My family and I have been visiting the Burrows for dog walks and bike rides for almost 15 years, and I have many great memories of my siblings and me jumping off the top of the once towering flagpole dune, which is now little more than a sloping sand hill. With all of these fond memories of days spent on the Burrows, I realised I had paid little attention to the local flora and wildflowers. So, I was excited to go on one of Mary and John Breed’s famed summer evening wildflower walks across the burrows when the opportunity came up in late July to learn about the unique species that the Braunton Burrows have to offer.
Many botanists and plant specialists are interested in the Braunton Burrows, which was declared Britain’s first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in November 2002, with the goal of conserving the biodiversity and abundance of rare flora found there.
Around 7 p.m., a number of enthusiastic botanists, flower admirers, tourists, and intrigued residents gathered in Sandy Lane Car Park, hoping that the day’s heavy rain showers would dissipate for the evening. Local ecologists and wildflower experts Mary and John Breeds greeted everyone in the parking lot, briefly introducing themselves and the purpose of the evening’s walk, and then we were off.
Grassland & Dune Turf
We followed Mary up dog lane, directly to the first region of species-rich habitat, the dune grasslands & dune turf. She pointed out a variety of plant species to us, including wild fennel, hemlock, lady’s bedstraw, and wild carrot. This grassland is now managed by grazing cattle and mowing in certain areas, with natural maintenance provided by rabbit populations. Carpets of wild thyme thriving on the short turf areas maintained by the rabbits, with tight clusters of purple flowers, but since the decline of rabbit populations this flowering plant is less prevalent. Grazing cattle here, just like many centuries ago, helps boost natural grazing keeping tall scrubs and dense grasses at bay, allowing the more delicate flora to flourish. Without proper management, the dune area would most likely become wooded, with huge shrubs and trees taking over the landscape, which would be detrimental to the preservation of rare wildflowers.
We then moved on to the Dune Scrub and dry dune areas in the middle of the burrows. Here you can find flowers like Evening Primrose, Haresfoot Clover, and heaps of Vipers Bugloss that displays beautiful violet flowers in mid to late summer that attract many kinds of insects in search of nectar. One insect of special importance that is found foraging on these flowers is the rare, Brown-Banded carder Bee, which is listed as a priority species on the Devon special species list due to its rarity.
Walking deeper into the dunes, we came across the dune slacks, valleys cut out by the wind between the huge dunes that gather water and hold it near the surface, resulting in a wide diversity of plant flora. Mary pointed out species including Wild Water Mint, Sharp Rush, Strawberry-Headed Clover, Lesser Century, and St. John’s Wort in this area, as well as plants like Bog Pimpernel and Yellow-Wort. These dune slacks form temporary freshwater ponds in the winter, covering some plant species in water until they dry up in April, allowing the plants to blossom and seed.
More aquatic vegetation, such as Marsh Marigolds, Reed Mace, Branched Bur-reed, and five different varieties of pond weed, with the Broad-leaved Pondweed being the most prevalent, can be found among the various ponds and marsh land that you come across further in the middle of the burrows. Mary and John lead the group around of one of the larger ponds, pointing out some important flora that thrive in this sandy marsh habitat. Many of these ponds have recently been excavated to allow semi-aquatic plants to flourish, resulting in unique habitats for wildlife and insects such as the beautiful Six-Spot Burnet Moth (pictured below), which we saw a couple of during our visit.
The Foredunes, located just before you get on the gorgeous stretch of coastline that stretches almost as far as the eye can see in both directions, was the last habitat we came across on our wildflower walk. This area is covered in Marram grass, which was planted and encouraged to grow here to help stabilise the sand and prevent the dunes from being eroded by wind and waves. Water is limited here, and the sand is so deep and dry that only a few species of vegetation can thrive. The thick waxy exteriors of Marram Grass, Sea Holly, and Sea Bindweed help them to retain water and endure drought conditions, making them widespread in this environment.
After looking at the variety of plant species found on the Burrows, I’m amazed by how rich and diverse this ecosystem is, as well as how complex and valuable it is for our local area. Mary and John are both extremely knowledgeable about the flora and fauna found on the burrows, and their wildflower walks are a fascinating way to spend a summer evening if you want to learn more about this area of outstanding natural beauty.
By Jess Giblett
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