You can’t miss these eye-catching dunes, standing around 90 metres above sea level, they’re pretty tall for a dune system. On the north coast of Cornwall near the town of Perranporth, Penhale Dunes are part of the Cornish Killas National Character Area and a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The wide and sandy, three kilometre-long Perran beach in front provides sand for the dune system, which is blown up into the dunes by the wind.
The Penhale Dunes are believed to be pretty old – we’ve got images of them which date back to medieval times. Over time, they’ve become a stable, mature dune system dominated by plant communities which have fixed the sand, with very little bare or mobile sand. With this increase in vegetation, the sandy soil covering the mature dunes is becoming richer with nutrients and more able to retain moisture, encouraging more plant growth and less sand movement.
Our conservation works at Penhale have been designed to prioritise early dune succession stages – encouraging more bare sand and rejuvenating mobile, yellow dunes. By removing some areas of vegetation, more bare sand will be free to be blown through the system, building up the dunes and creating more habitat for the area’s bare sand-loving wildlife. The dune slacks here also support a huge amount of biodiversity, so we’ll also be ensuring the damp areas in between the dunes are in the best condition for the invertebrates and rare plants which thrive in them.
Work on the Cornish coast is also taking place between St Gothian Sands and Mexico Towans, an area locally known as ‘The Towans’ (towans is the Cornish word for sand dunes).
Here, magnificent dunes back a long and wide sandy beach, which stretches for five kilometres all the way to the estuary of the River Hayle. The strong onshore winds that make this area popular with surfers have built the dunes into high ridges, behind which you’ll find dune grassland habitats home to lots of wildlife, including the silver studded blue butterfly. One fifth of all plant species recorded in Cornwall have been found here!
The sand dunes of the Towans are becoming more stabilised. Our work will include removing some areas of scrub, so that some of the wildlife that needs bare sand will have a much bigger area in which they can thrive. Invasive species – plants which don’t usually grow in dunes – are also a problem, as they take over the landscape and prevent the growth of dune-specialist species. Ponies here help us to manage this habitat, munching plants to create space for the specialist species. We’ll also be restoring some of the wet dune slacks which are important habitats for invertebrates and amphibians.
Visitors to The Towans can also enjoy glimpses into the area’s rich archaeological, industrial and military past. Remains of old sand bunkers which once stored dynamite, a railway platform and even parts of an old tin mine pulley system offer fascinating reminders of the site’s importance throughout Cornwall’s history. No longer used for mining or as an explosives factory, the priority now is protecting the wildlife of the dunes and restoring the ecosystem back to a healthy condition…while preserving its unique archaeological heritage!
Wildlife you might see in Cornwall
Look closely and you may be able to find some pretty rare and unusual species of plant at Penhale Dunes and The Towans, including petalwort, early gentian and shore dock.
Penhale is also home to the nationally rare scrambled egg lichen which occurs on the open short grasslands, often in areas where rabbits graze or trampling has kept vegetation low.
You might also spot some reptiles as you explore the Cornish coast, including adders, grass snakes, common lizards and slow worms.
There are plenty of birds in the skies above the Cornish coast, but here you should keep your eyes peeled for skylarks and the Cornish chough, which was severely threatened in the 1900s and disappeared from Cornwall in 1976, but returned naturally in 2001.
In terms of invertebrates, this dune system supports the spider-hunting wasp, the ruddy darter dragonfly and also the very pretty silver-studded blue butterfly.
Videos from Cornwall
Meet Your Friendly Face in Cornwall
People Engagement Officer, Cornwall Wildlife Trust
Having worked and volunteered in various environment and education-focused roles, I’m feeling very excited to now be involved in this ambitious project!
I’m looking forward to engaging with a variety of people with sand dune restoration in Cornwall - a county where the coastline is such an important part of its identity. Penhale Dunes and The Towans are such beautiful sites; I love visiting them and I want to encourage more people to explore, enjoy and protect these dynamic dunes!
You can get involved!
We are planning a whole host of events, guided walks, nature talks, citizen science projects, volunteering and training or work experience opportunities for the whole community to get involved in.
We’ll also be offering opportunities for local schools to explore the dunes and learn about the importance of sand dune habitats and species.
We will regularly update our events page on this website, so remember to check back often to see what we’ve added to our exciting calendar!