Save the date! It’s World Sand Dune Day – 29th June

Phil Helmnin Conservation & Ecology

Sand dunes are listed as the habitat most at risk in Europe in terms of biodiversity loss. Ecologist Sophie Olejnik highlights the role of sand dunes in the context of golf.

Nature’s process of building a sand dune is called succession. Sand dunes have a predictable lifecycle, with young and

mobile dunes forming at the beach and old, stable dunes pushed further inland. Waves push sand up onto the beach, then the wind picks it up and moves it around the coastline. 

If there are any obstacles on the beach, the wind slows as it reaches them, dropping the sand particles. Larger sand grains are dropped in front of or pushed up it, while smaller grains are often deposited behind it. As this process continues, ridges of sand build up and start to form a sand dune. The stronger the wind, the higher the dunes! As the wind is always changing, dunes are also always changing, growing and shifting.

Sand dunes are listed as the habitat most at risk in Europe in terms of biodiversity loss, and they face threats from many different things. They are at risk of becoming stabilised so that the dune sand is no-longer able to move freely. Invasive species are also a big problem; when plants or animals who aren’t native to a dune environment end up in a sand dune, they can flourish quickly and overwhelm the other species which are adapted to live there. With this comes species loss and less biodiversity. All the extra plant growth means the sand becomes more enriched with nutrients too, encouraging even more plant growth and stabilisation.

We’ve got a BIG BIG job!

Over the last eighty years, nearly 90% of the open sand has disappeared, being replaced by dense grass and scrub. The dunes have become stable and fixed, and rare wildlife has disappeared. This change has been caused by factors such as the introduction of non-native plants, lack of traditional grazing, a declining rabbit population and air pollution.

Unfortunately, conventional dune management over many decades has created stable dunes that have become overgrown with vegetation. Conservationists now know that this is actually putting these special areas at risk and the species that live within them. As our understanding of what’s best for the dunes has changed, new conservation methods have evolved.

World Sand Dune Day was created by Dynamic Dunescapes and Sands of LIFE* back in 2021 to bring together communities to highlight the importance of dune systems across the world. Sand dunes are incredibly special, but their future hangs in the balance as they become increasingly stable and at risk of succession. They are currently listed as the habitat most at risk in Europe in terms of biodiversity loss, due to a multitude of threats, but there are some amazing schemes being implemented and plenty of people supporting them to help improve our dunes prospects.

“In advance of World Sand Dune Day, we wanted to highlight the role of sand dunes in the context of golf,” explained Sophie, “after all, the rolling dunes around our coastline support a plethora of golf courses which have been there in one form or another for over 100 years.” Sophie continued, “Take Royal Troon for example, this year’s Open venue, which has been a part of the dune system since 1878. Its dune heath, acid and calcareous dune grasslands has formed the backdrop to nine Open Championships. The two are inextricably linked and it’s not hard to see why. Natural blowouts provided the first bunkers and undulating dunes which created unmatched challenges compared to other landforms.”

Sand dunes beauty is undeniable, often supporting rare flora and fauna, becoming awash with colourful wildflowers and alive with the hum of bees and butterflies during spring and summer. One thing that dunes are not though is stable – they are alive and dynamic by their very nature, constantly moving and changing, or at least, they should be. Sophie explained, “Over many years, our idea of dune conservation was to support stability, but in reality, we needed to do the exact opposite. In fact, over the last eighty years, nearly 90% of the open sand in dunes has disappeared and has been replaced by dense grass and scrub.” She continued, “This presents a problem for dunes, and the extremely sensitive plants and creatures which rely on them. In particular, the dune habitats which are quickly lost through succession are the patches of bare sand, dune slacks and short, species-rich dune turf.”

