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Student project: Investigating dune slack scraping interventions

Kara Gardner

My name is Kara and I am a mature student who has just finished studying Environmental Science with the Open University. Having studied online for 7 years I was excited to get out into the field for my final project module and collect some of my own data! Upon discovering the Dynamic Dunescapes project I saw the opportunity for research where ecological restoration had taken place, in the form of dune slack scraping in The Towans dune system in Cornwall, that may provide some insight into succession and plant colonisation for those who had undertaken the work.

Gwithian Green Local Nature Reserve is inland at the edge of The Towans dune system and has a wide diversity of habitats, which includes mature dune slacks, and is where Cornwall Wildlife Trust removed vegetation and soil to reach bare sand in two locations in November 2020, creating two early successional dune slack sites.

My project was simple, to collect vegetation data and compare the two new dune slacks to two undisturbed dune slacks, also investigating some soil properties that may give insight into the differing successional paths that the two scraped dune slacks appear to be taking. Plant colonisation has been different between the scraped slacks. One has a greater proportion of bare sand remaining, whilst the other has had rapid soil organic matter accumulation, and as well as having some known nitrophile species also has a large area of Common reed, which needs high nutrient availability to be able to establish so quickly after scraping. There is a farm which borders the nature reserve, so my results led me to wonder if this dune slack might be affected by excess nitrogen inputs due to agricultural run-off into the groundwater, but that would be an investigation for another project!

Soil sampling
Soil sampling

My work gave me great insight into how dune slack succession can differ even in small geographical areas due to the influence of a variety of abiotic factors, and the diversity of the unscraped dune slacks showed that environmental conditions can slow the progress of succession. Dune slacks experience such changing conditions throughout the cycle of a year, from heavily flooded to becoming drier as the water table recedes below the surface in the summer, and even small scale differences in topography can affect the all important hydrological regime, which has a significant influence on the vegetation assemblage. Restoring dune slacks is important for maintaining biodiversity within sand dune systems, but it will always be difficult to know exactly how plants will respond due to the complexity of factors influencing these seasonally flooded habitats.

Quadrat sampling
Quadrat sampling

I met so many knowledgable and helpful people throughout the course of my research, including Andy Nelson of Cornwall Wildlife Trust, who provided me with many resources, answered many questions and put me in touch with other useful people. Martin Rule, The Towans Ranger, and Dick Goodere, guardian of Gwithian Green Local Nature Reserve, were both fountains of local knowledge within the Green and across the dune system, and were very accommodating to my work. I was able to go on botany walks and expand my limited botanical knowledge, with the fantastic team from Budding Nature, as well as Colin French, one of Cornwall’s County Recorders for the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland, who knows quite possibly everything there is to know about the plant life across the whole of Cornwall!

I have learned so much about sand dunes during the course of my project thanks to all the valuable Dynamic Dunescapes resources and I am pleased I had the opportunity to be involved in the project. Everyone involved was immensely helpful and it was inspiring to meet so many people involved in local nature conservation work.

Scraped dune slack
Scraped dune slack at
K.Gardner - soil sampling

About the Author

Kara Gardner

I moved to Cornwall from West Sussex in March 2020, and I love the beautiful natural spaces and the magnificent coastlines. My Open University journey has led me to have a fascination with ecosystems and their processes and the diversity of life found on our amazing planet. I am proud to have achieved my BSc at the age of 42 and hope for a science filled future!