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Our work at Portstewart Strand

Visitors exploring the sand dunes at Portstewart Strand, County Londonderry
Visitors exploring the sand dunes at Portstewart Strand, County Londonderry | © National Trust/John Millar

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. Discover how we look after the 6,000-year-old sand dunes at Portstewart Strand.

Looking after the dunes

Often under the threat from coastal erosion, this unique ecosystem also faces another challenge – sea buckthorn, a highly invasive coastal shrub characterised by dense, thorny branches and striking orange berries.

Invasive sea buckthorn

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 as well as bee and frog orchids.

Sea Buckthorn at Portstewart Strand, County Londonderry
Sea Buckthorn at Portstewart Strand, County Londonderry | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Tackling the problem

To help protect the dunes, a buckthorn control project was set up in partnership with North Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). Substantial work has been undertaken to remove areas of buckthorn from the sand dunes and the work continues to tackle this ongoing challenge.

Mechanical clearing

The initial works were completed in 2017 when mechanical clearing removed approximately 8.6 acres (3.5ha) of buckthorn from a 35-acre selected site. This was followed by the installation of stock fencing, water infrastructure and finally the introduction of grazing cattle onto the site to maintain the dune grasslands.

A year later, additional NIEA funding enabled a further 9.6 acres (3.1ha) of sea buckthorn to be removed in 2018 and 2019.

Green-veined White butterfly on Knapweed flower at Portstewart Strand, County Londonderry.
Green-veined White butterfly on Knapweed flower at Portstewart Strand, County Londonderry. | © National Trust Images/Wilbert McIlmoyle

Ongoing conservation

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.

Grazing acres of dunes

Cattle grazing occurs for six months of the year (there's no grazing from May to September inclusive), using up to 35 cows grazing across 117 acres of sand dunes.

The beach at Portstewart Strand, County Londonderry.

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