Lost in the Dunes

Julia Galbenu

Julia Galbenu, Engagement Officer for Dorset, asks, 'How often do you walk and return home with little recollection of what you saw, smelt, heard or felt?' This is a story about how in some cases, like at Studland Bay, wandering away from the marked path can be a good thing; for you and for wildlife.

Imagine the path is wide, with deep tyre marks tracked into the sand. It’s an easy path to walk, and you exert little energy in following its course. You walk with your head down and march rhythmically forward. Your mind is elsewhere, and you find it hard to be present. The open path calls for no attention. You know the path well and you find your mind drifting. You walk like this for some time. Your feet sink into the sand, your hair sways with the sea breeze, your skin is warmed by the sun, but you register almost nothing at all. And so you go, without really going at all.

Pathways visible in the dunes at studland bay

Then a sound interrupts your daydreams, the strange melody jerking your head upwards. Far off the path, nestled in the gorse bushes, there is movement. The sweet song plays again. The yellow gorse flowers bounce together, but the musician cannot yet be seen. Automatically, your body turns in the direction of the song and you walk towards it. You step off the path. Your shoes and legs scratch up against the hard heather and crunch under your feet. The noise is loud and you freeze, fearing that you will scare away the animal. But the melody plays on. You continue, moving slowly and carefully through the overgrown vegetation, gently placing one foot and then the other to make the least amount of noise and give you the greatest stability. You spot it. The tiny dark body, topped with purple tinged feathers and bearing distinctive red eyes; a Dartford warbler. It flies up and over the gorse bushes and you follow obediently.

Julia happily walking away from the camera in a sandy part of the dunes

Walking on no path at all, you trample through the thick vegetation. It is impossible to walk in a straight line. You must change direction constantly, twisting around tall trees and jumping over deep holes. Your trail looks like that of a searching ant’s - erratic and disorganised, but with a steady progress in the direction you desire. The land you walk on is vivid. The dark grey stems and lush purple flowers of the heather. The pale lime green of the lichen. The long yellow tufts of grass. The white openness of the sand. You walk on a patchwork of microhabitats, the land changing dramatically from one step to the next. It is not simple and repetitious but diverse, frantic and chaotic. It pulls you in and does not let you go. Your eyes are wide, trying to absorb the different colours. Your feet are sensitive to the different textures. Your ears in tune to the changing melodies.

You lose track of time. Following the sounds of birds, tracing the tracks of deer, or moving towards a point of interest – you are far from the path now. You are in the wild.

ringed plover walks on the sand

The land is shaped like that of rippling waves; moving upwards and downwards and adding another element to this game of hide and seek. At the trough of the wave, the land towers over you and only a short distance can be seen. At the peak of the wave, the land stretches out in front of you. On one side there is endless heathland meeting the forest and on the other a slick of bright blue sea. The lands around you are the Purbeck heaths, the sea is the Jurassic Coast and you stand lost in Studland’s dunes. A giggle escapes you, for although you can work out your location from the view you truly have no idea where you are. There is not another person in sight. You take a seat on an open patch of sand and breathe out. You decide to stay awhile.

Studland’s sand dunes are a place of mystery and adventure. They are also threatened and at risk of being lost forever. For a long time, we believed that we should stay off sand dunes to protect them. New data and research has now shown that sand dunes function as dynamic ecosystems. They need disturbance to keep them diverse and we can help them, simply by exploring them.

footprints in the tops of small sandy dunes

Due to climate change, air pollution and overprotective management, our dunes have become over-vegetated and over-stabilised. The once healthy mosaic landscape of sandy hills and diverse habitats is now slowly turning into heathland and woodland.

At Studland Bay, we want to change this mindset that walking on the dunes will harm them. Instead we want to encourage people onto the dunes, to go off path and explore their wild ways. Trampling on overgrown vegetation opens the land and creates space for rare life. If we leave no trace, and are mindful of local wildlife as we go, we can help the dunes simply by getting lost in them. For we have always needed the dunes, but it is only just becoming clear to us now that the dunes need us too.


If you're keen to explore off the beaten track, please do look out for local signs! Trampling of vegetation and straying from marked paths is not always encouraged across all of our sites in the Dynamic Dunescapes project. There are some places where we are looking after sensitive species which need protecting, so in some areas, we do ask you to stick to the paths. Keep an eye out for any signs to guide you in these areas.

Images: Charlotte Brown, ringed plover: Alex Penn

Julia - Dorset

About the Author

Julia Galbenu
People Engagement Officer, National Trust Studland Bay

When I enter the dunes, I could be anywhere in the world. I feel a sense of true wilderness as the sand towers over me and the birds take to the skies. I love to kick up the sand and find new trails off the main path. We now know that such disturbance is critical to maintain the dunes’ ever moving state. I am so excited to be part of this new approach to nature conservation, where the dunes need people and people most certainly need the dunes.