse and bramble can continue to grow and take over. Our rangers and volunteers at Sandscale Haws work hard each year to clear the scrub and make way for the flowers by carrying out an annual cutting of the scrub.

Burning scrub brash

Look out for the friendly team carrying out their winter task of cutting and dragging the scrub over lots of dunes as they burn the scrub brash on a bonfire.

The fires are raised up off the ground on a metal platform to prevent any damage to the ground beneath and logs are taken to heat the ranger offices in the winter.

A common toad with its heading above water, at Sandscale Haws in Cumbria
A common toad at Sandscale Haws | © National Trust Images/Jamie Armstrong

Research at Sandscale Haws

As Sandscale Haws is a National Nature Reserve one of the main jobs for the ranger team is to carry out research which helps future conservation projects both at Sandscale and all around the country.

The research we do varies, from counting breeding birds to measuring water levels in tubes called dipwells, so look out for them on the reserve when you’re walking.

Surveying the natterjack toads

In spring the rangers spend time counting natterjack toad spawn strings. The toads lay strings of spawn rather than clumps of spawn like frogs. Most female toads only breed once a year so one string usually equals one female toad. Counting the spawn strings means the rangers can monitor toad populations.

Breeding birds

Spring and early summer is always a good time to count breeding birds at Sandscale. Some years this is wading birds like oystercatchers; in other years, it’s birds that use scrub habitat like stonechats or ground nesting birds like skylarks.

Measuring water levels

Across Sandscale, the rangers have fixed tubes into the ground called dipwells. These measure the level of ground water every hour with the help of data loggers which are fixed to the tubes.

By looking at the information that the dipwells have collected, the rangers can work out how groundwater moves across the site. This helps them to plan where they can create new areas for wildlife.

Counting plants

Summer is the perfect time to count the plants growing in the grassland. This is done by counting the plants in a square patch called a quadrat to get an idea of which plants are thriving and which aren’t.

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 family of two adults and two children standing on a high sand dune at Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve, Cumbria. The sky is bright blue with wispy clouds, and the sand dunes shelve down to the sea.


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