Nature and Wildlife - Best Practice

Towards Best Practice in the sustainable management of sand dune habitats

The restoration of open dune communities at Ainsdale Sand Dunes National Nature Reserve


Ainsdale Sand Dunes National Nature Reserve (NNR ) was purchased by English Nature in 1965 to protect a nationally outstanding sand dune site. These dunes were listed in 1915 by the eminent English naturalist Charles Rothschild in his schedule of 'areas worthy of preservation', with Ainsdale dunes being regarded as of 'primary importance' and of 'especial interest'. Subsequently a series of national and international designations have confirmed its importance as a dune system and wetland.

In the early twentieth century part of the future area of Ainsdale Sand Dunes NNR was being planted up with pine trees as the northern extension of a wider scheme across Formby Point. Planting was instigated by the landowner, Charles Weld-Blundell, who had been inspired by the vast pine plantations created in Les Landes in south-west France. His aim was to stabilise the dunes and turn the 'wasteland' into a more productive estate providing a timber crop, woodland products and improved opportunities for agriculture and game. Shelter-belts of Sea Buckthorn Hippophae rhamnoides were planted to protect the young pines. The first pines were planted around 1900 and areas continued to be planted until the 1960s.

Until recently the woodlands covered 176 ha, over a third of the Reserve area, mostly of Corsican Pine Pinus nigra laricio. They were divided between a generally poor quality 28 ha seaward frontal woodland and a more healthy 148 ha landward rearward woodland. The woodlands today support an important population of the Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris, now rare in England. The wet slacks were generally not planted, although drainage ditches were put in to lower the water table. (figures from Sefton Coast Forest Plan)


From the time of planting, the pines began to exert an ever stronger influence on the dunes. On the plantation sites, natural dune mobility slowed and stopped. The water table dropped, light levels were lowered, temperature extremes were reduced and soil character changed. Species characteristic of the open dunes were lost, to be replaced by relatively fewer woodland species. With time the maturing pines began to seed into surrounding dunes and drier slacks. In the areas of remaining open dunes between the plantations, conditions were altered by the shelterbelt effect of the trees. This reduced the influence of prevailing salt-laden winds which play an essential role in maintaining the character of the dune system. Myxomatosis in the rabbit population from the mid 1950s compounded this problem further so that by the late 1980s scrub woodland had colonised the unplanted slacks the plantations and adjacent open dune habitat. Site managers were aware of the need to deal with this problem; a variety of techniques have been tested including mowing, cutting followed by herbicide treatment, turf-stripping, mechanical clearance and domestic grazing (Houston, 1997).

Water plays an important role in the ecology of the dune area. Habitat changes, as described, and drainage have led to a loss of wet slack habitat, an important habitat for protected species such as the Natterjack Toad Bufo calamita and Petalwort Petallophylum ralfsii and other scarce wetland plants such as Grass-of-Parnassus Parnassia palustris and Marsh Helleborine Epipactis palustris. Although it may not be possible to remove all of the constraints resulting from drainage works (e.g. adjacent road and farmland drainage) the effects of pine plantations can be tackled, providing an opportunity to restore the important open dune habitat . Given the level of importance, it was essential to develop techniques to restore open dune habitats in some of the plantation areas, whilst ensuring the conservation of all habitat types and landscape values. The frontal woodlands were chosen as most appropriate for the restoration of open dune habitats because of their seaward location. The rearward woodlands have been retained as forest and a management scheme has been developed to increase their diversity, value for rare species and landscape appeal.

The open dune restoration project

The project aims to restore open dune communities in the area of frontal woodlands and adjacent duneland. The project has been described by Gee (1998a) in English Nature's Enact magazine.

The consultation process began in September 1983 within English Nature and was extended to local coastal partners in 1988. The outline proposals were included in the first review of the Sefton Coast Management Plan (Sefton Council, 1989).

