Braunton Burrows IPA

Location: North Devon, lying behind Saunton Sands, off the A361, five miles to the west of Barnstaple.

Grid Reference: SS 461 347

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Braunton Burrows is one of the largest sand dune systems in the United Kingdom. Exposed to the elements, it’s a breathtaking sliver of wind-blown sand with dunes reaching up to 30 metres in height. Over 400 species of wild plants thrive in this remarkable landscape.

The name Braunton Burrows comes from the large number of rabbit burrows on the dunes and, through their grazing and burrowing, the rabbits have greatly influenced the vegetation and shape of the dunes.

More than just sand, there is a wide range of habitats across the dunes. By the sea, a sandy foreshore with small embryo dunes is backed by high dunes of open, wind-blown sand. Inland these become more thickly vegetated and are separated by remarkable hollow dune slacks – flooded with freshwater in winter – and areas of scrub and grassland.

Braunton Burrows is especially especially impressive in June and July, when the majority of the plants are flowering, but is equally important for its lichens, mosses and liverworts that all find a home in the dunes.

Along the seashore strand line, rock sea-lavender may be found along with various species of orache and the lovely, lavender-flowered sea rocket. Behind these the first line of tall sand dunes are open and windwept. This is the stronghold of marram grass, whose roots help anchor the sand, a tough plant joined by tough neighbours including sand sedge, sea stork’s-bill, Portland spurge and sea spurge, as well as white horehound and rare flowers like sea stock and sea clover.

Moving inland, the dunes become more colonised with grasses, especially fescues including the rare dune fescue. These are probably the most flowery part of the dunes, with abundant lady’s-bedstraw, dune pansy, bird’s-foot trefoil, common restharrow and wild thyme. There are many orchids here too, with common spotted orchid, pyramidal and bee orchid not difficult to spot.

Between the high dune ridges are flat, hollow valleys that are flooded in winter. Until recently, these supported fen orchid (hopefully it can make a return though conservation work now underway) but still abound with other orchids. In spring the slacks are coloured pink and red from southern marsh orchid and early marsh orchid, including a brick-red form that’s only found in western dunes, and in summer large patches of marsh helleborine flower profusion. Other notable plants include round-headed club rush, sharp rush, round-leaved wintergreen and the rare early gentian.

Yet still further inland the grazed pastures are often disturbed by burrowing rabbits and livestock, allowing arable flowers like rough poppy to germinate. Rare toothed medick grows here and, rather surprisingly, an area of compacted ground is home to a remarkable diversity of small, drough-resistant lichens, over 60 species of which have been recorded.

Image: Braunton Burrows © Matt Lavin under CC BY-SA 2.0

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