Let’s start with sand, since that’s the foundation of dunes. If you were to visit Braunton Burrows down in North Devon, or Ainsdale Dunes in Merseyside, you might spot ‘deserts’ right in the middle of the dunes. These large open areas of sand have been created through the removal of years of vegetation growth to allow the movement of sand and for pioneer dune species to re-establish themselves - in a way, hitting ‘reset’ and letting the dunes shift and re-shape themselves. Similar works on a smaller scale have also taken place at various golf courses around the UK with scrapes becoming a bit of a trend in golf architecture. In the right place, and with the right management, these scrapes are beneficial for both dune dynamism and for golf, mimicking natural processes and creating open space for easier ball retrieval.

Golf course managers are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of bare sand, this being an intrinsic part of any dune system, allowing pioneer plants to establish and sand-dwelling invertebrates to thrive. The key to these pockets being a success is to allow them to flourish over time, cutting and collecting when necessary to retain an open, diverse sward, and creating other successional areas of bare sand to keep a mosaic of dune habitats. These are not bunkers and nor should they be treated as such, beyond the occasional ‘tidy up’ of undesirable plants such as ragwort, nettle and bramble which can all readily take hold and establish a solid footing. Even dreaded invasive non-natives (INNS) often take a liking to bare sand, taking the opportunity to spread even further.

Non-native plants such as sea buckthorn, Japanese rose and Montbretia are present on many dunes to the detriment of the sensitive habitats in which they grow and the wildlife that relies on them. INNS are a huge threat to our dunes, not just in the UK but across Europe, with various projects already underway with the sole aim of tackling alien species (see LIFE DUNIAS project in Belgium). These can be costly to control and unsightly during the removal process, but as custodians of these important landscapes it is up to individual clubs to ensure INNS management is considered as part of general golf course management, with monitoring plans and funding set aside to deal with them. Some golf clubs may be able to collaborate with local communities (or members) to hold work parties for non-native control, something which works well across various sites in the UK – take Ainsdale Dunes NNR for example, where regular scrub bashing days are held during the winter months. As an example from golf, Royal Troon has also been removing large patches of Japanese rose over several years, resulting in an increased population of Isle of Man cabbage, which is a plant endemic to Britain and one of the reasons for Royal Troon being designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

What can we do to play our part?

Whilst it may be difficult, indeed impossible, for many golf clubs to introduce grazing animals onto their golf courses, there is the option of cutting and collecting dune grasslands using machinery where access allows. This technique, which is already seen across most links thanks to its added playability benefits, means that excess, unwanted nutrients are removed, and native wildflowers and fine grasses can thrive. Such management means that a rich diversity of orchids continues to flourish at clubs such as Royal St George’s Golf Club, and nationally protected snails have recently taken residence at Saunton Golf Club.

Then there’s the restoration or creation of other dune habitats, like dune slacks. At Royal Liverpool Golf Club, their continued management of pools and slacks at Red Rocks SSSI with Cheshire Wildlife Trust and Natural England has meant that the natterjack toad population continues to prosper. Not too far away, dune slack creation at Hillside Golf Club. has resulted in the establishment of over one hundred native plants and the discovery of an uncommon liverwort (a small flowerless plant that produces spores and grows in damp areas), purple crystalwort – last seen on the banks of the river Mersey over one hundred years ago! These features are another important part of the dune habitat puzzle.

“These stories only represent a snapshot of the successes of dune management and restoration,” explained Sophie. “Why not find out what’s happening near you or have a think about what you could do to give a helping hand?” She cautioned, “As always, before undertaking any works, seek advice as ecological and geomorphological surveys may be required to ensure that the proposed work is the right course of action for nature and the landscape. To help, there’s a Sand Dune Managers Handbook which has a small section on golf course dune management, which I’m currently helping to update, it’s a really useful bit of guidance! You can find it by visiting:

Our legacy

Turf managers up and down the country have a real opportunity to get involved in this great work. So, on this World Sand Dune Day, why don’t we make a promise to continue to protect and restore our sand dunes and create our very own legacy of conserving our coastlines for generations to come!

Dynamic Dunescapes and Sands of LIFE are partnership projects that have been working to restore sand dunes across England and Wales for the benefit of wildlife, people and communities. Made up of multiple statutory bodies and environmental NGOs including Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, and Plantlife, the projects both end in 2024. Visit their web pages to read all about their incredible work: