Location: Near Porthcawl in south west Wales. The dunes can be reached from Junction 37 of the M4 and the NNR is signposted from North Cornelly, Pyle and Porthcawl.
Grid Reference: SS 795 819
One of the largest surviving fragments of dunes that once fringed the whole of Swansea Bay, Kenfig feels remote and wild. Exposed to the elements, the sand blows around in the wind and builds habitats for a remarkable variety of plants, invertebrates and other wildlife.
Kenfig is one of Britain’s best dune sites and really is a treasure trove of rare and beautiful plants. It wasn’t always like this though. In the 13th century the thriving village around Kenfig Castle began to be inundated with sand blowing in from the expanding dunes. Following a series of violent storms the settlement was moved further inland – the church being moved brick-by-brick – and today only the top of the 50 foot Castle keep is visible above the dunes.
A vast range of dune habitats can be encountered here. At the edge of the sea, embryo dunes are colonised by various species of orache and beautiful lavender-flowered sea rocket. The taller mobile dunes inland are constantly shifting and moving, providing open spaces for sea holly, sea spurge and the very rare sea stock. Further inland, the grass-covered dunes are exceptionally rich in wildflowers. Amongst the abundant lady’s-bedstraw, bird’s-foot trefoil, common restharrow, eyebrights, biting stonecrop and dewberry are rarer plants like dune pansy, autumn gentian, dune fescue and moonwort. These grassy areas are home to a plethora of orchids, notably pyramidal orchid, fragrant orchid, bee orchid and common spotted-orchid. In autumn, the sand dunes support some rare fungi including the false morel, nail fungus, winter stalkball and dune inkcap.
But it’s the dune slacks – the wet low-lying areas between the soaring dunes – that are most exciting. Here, amongst the variegated horsetail and marsh pennywort, the jewel in the orchid crown can be found. The dune form of fen orchid used to be found at eight sites in south Wales, but Kenfig is now the last place it grows. Other orchid abound here too – marsh helleborine, southern marsh orchid and early marsh orchid, often in its brick-red colour form. The slacks also support a huge population of petalwort – a liverwort that looks a little like a tiny lettuce growing in the bare sand.
Kenfig is more than just dunes though. At 70 acres, Kenfig Pool is the largest lake in Glamorganshire. Low in nutrients, it supports a remarkable collection of stonewort algae – large algae rather like freshwater seaweeds – including rough stonewort, delicate stonewort and smooth stonewort. These often grow in dense carpets on the lake bed, a stonewort lawn that’s largely invisible from the shore.
Over the years the sand dunes at Kenfig have become more and more covered with dense vegetation. Surprisingly, rather large numbers of plants and invertebrates actually require open shifting sand to survive. We are therefore helping to undertake 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.
Image: Kenfig IPA © Natasha Edwards/Plantlife