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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Process Improvement Analyst (Testing)

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Service Delivery Manager - Derivatives, Support,

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Delivery Manager - (Derivatives, Support...

Technical Account Manager - Java, FIX Protocol, FIX 5.0, C++

£30000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Technical Account Manager - Java,...

WPF .NET Developer

£300 - £350 per day: Harrington Starr: WPF Analyst Programmer NET, WPF, C#, M...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform