The Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) is working together with Cornwall Wildlife Trust and the British Army to improve sand dune wildlife at the Penhale Training Area in Cornwall.  

Personnel from the British Army’s 232 Port Squadron 165 Port and Maritime Regiment Royal Logistic Corps have taken part in a military training exercise that not only develops their skills but also creates better conditions for sand dune wildlife at Penhale – an area that is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). 

This is the third time the work has been carried out.  

Lt Col (Ret’d) Andrew Westcott, DIO training safety officer for the Cornwall area, said: “The UK Defence Training Estate is home to a diverse range of habitats and wildlife species, many of which have been granted protected status. Through our collaborative work with Cornwall Wildlife Trust and the army, we’re sustainably managing land used for military training and balancing military needs with ecological conservation here at Penhale Training Area.”  

The large dune system at Penhale is home to a wealth of native wildlife, from reptiles like common lizards and adders, to delicate orchids, the rare silver-studded blue butterfly and the silvery leafcutter bee, which only lives in sandy habitats. 

These species thrive in our coastal landscapes when there are plenty of areas of bare sand available for burrowing into or hunting on top of, and low grassland where they can hide or produce flowers.  

The challenge that Penhale Dunes SAC currently faces, much like many of the coastal dune systems in Europe, is that areas of bare sand or low grassland are becoming smaller and further apart. 

Fast-growing scrubby vegetation – encouraged by the loss of natural grazing, by climate change and by nitrogen increases caused by air pollution – is overtaking the landscape. As the bare sand and low grass habitat areas shrink, dune plants and animals are the first to suffer; coastal sand dunes are experiencing significant biodiversity loss.  

As part of a machinery training programme, four 16-tonne military diggers were used by a team from the Regiment to remove areas of overgrown scrub and expose bare sand on Penhale’s overgrown dunes.   

The work, which helps to rebalance habitats within the dune system at Penhale, targets blocks of Blackthorn scrub for removal. Blackthorn can form large stands out competing other vegetation. 

“It can be useful as nesting habitat and providing shelter for rabbits, an important grazing animal on the dunes.   

Jon Cripps, Penhale dunes ranger at Cornwall Wildlife Trust who manages dune restoration with Dynamic Dunescapes, said: “The success of the last two years’ work, which has significantly reduced the cover of thick blackthorn scrub, has encouraged us to carry out this work again. Removing an amount each year helps keep things in balance and the areas that have been cleared so far are becoming vegetated with sand dune flora. 

“Great mullein is continuing to colonise the area, adding a splash of vibrant yellow, and Rest harrow is now present, which is fantastic. As we continue to carry out this type of work we are adding to habitat diversity across the dune system, creating niches in which pioneering plants thrive, and this is great news for the flora and fauna in the area.”  

Major John Porter, officer commanding for 232 Port Squadron, said: “We’re really pleased to be able to continue to support the Cornwall Dynamic Dunescapes Project at Penhale Training Area. 

“This exercise has enabled our team to train and practice our key skills – by removing the scrub through excavation and strictly controlled grading of the sand in the previously scrub covered areas – using the equipment often used to support major operations around the world. 

“By conducting our training in the local area close to where our regiment is based, we’re also helping to reduce the impact on the carbon footprint.”  

It is planned to carry out four more years of work in the area. Towards the end of the four years a review of the area and an assessment of the land cover of each of the dune habitat types will take place. A decision will be made about the next steps.   

Work at Penhale Dunes is taking place as part of Dynamic Dunescapes, an ambitious conservation project aiming to restore 7,000 hectares of sand dune in England and Wales, funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund and EU LIFE Programme.