Dunes decline as grazing dispute drags on: Nicholas Schoon looks at the threat to rare and beautiful plants on a north Devon coastal reserve

BRAUNTON BURROWS, the extensive sand dunes that make up one of Britain's finest coastal nature reserves, are in danger of being irretrievably damaged by neglect.

English Nature, the Government's wildlife conservation arm, is in dispute with the owners - the Christie family, who founded Glyndebourne opera - and the Ministry of Defence, over the management needed to preserve their rare and beautiful plantlife.

The burrows, on north Devon's Taw and Torridge estuary, have almost every kind of official designation. They are a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Heritage Coastline. They form one of England's three Unesco World Biosphere Reserves.

The dunes are open to walkers and are also an infantry training ground, but the plantlife can cope with those uses. The threat comes from an invasion by scrub - brambles, privet, birch and willow. The thin carpet of wildflowers, many of them rarities, which turn the dunes bright purple and yellow in midsummer, is being swamped.

English Nature staff want to graze the entire area with hardy sheep and cattle to hold back the scrub. But the organisation has not obtained permission from the Christie family's estate, or from the Ministry of Defence, which leases it for training. All three profess concern about the scrub. English Nature staff say that the estate and the ministry have dragged their feet and gone back on agreements; the estate says the same of English Nature.

The conservation organisation itself is divided on the issue, with some staff feeling its negotiators should take a tougher line. But English Nature's sub-lease from the Ministry of Defence expired in 1984 and it is there by grace and favour.

The burrows, the second largest area of dunes in England, are naturally in a state of flux as sand is blown inland. On the seaward side there is bare sand and marram grass. Further inland they are covered in 'thyme turf', a mixture of small plants including thyme and kidney vetch adapted to the poor soil and harsh conditions. It is this that is being overcome.

Once, rabbits kept grass and scrub at bay but their numbers were drastically reduced by myxomatosis in the 1950s. The dunelands are also drying out, probably because of improved drainage of adjacent farm land and irrigation of a golf course.

English Nature is allowed to graze 70 hardy Soay sheep on 30 acres of the reserve. This flock has shown that grazing can hold back the scrub and now the organisation wants to graze hundreds of sheep and cattle over all 1,500 acres.

But Charles Coldwell, the estate's land agent, said the trampling of cattle would damage the land. The drinking ponds that would have to be dug would further lower the water table. Last year English Nature had not responded to an offer for soldiers to clear some of the scrub, he added. 'Something has got to be done and nothing would delight me more than reaching an agreement. The Christie family have conserved this land for decades and they want to continue to do so.'

Dr Robert Walton, of English Nature, said: 'We're deeply worried that one of the finest sand-dune systems in Europe is scrubbing up through lack of grazing.'

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Extras
indybest

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Life and Style
news

As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”

Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C#.NET VB6 Developer (Software Developer, Software Engineer)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C#.NET VB6 Developer (Software Developer, Softwa...

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Service Desk Analyst - (Active Directory, Support, London)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst - (Active Di...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition