The vast sand dunes at Kenfig are the largest surviving fragment of the dune habitats that once stretched along the south Wales coast. But the sand-dunes of our childhood memories – with open sand blowing in the wind and getting into our sandwiches – are a thing of the past. Vegetation encroachment means the amount of bare sand on Welsh dunes has declined by 86% since the 1940s. Without sand moving around and creating a diversity of habitats, the plants and wildlife they support are disappearing too.
Kenfig really is a treasure trove of rare and beautiful plants, recognised internationally as an Important Plant Area. As well as coastal specialities such as Sea Stock (Matthiola sinuata) and Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum), the jewel in Kenfig's crown is the dune form of Fen Orchid (Liparis loeselii var ovata). Once found in eight different dunes along the south Wales coast, it now only grows here at Kenfig. Without urgent action, this and many other rare dune species could be lost.
In partnership with Natural Resources Wales and Bridgend County Borough Council, we are pioneering some rather dramatic work to save the dune habitats and species at Kenfig. The idea is to re-start the natural processes of sand movement so that, over time, the full range of dune habitats – from young mobile dunes through to mature dune slacks - are restored. This is done by excavating large areas of bare sand on overgrown dunes near the sea, rejuvenating them and allowing wind to move the sand once again.
The work at Kenfig is the largest of its kind anywhere in Britain and has been used as a stimulus for other work at other dune sites, including Braunton Burrows (Devon), Whiteford Dunes (Gower) and Newborough Warren (Anglesey).
- Open up areas of dune front to re-start natural processes of sand movement by the wind and therefore rejuvenate dune habitats
- Increase the area of bare sand to encourage rare dune plants and invertebrates to flourish again
Fen Orchid (Liparis loeselii)
The rare dune form of this internationally protected orchid is now found only at Kenfig, where around 400 plants survive. It grows in close association with various mosses that grow in dune slacks – the flat areas between older dunes that flood in winter. Numbers are now increasing at Kenfig thanks to the restoration work we're doing.
Sea Stock (Matthiola sinuata)
This beautiful plant produces rosettes of grey-green leaves and wonderful night-scented flowers. It a rare plant of the most exposed parts of the dunes, rooting down into the shifting sands, and is found only in the Channel Islands, north Devon and along the south Wales coast, where just 24 sites are currently known (photo © Jean Tosti under Creative Commons License).
Petalwort (Petallophyllum ralfsii)
This remarkable little liverwort – which looks like a minute lettuce - thrives on damp bare sand in young dune slacks. It tends to grow during autumn, winter and spring, the leaf rosettes folding up when dry and disappearing altogether in summer. It has declined at many sites as they've become over-grown with vegetation but can return quickly once bare sand has been exposed again (photo © Trevor Dines/Plantlife).
How's it going?
2011 & 2012
During the winter bulldozers arrive and work gets underway to excavate the first areas of dune front, removing thick vegetation and creating channels to funnel the wind and get the sand moving again.
2012 & 2013
With additional funding from Pond Conservation’s Million Ponds Project (supported by Biffa Award) and Environment Wales, major dune rejuvenation work continues over winter. In total, 10.5 ha of sand are excavated, trialling three potentially very significant management techniques:
- Wet dune slack scrapes (0.5-1.5ha each). Paring off the turf to a depth of 5-15cm creates fresh bare sand in areas immediately adjacent to populations of Fen Orchid, effectively an ‘intensive care’ technique to resuscitate critically endangered populations.
- Small chequerboard scrapes (10 x 10 m or less). This technique creates bare ground within thinly scattered populations of rare species in the hope they will spread into them by seed.
- Full scale dune rejuvenation (2 ha plus). By removing all vegetation on a sufficiently large scale, the natural processes of sand erosion, movement and dune creation are kick-started.
2014 & 2015
Monitoring of plants at Kenfig continues. With such major operations we do not expect to see results for several years, especially with Fen Orchid.
However, some species respond more quickly and by 2014 Cavernous Crystalwort (Riccia cavernosa) begins to appear on areas of moist, bare sand - the first time it has been seen here since 1936. Dune slack scrapes quickly fill with other specialities such Variegated Horsetail (Equisetum variegatum), Bog Pimpernel (Anagallis tenella) and even Marsh Helleborine (Epipactis palustris).
This summer turns out to be the best year for Fen Orchid for many years. New seedlings are appearing in recently-excavated scrapes, and some are even reaching flowering size just three years after work has finished. Over 500 plants are counted in total.
Bridgend County Borough Council (landowner)Natural Resources Wales
Who are we working with?