Creeping willow and its inhabitants – Studland Student Blog

Eloise Cooper

I believe that being outdoors and appreciating nature is a fundamental part of understanding why it is crucial to look after our planet. Therefore, places like Studland Bay being made accessible to all through companies like the National Trust is very important to me. This is why I chose to do an ecology summer placement with the National Trust at Studland Bay. During my 6 week placement we had 6 different tasks to complete, covering many different skill sets and methods.

We started off by mapping the distribution of Salix repens (creeping willow) in the zero slack (a flat area between the sand dune closest to the sea and the next) whilst looking for the presence of Chrysomela populi (a type of beetle). Creeping willow can be identified by its short, oval leaves with silky silver undersides and red-brown twigs whilst C. populi are a bright red and therefore fairly easy to spot, often compared to a ladybug without spots.

We used transects and quadrats to collect data over a large area of zero slack and found many small patches of creeping willow but no C. populi on them. We then took data of all the creeping willow found in another area, where it was overall much larger, with higher average heights and widths of each plant. In this area we found 27 C.populi and 2 of their larvae. This provides a useful basis for potential further research, such as how the size of the plants impacts the likelihood of Chrysomela populi presence, or, whether this area holds an isolated population.

A red insect with a black head climbs a shoot of creeping willow growing out of the grass
Chrysomela populi pictured on a piece of Salix repens

As part of the Dynamic Dunescapes project many wet and dry scrapes have been created - this is where a small area of sand is cleared by removing all vegetation. Scrapes are being trialled as a method of preventing sand dunes becoming overwhelmed by plants such as gorse and heather, and therefore decreasing in biodiversity.

We surveyed scrapes that had already been surveyed a year ago, to allow an idea of what can be expected yearly from a new scrape. The surveys looked for indicators that organisms were starting to use the space again. Lizards, invertebrates and their burrows were all recorded. Sand lizard burrows have a prominent ‘D’ shape, making them easy to identify. On the other hand, invertebrate burrows can be incredibly similar and therefore difficult to differentiate, unless you are lucky enough to see them in use. One rare species we kept an eye out for was the heath tiger beetle, with its lack of spoil surrounding the cylindrical tunnel, the burrow is distinctive and thus easier to identify.

A sand lizard basks in the scrub. It is green with a pale stripe down its back and brown markings
A sand lizard basking in the scrub

We also contributed to records of the water table by taking readings from 11 dipwells twice a week for 4 weeks. This is useful information to have as it can show a more direct impact of rainfall than readings taken once a month.

Whilst working on the sand dunes, we saw lots of amazing things, like this dragonfly caught in the sticky tendrils of a sundew (a carnivorous plant that digests organisms that get trapped after being attracted by the glistening ‘droplets’ on its tendrils).

A dragonfly is stuck in the traps of the carnivorous sundew plant

There were plenty of sand and common lizards to be spotted near the discovery centre at Knoll beach, as well as around dry scrapes. Other reptiles we saw included an adder, many smooth snakes and a grass snake’s shed skin. This is very exciting as smooth snakes are the rarest snake in the UK, but appear often in Studland's sand dunes.

Many moths, butterflies and caterpillars can be found in Studland. These are just a few of the species we saw on the days where the weather was optimal for them, sunny with a light breeze. The heather and surrounding dry soil is also very attractive to particular species, such as the silver-studded blues.

A brown butterfly with ornage wings and black and white markings
A green caterpillar with orange dots and black hairs is held up to the camera on a stick
A blue grey butterfly with black and orange markings on its wings

A selection of the insects we found in the dunes

The task we completed helped us to develop surveying skills, as well as giving us room to design and adapt our own methods or follow previously designed methods. This placement has given me support to gain practical experience whilst finding useful information, I’m very grateful to have had this experience, and I hope to continue working with the National Trust long beyond this summer.