Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Dunes of St. Aidans

Rolling from sandy foreshore to marram covered dune to herb-rich grazing paddocks, St. Aidans dunes are a brilliant example of Northumberland dune habitat. Becoming a multi-coloured swathe of flowers in the spring and summer, they are home to nesting birds, small mammals and hundreds of insects. Although they are naturally very healthy a surprising amount of management goes into ensuring the biodiversity of these dunes is maintained.
Digging out pirri-pirri
Invasive species must be managed to ensure native species can flourish. Lines of volunteers walk the dunes, forks in hand and eyes to the ground, looking for the bright green serrated leaves of pirri-pirri. It’s small brown seed heads attach to clothing and animal fur and spread across the dunes, easily setting seed. An invasive plant introduced from New Zealand, we dig out the roots to prevent its long tendrils out-competing less vigorous native species. Garden varieties have encroached onto the dunes and although some species such as Spanish bluebell and daffodil look beautiful during the spring flowering season they can easily dominate areas and threaten the delicate balance of the herb rich grassland.
Raking grass in the dunes
The dunes are also home to Exmoor ponies that graze the paddocks at certain times of year. They allow herb plants to flourish by preventing the spread of more dominant grasses. We also cut the grass in certain dune hollows that we are unable to put stock on as a form of artificial grazing. The bright yellow of ragwort is a common site along the coast in the summer months and it flourishes in the dunes. Although it is a native species it is poisonous to livestock and so must be dug out of the areas grazed by ponies and areas adjacent to paddocks. Hundreds of cinnabar moth caterpillars, which feed solely on ragwort, have to be relocated from flowering plants being pulled to the tiny ragwort florets that will hopefully be munched before the next flowering season.
Cinnabar moth caterpillar
This management approach is constantly evolving and being assessed to ensure it is as effective as possible. So far it has allowed species such as tufted vetch, meadow vetchling and pyramidal orchids to flourish adding to the botanical mosaic of colour and species. While pulling ragwort our team of volunteers found destroying angel fungi nestled in the grass and an exciting collection of butterflies, such as common blues and painted ladies, could be seen fluttering through the paddocks. Having just finished a big fencing project along the roadside to ensure there any no pony escape attempts this winter, we are now turning our minds to pirri-pirri hunting and other winter management work in the beautiful dines of St. Aidans.
Common blue butterfly

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