Radical dune project to save fen orchids

Fen orchid by Clive Hurford, CCW Kenfig Reserve in South Wales is the last stronghold for fen orchid in Britain

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Will a pioneering project to reshape sand dunes that are home to a stronghold of fen orchids and other rare plants and invertebrates, protect or destroy the habitat?

Tearing up a four hectare area of a Special Area of Conservation and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) would usually be met with widespread condemnation.

Diggers in the sand Large diggers and trucks are tearing up the marram grass to create new "mobile" sand dunes

But after 70 years Kenfig National Nature Reserve in South Wales has become over-stabilised and overgrown by vegetation such as marram grass, a far cry from its natural state.

"Although this habitat in general terms is nice, great to look at and species rich - it's just a drop in the ocean on this particular site," said Scott Hand, the countryside council officer for Kenfig.

"The new habitat produced by losing some existing habitat is considered a necessary risk and deemed 'destructively constructive'."

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We have to intervene if we are not to lose a suite of habitats and species of both national and international importance”

End Quote Dr Mike Howe CCW invertebrate ecologist

With rare plants and insects on the edge of extinction, the Welsh government is aiming to recreate new areas of bare, open sand dunes where sand moves providing the habitat necessary to ensure the survival of species such as the endangered fen orchid.

To create the new "mobile" dunes surrounded by gullies, the team are using new techniques in order to funnel the sand around the site using the wind found at this exposed coastal spot.

In a first for the UK, diggers and trucks normally associated with building sites and quarries are shifting tons of sand to recreate "natural" dune blowouts slacks, that are currently no more than mounds covered by marram grass and other vegetation which would not typically occur on mobile dunes.

Dr Mike Howe, CCW invertebrate ecologist said: "As we can't predict when we're going to have the next period of mobility, we have to intervene if we are not to lose a suite of habitats and species of both national and international importance."

Hornungia petraea

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We expect swathes of orchids to recolonise lost ground, bringing colour to the dunes ”

End Quote Andy Byfield Plantlife landscape conservation manager

Fen orchids (Liparis loeselii) are one of the most threatened plants in north-west Europe.

In the UK, the small green-flowered orchid is found in a small number of fens in East Anglia and the dunes of South Wales.

The Welsh dunes used to support 90% of all the UK's plants but the orchid has now been lost from eight Welsh sites. It is now confined to Kenfig, where regular disturbance of dune slacks is the key to its long-term survival.

Over the last few winters at Kenfig mature slacks have been excavated to expose fresh sand in an attempt to provide the right conditions for the orchid.

Despite this, populations are still being lost and as recently as 2004, fen orchids disappeared from a site at Whitford Burrows on Gower.

In the early 1990s there were more than 10,000 fen orchids in the reserve but this number has dropped to 400 at the last count in 2011.

Along with the orchid there are more than 5,000 invertebrates found on Welsh sand dunes, of which 450 of which are confined to or restricted to dune habitats.

Seven species of national importance can be found at Kenfig, analysis of SSSIs in Wales has shown.

Fen orchid facts

  • Kenfig Reserve is the only place in Britain to find the dune variant of this species
  • Fen orchids are dependant on the creation of new dunes for their survival
  • In summer the orchids grow up to 25cm tall
  • Fen orchids are listed as an endangered species in Britain
  • The first recorded orchid in the UK was found by John Ray in 1660 near Cambridge

It is hoped that in time the new open dune conditions will provide the perfect habitat for other declining flora such as round leaved-wintergreen, marsh helleborine, Erophila verna, Hornungia petraea and early marsh orchids.

Experts also hope it will encourage rare plants such as Hutchinsia, (a diminutive member of the cabbage family) and petalwort, a rare liverwort which requires very open conditions.

The vernal bee (Colletes cunicularius) and the dune tiger beetle (Cicindela maritima) could also benefit from the creation of more mobile dunes.

Andy Byfield from Plantlife who is co-ordinating the work at Kenfig remembers a very different scene in the early 1980s when Kenfig was carpeted with orchids and wildflowers.

But letting nature take its course after the dunes are ripped up should encourage new growth, he says.

Dr Mike Howe, invertebrate ecologist CCW Predicting when the dunes may become naturally mobile is too hard says Dr Mike Howe

"Over the coming decade we expect swathes of orchids to recolonise lost ground, bringing colour to the dunes and restoring Kenfig to its former glory."

The dunes at Kenfig National Nature Reserve were at one time part of a continuous dune system stretching from the River Ogmore in the east along the coast to the Gower peninsula, covering an area of 3,300 ha - one of the largest dune systems in Europe.

"Because sand dunes around the Welsh Coast have become more stable over the last 50 years, we have lost 64% of areas of open, mobile sand dunes, eliminating the conditions necessary for the special wildlife of dunes to flourish," Scott Hand said.

Kenfig Burrows:

  • During WWII the dunes were used by the American army for military manoeuvres
  • The medieval town of Kenfig and its castle lie buried beneath the dunes
  • Kenfig is home to the largest freshwater lake in South Wales

However, most of the dunes have been lost due to urban and industrial development over the past 100-150 years.

Further depletion of sand dune systems in Wales has occurred due to conifer woodland plantations and the construction of golf courses and caravan parks.

Dr Mike Howe said: "In Wales there are 31 protected sites with sand dunes on them, nine of which are National Nature Reserves and six of which are of International Importance (SACs) - important for 10 different habitats and species.

"But despite all this protection, the reserves are still not in the condition we would like them to be in."

It is hoped that the pilot project could go on to change the way this type of habitat is managed in Britain.

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