Saving the ‘high dunes’ at Gwithian, Cornwall

Sally Foster

Local Cornish resident and tireless environmentalist Sally Foster shares her experiences working to protect some of Cornwall’s beautiful sand dune habitats long before Dynamic Dunescapes joined the fight.

As an environmentalist, I have fought a considerable number of battles over the years, sadly with several failures along the way. However, I’m very proud to have been part of the fight to successfully save the ‘high dunes’ at Gwithian, on the north coast of Cornwall. The high dunes and an area formally known as the ‘Gwithian Sandpit’ were designated as St Gothian Sands Local Nature Reserve in 2005, following a hard-fought battle by the local community.  This was really a case of ‘People Power’ where the local community saved an important and integral part of our landscape and heritage.

To describe the local area as important for wildlife and heritage is a bland understatement. There are not many areas of Cornwall that contain so many myths, legends, evidence of past geological events and industrial history. Many interesting books about this are available, but The Cornish Story, written by David Oates, is particularly worth a read.  Humans have certainly made our mark here and much of this is due to the estuary of the Red River, whose source arises in an area of granite rich in tin and copper bearing minerals. Some days I try to visualize how the river valley looked 4000 years ago, when Neolithic people wandered the land! For centuries, the Red River carried the mine waste from upstream into St Ives Bay, and it is only since the closure of the mines in the Camborne area that the river no longer runs red.

a high photograph overlooking St Ives bay with pollution in the waer

St Ives Bay when South Crofty mine was still in operation (Photo: courtesy The Cornish Story, written by David Oates)

For much of the 20th century, the Gwithian Sandpit had been quarried for sand, with ‘grey’ building sand removed from the lower area. Some of this sand helped to rebuild Plymouth after the war.  However, the fine golden shell sand of which the high dunes is formed was used for agriculture. Gwithian residents had fought for well over 70 years to save the high dunes and surrounding area from various threats. However, in 1997 when Hanson Plc submitted new proposals to extract sand from areas including the ‘high dunes’ to the Mineral Planning Authority, the Gwithian Residents Association and the Gwithian Towans Ratepayers Association initiated and mounted a strenuous campaign to save the high dune area.

This campaign was extremely well supported by many people and organizations, but for a long time the future looked bleak. We felt we were losing the battle, so we engaged in a media campaign and wrote to the Hanson director responsible for the environment. The publicity worked and resulted in a meeting with Hanson Southern’s top management. They proposed a compromise, whereby they would continue to quarry for building sand from the lower levels, so creating a lagoon, but leave the high dunes intact. We agreed, on the understanding that this area would be allowed to return to nature once mining ceased.

For eight years Ken Taylor and I worked on this project.  Sadly, Ken is no longer with us but we both felt this was a satisfactory outcome and were grateful for Hanson’s willingness to negotiate and feel they deserve credit for this action.

A green lagoon in a pit of sand

Creation of the lagoon in 2005 (Photo: courtesy The Cornish Story, written by David Oates)

A lagoon with reeds and birds

The lagoon today (Photo: Sally Foster)

Since mining ceased the site has recovered very well, with a mix of dune habitats and wetland. The wider Hayle dune system, of which this is a part, has been described by Dr Colin French as ‘Undoubtedly the richest place in Cornwall for vascular plants,’ and many wetland plants have now colonised this site, including blue water-speedwell. Bird species have fared far better than envisaged, mainly due to fencing the wetland areas. Populations of the rare silver-studded blue butterfly have also colonised new areas here. Thanks to local naturalists, we now have an impressive list of species for the site.

four blue and copper butterflies on a flower in grass

Silver-studded blue (Photo: Andrew Thomas)

Recently, to strengthen the protection for the area, the Towans Partnership has initiated a proposal to extend a neighouring SSSI to include St Gothian Sands. So, the fight to protect this wonderful patch of sand dunes isn’t over just yet!

Today it is difficult not to be depressed by the state of the planet, with such things as the loss of indigenous people’s rights in Brazil and the ivory trade in Africa. I feel helpless about these things, so I concentrate on what I might influence on my own patch – my place of birth. I do want my grandchildren to enjoy what I did as a child. During the first lockdown I started an Instagram account (@kernowecobard) and was very impressed with so many young people doing fantastic environmental work. It is inspiring so see these energetic and motivated young environmentalists. Thank goodness for the young Greta and the old Sir David – we owe them a lot!  Today It is much more mainstream to be an environmentalist.

Sally 5 gothian sands

St Gothian Sands Local Nature Reserve (Photo: Sally Foster)

Sally surfing

About the Author

Sally Foster

A pragmatic, feisty ancient environmentalist or biological surveyor – take your choice! My first career was in the Royal Air Force but after raising a family I retrained as a biological surveyor and had a small consultancy before retiring a few years ago.  However, the ‘environmentalist’ nurtured as a child, exploring and camping in many wildernesses, is still there.