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The Management of Cornwall's Sand Dunes

In the 1970's and 80's dune erosion caused by human pressures was at it's worst. Local Authorities and conservation organisations recognised the need to protect and manage Cornwall's sand dunes. They stabilised vast areas of exposed sand by planting marram and using fencing to trap sand. Today a number of bodies work together to protect the sand dune habitats and species. They include:

  • Countryside Services
  • National Trust
  • Wildlife Trust
  • English Nature and
  • many others
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These bodies work in partnership with others to ensure that people can continue to enjoy these special places. The partnership includes working with:

  • local communities
  • landowners
  • funding bodies
  • colleges and
  • businesses 

Please use the following links to navigate the sections on this page:

Sand dune systems are one of the most dynamic and potentially fragile coastal habitats. They need to be maintained under a regime of natural accretion and erosion. This allows dunes and bare sand to be mobile and recolonise naturally with minimum impact from humans. The ideal for sand dunes is to allow natural processes to proceed without hindrance. However, this can often be difficult where buildings and roads have been constructed in or near the dunes. These are affected by any windblown sand. It is important to balance the needs of nature with those of humans, when co-ordinating the management of a site.

Countryside Managers must establish a careful balance on dune sites between:

  • preventing excessive erosion by people
  • maintaining the naturally dynamic characteristics of dune habitats

In the past, areas of erosion were quickly planted with marram grass and fenced. Today a more non-interventionist approach tends to be adopted, where practical.

  • On the larger dune systems, areas of bare sand are continuously monitored using aerial photography. Some exposed sand is vital to maintain a healthy dune system. The sand provides a habitat for many insects and allows the dunes to continue their ever-changing cycle, as they have done for thousands of years.
  • Most of the fencing from old restoration schemes has been taken away.
  • Seaward section of the dunes often still require a line of fencing to aid formation of mobile foredunes. Foredunes are at greatest risk from human trampling.
  • On the Towans, the line of the coast path was moved inland, away from the vulnerable foredunes to the fixed dunes. Fixed dunes have a greater capacity to withstand trampling.
  • In the future, it may be necessary to try and increase the area of bare sand on some of the large dune sites to reintroduce some of the mobility of the sand. This can be aided by grazing.
  • Informal recreation is encouraged in areas where it will do least harm to the dune habitats and important species.
  • Public access should be carefully monitored
  • Boardwalks and other trample resistant surfaces can be used to minimise damage to the dunes. However, there should always be a precedent against introducing any new materials to a site. Structures should not permanently impact upon the landscape qualities of a site. Wood can easily be removed when it is no longer needed. Concrete or gravel cannot.

One of the keys to effective management of popular dune sites is to work closely with local people. To empower them to take an active involvement in safeguarding the future of the site.

Most of Cornwall's sand dunes are protected by law for their nature conservation importance. This is acheived through their designation as either:

  • Sites of Special Scientific Interest or
  • Special Areas of Conservation

There are many other nature conservation designations. These are determined by English Nature or voluntary organisations such as the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. They are listed in the table below.

DesignationExampleResponsible Agency

Sites of Special Scientific Interest

Gwithian to Mexico Towans

English Nature

Special Areas of Conservation

Penhale Sands

English Nature

National Nature Reserve  

Kennack Sands

English Nature

Local Nature Reserve

Par Sands

Local Authority

Regionally Important Geological Sites

Praa Sands

Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Cornwall Nature Conservation Site


Cornwall Wildlife Trust

The majority of Cornwall's undeveloped coastline is also subject to local and national landscape designations. Examples include:

  • Heritage Coast (National)
  • Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (National)
  • Area of Great Landscape Value (Local)
  • Area of Great Scientific Value (Local)

These designations help Local Authorities to control developments such as:

  • prolific signs
  • caravan parks and
  • electricity pylons

These might otherwise ruin the unique character of our coast.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) (WCA) and introduction of site-specific Byelaws can provide Countryside Managers and landowners with a mechanism to prosecute people who wantonly damage the dunes. The WCA makes it an offence to knowingly harm certain species and all Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Byelaws can be used to control dog fouling, fires, camping and other damaging activities. Road traffic laws make it an offence to drive vehicles on land more than 15 metres from a road.

An emphasis is placed on the conservation and interpretation of the existing archaeological features. This is combined with minimum disturbance to any buried landscapes. Historic structures have been restored for future generations to appreciate. For example, the remains of the National Explosives Factory at Upton Towans.

Invasive species, which are alien to Britain or the Cornish sand dunes, can threaten the native dune wildlife. These spread quickly and take over such habitats. Species include:

  • japanese knotweed
  • montbretia, and
  • sea buckthorn

Attempts are made to control them on the most important dune sites. This may be done by pulling up by hand or with a digger and treating with a biodegradable herbicide.

Ragwort is a noxious, notifiable weed, and poisonous to livestock. It is particularly poisonous when dried and mixed with hay. It is not however, detrimental to wildlife and actually acts as the food plant for the yellow and black cinnabar moth caterpillar. Other insects feed on the nectar of ragwort.

The flower-rich dune grassland on the inland area of the large dune systems is kept short by vital rabbit grazing. This is supplemented at some locations by Shetland Sheep and ponies. Grazing helps to control brambles and other scrubby plants. These would otherwise take over the dunes as part of natural succession, crowding out wildflowers. Grazing also keeps soil nutrient levels low and introduces structural diversity. This helps maintain a species-rich grass sward.

It is difficult to introduce livestock grazing on some sites due to the potential conflicts with recreational activities. These may include dog walking or the shear numbers of cars and visitors. In these cases, mechanical scrub control is adopted. Bramble and coarse vegetation is cut with machinery and the cuttings collected and removed from the site. However, this can be costly and is not as effective as grazing.

If the rabbit population decreased due to disease, grazing may need to be introduced to many more sites. This would prevent scrub encroachment and maintain plant diversity.

It is recognised that the sand dunes in Cornwall provide an important flood risk function, are important habitats and are areas of high landscape value. It is therefore important that they are managed sustainably.

In recognition of the above ten Beach Dune Management Plans have been developed that provide baseline data on the dune system, identy issues and objectives and suggest management options.  

Follow the links below for more information:

Cornwalls Sand Dunes: Back to the opening page.

Introduction to Cornwall's Sand Dunes: Provides information on how dunes form and where they have developed in Cornwall.

Plants of the Dunes: Provides information on dune succession and plant adaptation to survive in dune habitat.

Animals on the Dunes: Provides information on animals that can be found on dunes.

People and the Dunes: Provides information on a range of human activities that occur on dune systems and the potential impact these activities have.