Watch your step! Completing a master’s thesis with Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Dynamic Dunescapes.

Julian Rhodes

One of my favourite natural Cornish habitats are the coastal sand dunes along the Towans beaches between Hayle and Gwithian, so when the opportunity to complete a master’s thesis in the form of a research project quantifying the effects of dog waste on the soils and vegetation of sand dunes, in conjunction with Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Dynamic Dunescapes, I relished the opportunity.

The coastal sand dunes of the Towans near Hayle are extremely popular with dog walkers and they are wonderful places to walk dogs. However, due to the porous nature of the sandy soils, sand dunes have low nutrient soils that require specialised vegetation; plants that have evolved to survive and prosper in these low nutrient. Some of these are endemic only to coastal sand dunes, so must be protected and conserved. Unfortunately, not all dog waste is responsibly removed and this can act as a fertiliser, adding nutrients to the soil and providing a way in for invasive vegetation growth, thus, forcing endemic sand dune vegetation out. Once invasive vegetation is established a positive feedback system is initiated, providing a route in for yet more invasive vegetation and the eventual loss of an already rare sand dune habitat as soils stabilise and succession occurs.

Gwithian Towans Emma Brisdion

Gwithian Towans, Cornwall. Image: Emma Brisdion

I conducted my thesis at four sites across the Towans which involved data collection on some private land, so permissions were needed. Andy Nelson of Cornwall Wildlife Trust was kind enough to facilitate a meeting with land owners as well as local persons with knowledge of the historical use of the Towans, both of which were invaluable to the completion of my thesis. Over the course of July and August 2021 I spent much time on the sand dunes collecting soil and vegetation data. This involved taking “clean” soil samples from the four designated study sites as well as soil samples from directly beneath dog waste, for laboratory analysis of nutrients contained. Vegetation surveys were also conducted in the form of quadrats and transects, to determine levels of desirable and invasive plant species.

Another invaluable tool provided by Dynamic Dunescapes is their citizen science application of the same name. The app contains information on endemic and invasive plant species, without which, would have increased the time taken in the identification of those species.

An image of a dog poo left on the sand, with green biodegradable spray paint circling it

Gwithian Towans, Cornwall

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed completing my thesis with Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Dynamic Dunescapes, and I am proud to have contributed to an increased understanding and eventual conservation of these understudied habitats. The people I met, the invaluable help and advice I received, and the sites I conducted my research all contributed to an enjoyable experience whilst also vastly increasing my knowledge of these rare and beautiful coastal sand dune habitats. I also conducted it during the summer, so the great weather helped too!

Finally, and it may come as no great surprise, the outcome of the research found that dog waste is acting as fertiliser, adding excess nutrients to the low nutrient sand dune soils, and providing a route in for invasive vegetation, which is in-turn pushing endemic vegetation out. It also threw up more questions around the effects of dog waste on sand dune soils providing ample opportunity for further research with Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Dynamic Dunescapes, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

Click here to download Julian's MSc Thesis

Julian learning how to identify dune plants

About the Author

Julian Rhodes

My name is Julian Rhodes, I am 38 years old, originally from California but have lived in the UK since I was 7. I have just completed an MSc in Land and Ecological Restoration with The Eden Project and am hoping to work in a career contributing to restoring this planet to its former natural glory.