Things to see on a walk along Studland Bay

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.


Old Harry rocks, Studland, Dorset

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.


The boardwalk, from the car park to the dunes, through several ecosystems

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.


Multi-stemmed birch twist out of the black waters of the lake


Lichen-encrusted birch and willow groves in marshy ground

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.


The first dune ridge, colonised largely by marram grass

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.


The trail between the first and second dune ridges

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:


Sheep’s bit scabious, Jasione montana

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.


Looking towards the third ridge, where trees are getting their roots down.

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 beginnings of mixed woodland on the oldest sand-dune ridge

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.





About Frogend_dweller

Living in the damp middle of nowhere
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15 Responses to Things to see on a walk along Studland Bay

  1. winderjssc says:

    One of my favourite places too but I have never walked along the boardwalk which you illustrate and describe so delightfully.

  2. Julie says:

    Studland bay is one of our all time favourite places to visit, we have so many happy memories here. Last year we walked another part of South West coast path, that starts just near Studland. Thanks too for the link to Nature in Focus, really helpful. Lovely Post!

    • We’ve been working our way around from the Jurassic coast back to Studland. I love nearly all of it. Jessica’s posts usually make me want to move to the coast.

      • Julie says:

        I have just followed her blog thanks to your link. We found some stretches are quite dangerous with narrow cliff top paths, that were a little unsettling. The year before we tackled the other end which was more civilised. We’d like to move to Studland too. 🙂

  3. Chloris says:

    How beautiful and such fascinating ecology. I really enjoyed this post and I shall certainly visit next summer, I don’ t know this coast at all.

  4. Eliza Waters says:

    Reminds me of our own Cape Cod dunes and National Seashore. Fragile ecosystems that luckily are being preserved. I loved the moss/lichen birches.

    • The management is quite complex I think, because there are at least two organisations involved because of the number of protection designations (most importantly a Site of Special Scientific Interest and National Nature Reserve). Sea level rises in the future (helpfully marked along a transect in the dunes) will necessitate hard decisions about what protection is applied. Glad you have Cape Cod dunes to enjoy. Things happen so quickly in these types of environments, they may be gone soon.

      • Eliza Waters says:

        Gosh, I hope it isn’t too soon, but sea-rise is a threat, I agree.
        The Cape is constantly shifting through storms and currents. Being a glacial moraine, there is a lot of sand there!

  5. Such a well illustrated and evocative post, I can almost hear the ferry chains clanking. I haven’t been to the Isle of Purbeck for years, reading this reminds me that it would make a great out of season getaway. Thank you!

  6. I love that birch reflected in the water and if I lived a little nearer I would follow your entire route. Inspiring.

  7. What a marvelous place! I love the wooden boardwalk and its Tolkien-like surroundings. The dune hike is lovely also, though I find dune hikes to be very tiring.

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