Hundreds of WW2 military artifacts unearthed at Braunton Burrows during sand dune rejuvenation project
While removing overgrown scrub and topsoil to restore the sand dunes for threatened wildlife, the Dynamic Dunescapes project and MOD’s 29 Explosive Ordnance Clearance (EOC) Group recovered nearly 400 items from when the area was used as a military training ground almost 80 years ago – from parts of bazooka rockets to rifle grenades.
Once the backdrop for D-Day landing training exercises by American troops, this part of the North Devon coast is written into the military history books. But the Burrows are also internationally known for their importance for botany.
Among its many ecological accolades, this dune system is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It is a refuge for many rare species, including sand lizard, great crested newt, round-headed club rush, petalwort and the amber sand bowl snail.
In recent decades, the dunes have become increasingly overtaken by scrub and dense vegetation growth. This quickly reduces the amount of low grassland and bare sand habitats available – essential parts of a healthy sand dune system, which wildlife relies on. As part of a nationwide project called Dynamic Dunescapes, Plantlife are working with the MOD (DIO & 29 EOC) and Christie Devon Estates to help restore the impressive Braunton Burrows sand dune system and support specialist species.
Since October 2021, 36 hectares of overgrown scrub has been cut, and 10 hectares of ‘scrapes’ have been created by removing the top layer of soil to expose bare sand. Species like sand lizard need bare sand to burrow into and ground-nesting birds, including skylark, meadow pipit and stone chat, will benefit from the newly open areas of vegetation which provide nesting habitat.
From 1943-1944, large reaches of the Burrows and the beaches were used as a training ground for American forces, to assist in preparations for the D-Day landings on the beaches at Normandy. Exercises used live ammunition, tanks, artillery and explosives. After the war, a clear-up operation rid the area of most of the coastal mine defences, although many smaller items from this time have remained buried in the dunes.
Before conservation work took place, the 29 EOC group carefully surveyed the planned work areas for metal objects, and removed them to ensure that the site was safe to work on with heavy machinery. Since May 2021, 362 items of expended ordnance and 17 items of live ordnance have been excavated. Remains include over 150 bazooka rockets, Sherman tank shells, landmines, a variety of mortar shells, rifle grenades and explosives. Live items were disposed of by 29 EOC with controlled demolitions.
Rupert Hawley, Dynamic Dunescapes Project Officer at Plantlife, is coordinating the work at Braunton Burrows:
“It’s a great project that will support the dune’s future by giving the biodiversity of the dunes a large-scale, much-needed boost, but it’s fascinating that this work allows us to look at the site’s history too. The locations of these finds are helping paint an even clearer picture of how the site was used 80 years ago.”
In total, Dynamic Dunescapes will restore 60 of the Burrows’ 1,000 acres, including creating 30 acres of bare sand at points identified by ecologists to best support biodiversity. This amounts to around 5% of the site. This work has been completed during the winter months to best avoid disturbing bird, reptile and amphibian breeding seasons.
Scrub cutting and sand scraping have proved very effective methods of dune restoration. Plantlife’s smaller-scale trials on the Burrows in 2014 and 2018 have seen huge numbers of rare plant species colonising the bare sand scrapes.
MOD continue to maintain a training area on Braunton Burrows and has been integral in completing this sand dune restoration work. Dave Lincoln is the MOD DIO Braunton Burrows Training Area (BBTA) Deputy Training Safety Officer:
“Braunton Burrows has continued as a military training area since WW2. The MOD value BBTA as an excellent area to train our forces. The MOD are committed to the protection of sensitive environmental sites and are collaborating closely with Dynamic Dunescapes to protect and rejuvenate such a beautiful and important area. Without the unexploded ordnance clearance work which commenced in May 2021, and is ongoing by 29 EOC, this project may not have been possible.”
The Burrows are owned by Christie Devon Estates Trust. An Estate spokesperson said:
"The Estate has been pleased to support the current works, working with partners Dynamic Dunescapes and the MOD to achieve the goals of this sustainability project. It provides a real legacy in terms of the natural history of the Braunton Burrows site and, thanks to the contribution of the 29 EOC group, an unexpected bonus has been an added insight into the era when the Burrows played host to the Assault Training Center during World War Two.”
The issues faced by Braunton’s dunes are not unusual. In Europe, sand dunes are widely suffering from biodiversity loss, and many specialist plants and animals that need this habitat to thrive are now under threat. Dynamic Dunescapes – an ambitious partnership between Natural England, Plantlife, Natural Resources Wales, National Trust and The Wildlife Trusts – is working to rejuvenate 7,000 hectares of sand dune habitat in England and Wales, supported by National Lottery Heritage Fund and the EU LIFE Programme.
Please note that the Burrows are patrolled by the MOD, and public use of metal detectors and searching for artefacts at Braunton Burrows may damage the site and is prohibited. The public are also asked to take notice of signs when enjoying Braunton Burrows, and to keep their distance from the work areas.