Initial project planning brought in forestry, coastal management, nature conservati on and cartographic advisors both from within English Nature and organisations such as the Forestry Commission and Environment Agency. Consultation was later extended to include the local planning authority and coastal protection authority through the mechanism of the Sefton Coast Management Scheme. All aspects of the project were considered including landscape change, erosion and sand blow.

Project plan

An overall plan was prepared to remove the frontal woodland in four phases together with any associated scrub. The phased clearance was planned to take place at three year intervals in accordance with the site management plan (now revised, Gee, 1998b).

It was thought that gradual tree removal would be less dramatic and the monitoring of the effects of the first two phases would inform later phases of the project. After tree removal, it was intended to burn the timber waste, bury fire sites and graze the reclaimed dunes with domestic stock by extending an adjacent grazing project initiated in 1990 . In this way it was hoped that scrub regrowth would be controlled and the desired mosaic of low dune turf with bare sand patches would be maintained. Any regrowth not controlled by grazing stock could be treated later with a selective herbicide.

Project operation

Restoration work

Tariffing (pricing up) of the timber was arranged and a felling licence obtained from the Forestry Commission. Initial publicity included press releases, some guided walks, leaflets to local residents and presentations to local councillors and members of the Sefton Coast Management Scheme. A combined timber and scrub removal contract was tendered and awarded. Access tracks, extraction routes, stacking areas and main road access for timber wagons were identified and warning signs erected. Sensitive nature conservation areas were identified to contractors. During the operations some indirect costs, such as the damage to tracks, were identified and as a result will be better addressed in later phases.

The first area was cleared in 1992.  It covered 11 ha with 4.5 ha of pines, at the northern end of the frontal woodland. At this time the monitoring of dune profiles was started to record any sand movement resulting from the clearfell. Cut scrub and pine brash was stacked in rows to be burnt with these fire sites buried and capped with clean sand.  In some areas the burning of the pine needle layer was tried, in other areas the needle layer was scraped off and the site tidied up.  Stock fencing was erected around the cleared areas as an extension of the Reserve’s grazing project. Herdwick sheep, a hardy breed from the Lake District, were introduced to the area in November 1993.

The second phase began in September 1995 and was completed by April 1996 with 16 ha of scrub and woodland cleared, following a similar pattern to the first phase.

Project improvement

Several aspects of the project's operation have changed or improved through experience.

Separate specialist contractors for forestry and scrub work are now favoured. At first it was hoped that one contractor could deal with all aspects of the project but in future phases it would be advantageous to clear scrub a year before felling the pines. The advantages would be that this would reduce the intensity and impact of the works and there could be closer supervision of each stage. In the second phase any marketable timber from the scrub was salvaged and this will be future practice.

Appropriate machinery needs consideration. All cutting equipment suffers from rapid wear and tear in the sand. The most efficient method was to use a mechanical harvester on the easier areas with chainsaws for the rough timber and less accessible areas. Mechanical harvesters can be quicker but they leave a lot of small brash which may prove harder to collect, especially when driven over and compacted.

Herbicidal treatment of cut stumps and regrowth from deciduous species has been developed through the project. In the first phase stumps were not treated to speed-up operations and because it was hoped that stock would control regrowth. However this was not sufficient and in the second phase stumps were treated immediately with a selective herbicide (Triclopyr) and a foliar spray was used on any re-growth the following summer.

During the first phase there were some problems with a late start in the winter period. It was therefore decided that future contracts would start in early September to be completed by late spring. This would reduce disturbance to wildlife and leave staff free for other priority work during the summer. Each part of the project should be undertaken by a specialist contractor. The main timber contract and scrub contract both need to specify as a condition the collecting and burning. Burial and capping of fire sites with clean sand and general tidying up should be undertaken by a separate contractor. This will help to ensure quality work to timed deadlines. Experience has shown the importance of having one responsible officer, the site manager, managing the project with a for estry consultant carrying out the tariffing or pricing, together with some specialist supervision.

