Conservation History

The site’s importance was recognised as early as the late 17th century when the first UK record of Purple Spurge Euphorbia peplis was discovered, this recognition increased with the 1834 discovery of Sand Crocus Romulea columnae, until recently, its sole British mainland site.  Dawlish Warren was also noted during the 19th century for turning up exotic bird-life including 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 the Wetland Bird Survey and Devon Birds members on its bird-life and Wallace on its flora, the significance of the wildlife value in a national context has been uncovered since the 1930s. However it was not until 1984 that the Warren was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), it is now recognised by a range of international designations; part of the Exe Estuary Special Protection Area (SPA) and RAMSAR site for waders and wildfowl, and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for the dune flora. The Warren was declared a National Nature Reserve in 2000.

For tourism and unknown reasons respectively the Buffer Zone and Railway Saltmarsh are not covered by any of these designations but are of similar quality. They are currently recognised as County Wildlife Sites.

The Inner Warren has been a Golf Course since 1892, along with other links courses the regular cutting and lack of fertilisers has produced ideal conditions for botanic life on the fairways, here including the previously mentioned Sand Crocus. Due to the course’s conservation importance the ownership was passed by the previous owners to the Devon Wildlife Trust in 1976, their reserve also includes the hide area, mudflats and saltmarsh.

The Outer Warren and Point were designated as a Local Nature Reserve in 1979 and have since been managed by Teignbridge District Council. The Visitor Centre was built in 1985 and the first hide was built soon after.

In recent decades with levels of tourists numbering nearly 850,000 annually,the potential for conflict between the needs of the wildlife and the wishes of visitors has increased. 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 at the time was to protect roosting waders from human disturbance over the high tide period. This indicates the level of importance given to the Recording Area's wildlife, particularly as knowledge of the conservation importance continued to expand with further discoveries e.g. Petalwort Petalophylum ralfsii and Pennyroyal Mentha pulegium in 1997/98. 

In addition to the restoration of areas previously given over to beach huts and other tourism infrastructure, several major chnages and management issues have been tackled since the reserve’s inception. The Main Pond was not created until the early 1980’s when the areas of fixed and mobile dunes were densely covered with the invasive alien Tree Lupin Lupinus arboreus. This was removed by hand pulling but the introduction of a North American aphid in 1983 helped to reduce the problem to more manageable levels. Recently large areas have been treated with herbicide, reducing the aphids and increasing the number of new plants from the seed bank. The remaining lupin did briefly host the weevil Charagmus gressorius at its only UK site, support good numbers of ladybirds and provide secure nest sites for several bird species.

However the rapid removal of the lupins caused its own problems with a large increase in areas of open sand. Compounded by erosion from tourists over the years several large areas of dune have had to be fenced. Once fenced these areas were then 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, trap loose 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 Japanese Rose Rosa rugosa now largely eradicated. Recently the rapid spread of Michaelmas Daisy Aster sp. has swamped areas of dune slack shading out many other plants and proved difficult to control. Areas of Winter Heliotrope Petasites fragrans and Japanese Knotweed Fallopia japonica are also currently being controlled.

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 areas becoming invaded by Gorse Ulex europaeus, rushes and coarse grasses such as Yorkshire Fog Holcus lanatus, because of the loss of grazing. These areas are currently grazed with Dartmoor ponies in winter.

The SSSI is listed as being of unfavourable status, one of the reasons why is because of the unnatural dune ridge (supported by gabions), this was attempted to be redressed by the recent sea defence works and beach recharge. Another area of concern was 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 continuing with the areas of sallows Salix sp. being replaced by Alder Alnus glutinosa, Silver Birch Betula pendula and even Turkey Oak Quercus cerris in places. These areas of woodland are now being managed with some areas being allowed to coppice back, others being removed.

This entire area is however proposed to return to a tidal creek as part of the sea defence scheme so this diversity of life and some of the Warren's most special flora and fauna will be lost. This approach is all the more disappointing given the importance the Recording Area reserve has compared to the surrounding countryside where wildlife continues to disappear at an alarming rate.  

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