We snuck away for a night during half term, down to Studland Bay in Dorset. In fact, it is becoming a favourite retreat. The coastline is so beautiful there, with wonderful walks over the headlands and stunning geology and geomorphology everywhere you look. The local countryside supports a wide range of wildlife (from parakeets to seahorses) in a number of very different environments, so it is great fun to explore.
On this trip, no sooner had we’d driven off the ferry that cuts across Poole harbour than we’d arrived at Shell Bay, the starting point for our first walk.
Disappointingly, although the bay was originally named for the large numbers of shells to be found there, this is no longer the case. There are just a few to be found, scattered amongst the different seaweeds that wash up on the beach. I looked up the names of some of the seaweeds that we found and discovered that Jessica at Natureinfocus has a written several posts on this very topic for this beach with clear photos for identification.
To get to the beach to walk beside the sea, a timber boardwalk takes you through a series of contrasting habitats over a remarkably short distance.
First through a narrow, marshy birch and sallow wood, then over a reed-swamp and through the other side of the wood. This wood mostly sits in black mirror-like water and the tree trunks are covered in mosses and lichen, giving the whole area a ghostly grey/green haze.
Next, the path leads through some marram dominated sand-dunes and then down to the foreshore where the outlet for the cut-off ‘Little Sea’ still flows. This is now a fresh water flow.
As we walked along Shell Beach to the breakwater we watched a good many pied wagtails flit along the edge of the first dune. On the seaward side there were other birds, wading in the shallow water, including Oystercatchers, Haematopus ostralegus, which have the creepiest red eyes …
and Sanderlings, Calidris alba, (at least I think they were).
We continued passed the point, turning south towards Knoll Beach, which is a mile or two down the bay. The dunes from this level looks fairly uninteresting. They are managed by the National Trust and in places some erosion can be seen (tourist traffic through here is apparently >~25,000 people annually). Rope cordons off eroded areas , which are then typically replanted with marram grass, Ammophila arenaria, to stablize the sand. The dunes have been expanding at a rate of roughly one ridge per 100 years for the last 3 or 4 centuries. There are now several marked trails through the dunes to allow visitors to explore the dune progression and vegetation succession, but minimising the disturbance to the local flora and fauna. Apparently all six British reptiles are represented here.
Once you get up into the dunes, a whole other world is revealed. A system of three main dune ridges can be seen running parallel to the shore and in between these peaks are fairly marshy areas.
Closest to the sea is a marram-dominated ridge, but inland is a second ridge dominated by ling or common heather, Calluna vulgaris. This view must look fantastic when it is in flower, but for this year it is over. Conditions on this middle ridge are much more varied, it’s less salty, there are many more nutrients available and the soil is more acidic.
Terricolous lichens form an important component of the heath cover, mixed in between the heathers and helping to bind the surface of the dune:
A number of wildflowers thread through the Ling, including the surprisingly blue Sheep’s Bit scabious:
At the edges of the ‘Little Sea’ lake the acidic conditions support colonies of sundew or Drosera, but unfortunately I didn’t look for these because I didn’t know this in advance. (Note to self – Do more background research before a trip).
As you move inland to the third ridge of the dune system, large shrubs and trees are obviously getting established. Birch is the first tree to get a toe-hold and its autumn-coloured leaves are blowing off just as the gorse is coming into flower, giving a golden glow to the view.
Scots pine is evident in the mixture, as are sallow willow and a few oaks. As a high level canopy is established, the understory gradually becomes bracken.
The whole peninsula is a geographers dream, with the development and progression of a great many things laid out clearly to see. So of course, this is one of the field study area that schools and college use to demonstrate succession, dune formation, erosion and coastal management. In fact I seem to recall that my elder son was one such student!
Ah well, it is nice to discover things on your own. The whole coastal area here is well worth exploring and is especially enjoyable out of tourist season.