Some of the revenue from timber felling was used to fund a research project to look at the population of the Red Squirrel on the Reserve and to assess the impact of the project on the overall population. This was one way of returning revenue from the felling to improve knowledge and understanding of woodland ecology and to improve future conservation management. Although considerable revenue was generated through the sale of timber, the costs of associated scrub clearance, final tidy-up work and fencing for grazing stock resulted in a relatively small net revenue.

At the end of the second phase of woodland removal, concern about the impact of the project was raised by some local people. Indeed this has developed into an active pressure group opposed to further phases of the project. The group have lobbied local politicians, sought the support of local residents and visitors and carried their campaign to the media. Countering the complaints has given the site manager an additional workload to try to better explain the project. A leaflet has been produced outlining the rationale for the work in the context of the overall management of the site.

The third and fourth phases of the project have been put on hold. An Independent Review has been commissioned by English Nature. There will be greater provision of information and more dialogue with community groups. The rearward woodlands form part of a long term Forest Plan developed in association with the Forestry Commission. A Community Office has also been appointed to take forward improved with the local community, which is now seen as an essential element of NNR work.

Eurosite Quality Award

English Nature received a Eurosite Quality Label in 1997 for the quality of its habitat management and restoration work on the open dune restoration project at Ainsdale. The project to restore open dune habitats at Ainsdale is one element of a wider initiative to protect and enhance the remaining areas of duneland on the Sefton Coast.

Effects of management

A monitoring programme has given valuable information about the effectiveness of this restoration project. Monitoring has included; vegetation, by National Vegetation Classification methodology and species presence, fixed point photography, aerial photography, groundwater measurement by dip-wells, topographic profiles to monitor dune movement and observations on rare species and general wildlife.

Environmental changes have been recorded across the area cleared of pine trees. The project has restored higher groundwater levels. An overall increase in bare sand habitat is recorded without any large scale destabilisation. Dune wildlife has responded to the restoration of dune processes. Dune vegetation communities have re-established with a particularly rapid response from wet slack communities with the return of orchid species, the scarce Yellow Bartsia Parentucellia viscosa and Skullcap Scutellaria galericulata. In some areas dune ridge communities have seen a flush of ruderals such as Rose-bay Willowherb Chamerion angustifolium, but these are declining as nutrient levels drop and surfaces stabilise.

Large scale flooding of the dune slacks in the former frontal woodland area has encouraged Natterjacks to spawn. For some slacks this is the first recorded instance and may represent the first breeding in fifty years or more. By the spring of 1998, Natterjacks were confirmed to be breeding in large numbers in slacks across both the phase one and two areas. The Sand Lizard Lacerta agilis has also been recorded in the restored areas. The rare Tiger Beetle Cicindela hybrida, together with nationally declining bird species Grey Partridge Perdix perdix, Skylark Alauda arvensis, Linnet Carduelis cannabina and Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniculus have all been recorded. The Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula, a scarce breeding species on the Sefton Coast, has nested on the reclaimed duneland area in what must have been the first breeding attempt here for many decades. Wheatears Oenanthe oenanthe have been recorded singing and prospecting rabbit burrows for nest sites. All these are examples of the restoration of duneland species to a part of their former historical range at Ainsdale.

Produced by David Simpson and Mike Gee.


The work of David Wheeler, former site manager at Ainsdale Sand Dunes NNR and the support of the EC Life-Nature Fund is acknowledged in the preparation of this article.


Gee, M. (1998a) New Life for Old Dunes. Enact, 6,(1): 6-8.

Gee, M. (1998b) Ainsdale Sand Dunes National Nature Reserve Management Plan 1998-2003. Unpublished report, English Nature, Wigan.

Houston, J. (1997) Conservation Management Practice on British Dune Systems. British Wildlife, 8, (5), 297-307.

Sefton Council (1989) Sefton Coast Management Plan, First Review. Sefton Council, Southport.

Updated July 2001