What is changing at Studland Bay?

Julia Galbenu

Julia Galbenu, Dynamic Dunescapes Engagement Officer for Dorset, shares an update on what's happening in the historic dunes at Studland Bay.

Studland Bay is on the move. As of 2020, as part of the new Dynamic Dunescapes project, the National Trust has been busy at work getting this sand dune habitat restoration project underway!

One of the aims of the project is to re-create patches of bare sand through the formation of scrapes. This involves removing the above ground vegetation and then digging out the soil back to bare sand. Last month, in the depths of the dunes, twelve areas were marked out. These areas were over-vegetated with heather and gorse, had little bare sand in sight and were no longer home to the rare wildlife that once thrived.

studland map with blue markings showing areas of vegetation clearance

The areas needed their mosaic landscape back. And so in October, the blue areas marked on the map, totalling 2.1ha, were cleared. The heather and gorse were cut, and the invasive pine trees were felled and left to form a dead wood habitat. The vegetation removal formed the first stage of the restoration process. The second stage will happen this year, when excavators scrape back the soil to bare sand. At each vegetation cleared site, around 50% of the area will be scraped back to bare sand. The shape and size of the scrape will depend on the site, some scrapes will be single large area, but the majority will be long and thin, sinuous or have multiple mini scrapes within the area.

Why does this change need to happen at Studland Bay?

Over the past 100 years, Studland’s sand dunes have become over-stabilised and have declined in biodiversity. Climate change, air pollution and previous overprotective management have all accelerated plant growth and seen our sand dunes slowly turn into heathland and woodland. In the 1930’s about 30% of Studland Bay was bare sand, now it is just 2%. The aim of the Dynamic Dunescapes project is to restore 15% of the land back to bare sand. Doing so, will restore the mosaic landscape of our dunes and hopefully see an increase in rare wildlife that depend on sandy habitats.

studland map with sheeps bit species distribution marked
two people in the dunes with clipboards completing citizen science activities

Citizen Science

To enable us to track these changes and ensure that the impact we are having is a positive one, a citizen science project is underway. Come rain or shine, our citizen science volunteers meet every Friday to record data on the dunes. The last couple of months have focussed on sheep’s bit. This pioneer plant species is a positive indicator, growing only in healthy dune habitats. As the map shows, the species was found mainly on the edges of the dunes, where these healthy sandy habitats still exist. The hope is that as the Dynamic Dunescapes project progresses, this pretty blue flower will be seen across more of Studland Bay.

School partnerships

Swanage School has also partnered up with the National Trust and Dynamic Dunescapes. By embedding Studland Bay into their science curriculum, students conduct their field studies on the dunes and send their data over to help monitor the dunes. Similar stories are happening with Land & Wave and Bournemouth University. The aim is not only to get great data, but to also connect people with the dunes, to learn about them and encourage people to protect them. The conservation and engagement volunteer group go one step closer to making this happen. Either by practically helping the dunes or educating people on why they are so special.

Fish defences in little sea lake
photo of a carp fish in murky water

Tackling invasive fish species in Little Sea

Another big change happening is at Little Sea. This freshwater lake is very unique indeed. It once supported all kinds of strange life due to the high acidity and nutrient poor, crystal-clear water. That was until around 2005, when carp were illegally introduced. The result was disastrous. Carp fed on the rare aquatic plant life and churned up the lake’s sediment. The result was the water turning murky, a dramatic loss of species and a decline in overwintering birds.

Last month was the first step to restoring this ecosystem. A line of deflectors was installed along the eastern edge of Little Sea. Pictured here, the deflectors reduce wave action and sediment movement. Alone, this won't be enough. So next year in 2021, the plan is to remove carp from Little Sea under licence and then re-home them to more suitable lakes. Cormorants and otters will also be encouraged to inhabit the area to help us achieve our long-term ambition of keeping carp numbers as low as possible.

panorama of sandy dunes at studland bay in the soft sunshine
Image: Charlotte Brown

Studland Bay is such a special site. It is the only place in England to find the earthtongue fungus and one of the best sites to see sand lizards. It is also a playground of sandy hills and endless adventure, for both children and adults alike. Here at Studland Bay, we are really excited to see the restoration underway and cannot wait for our dunes to come back to life!

Click here for more information about our work at Studland Bay