The site’s importance was recognised as early as 1834 when Sand Crocus Romulea columnae was discovered here, until recently, its sole British mainland site. Dawlish Warren was also noteworthy during the 19th century for turning up exotic bird-life e.g. Britain’s only record of Great Black-headed Gull Larus ichthyaetus in 1859 but, nature conservation then was a concept way off in the future. Through work by BTO and DBWPS members on its bird-life and Wallace on its flora, the huge significance of the wildlife value here in a national context has been uncovered since the 1930s. The area now boasts a large array of protective legislation including conservation status as a SSSI, SPA, a RAMSAR-site and a candidate-SAC. The first warden was appointed when Teignbridge District Council began maintaining the site as a Local Nature Reserve in 1979; the Visitor Centre was built in 1985 and the area was declared a National Nature Reserve fifteen years later.
The Inner warren has been part of a golf course for over 100 years, along with other links courses the regular cutting and lack of fertilisers has produced ideal conditions for botanic life, here including the previously mentioned Sand Crocus – the majority of the population is to found on fairways. Because of the course’s conservation importance the ownership was passed to the Devon Wildlife Trust, the land holding also includes the mudflats and saltmarsh and is not included within the NNR.
In recent decades levels of tourists numbering nearly 850000 annually, has increased the potential for conflict between the needs of the wildlife and the wishes of visitors. Owing to this pressure, further developments began in the 1990s with the appointment of an assistant warden and in 1994/5 a Winter Bird Warden who’s unique task it was to protect roosting waders from human disturbance over the high tide period. This indicates the level of stature given to the reserve’s wildlife, particularly as knowledge of Dawlish Warren’s conservation importance continued to expand with further discoveries e.g. Petalwort Petalophylum ralfsii and Pennyroyal Mentha pulegium in 1997/98.
Several major management issues have been tackled since the reserve’s inception. In the early 1980’s the areas of fixed and mobile dunes were densely covered with the invasive alien Tree Lupin Lupinus arboreus. This was (and still is) removed by hand pulling but the infestation by a North American aphid in 1983 helped to reduce the problem to more manageable levels. The species (and the aphid), still survive here and it provides secure nest sites for several bird species.
However the large dieback of lupins caused its own problems with an increase in areas of open sand. Over the years several large areas of dune have had to be fenced to protect from continuing erosion. Once fenced these areas can then be planted with Marram Grass Ammophila arenaria, this species is a main building block of any dune system, the plants are able to withstand the salt and sea spray and they trap the blown sand and stabilise the dune. Repeated burial by sand just stimulates further growth. The young plants can however be damaged by trampling hence the need for fenced areas.
Other alien plants have also caused problems on the reserve with several patches of Rosa rugosa being controlled each year. Recently the rapid spread of Michaelmas daisy Aster sp. has swamped areas of dune slack shading out many other plants.
The SSSI is listed as being of unfavourable status by English Nature, one of the reasons why is because of the unnatural dune ridge (supported by gabions), but another area of concern is the site’s apparent drying out. This has been occurring in Greenland Lake for decades since it was a tidal creek. The process of succession is heading towards climax vegetation with the areas of sallows Salix sp. being replaced by Alder Alnus glutinosa, Silver Birch Betula pendula and even Turkey Oak Quercus cerris. These areas of woodland are now being managed with some areas being allowed to coppice back, others being removed. This will only aid the process however and more work on maintaining the site’s groundwater is required.
The arrival of Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD – an unwanted first for the UK!) in the reserve’s Rabbit population has had a dramatic effect on the vegetation with many areas becoming invaded by gorse Ulex europaeus, rushes and coarse grasses such as Yorkshire Fog Holcus lanatus, because of the loss of grazing. There are currently plans to try and reinstate this level of grazing with Shetland Ponies. Hopefully this will restore areas of dune grassland and help prevent the increasing scrub encroachment.
The reserve has also become ever more important when one reflects upon the situation of the surrounding countryside where wildlife continues to disappear at an alarming rate. However, the large, varied and often incompatible number of ‘interest- and user-groups’ upon Dawlish Warren and its environs will forever ensure that Teignbridge wardens will have a continued struggle implementing essential conservation measures.