Military training exercise will help restore wildlife diversity amongst one of Britain's largest sand dunes

A military training exercise will help restore wildlife diversity amongst one of Britain's largest sand dunes.

The British Army has teamed up with Cornwall Wildlife Trust in a bid to replenish habitats and boost biodiversity at Penhale Dunes.

The soldiers will remove patches of scrub from overgrown areas on MOD land as part of an exercise featuring four JCB military diggers.

The large dune system at Penhale, Cornwall, is home to a wealth of native wildlife, from reptiles like common lizard and adder, to delicate orchids, the rare silver-studded blue butterfly and the silvery leafcutter bee.

These species, like many other dune-specialists, thrive in coastal landscapes when there are plenty of areas of bare sand available for burrowing into or hunting on top of, and low grassland in which to hide or to produce flowers.

Jon Cripps, Penhale Dunes Ranger at Cornwall Wildlife Trust, said the aim was to give the wildlife there a much-needed boost.

He added: "It’s fantastic that we’ve been able to find a way for the military’s training to have a real, positive impact on the habitat here.

"It’s a win-win-win; for Cornwall Wildlife Trust, for The Army, and for wildlife. The scrub here needs removing and by using this method we’re more likely to be able to remove all the root material too, which can cause the plants to regrow."

Penhale Dunes Special Area of Conservation (SAC) has been struggling with areas of bare sand or low grassland 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 – has been 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.

And as part of an upcoming machinery training programme, four 16-tonne military diggers will be used by the British Army’s 165 Port and Maritime Regiment to remove areas of overgrown scrub and expose bare sand on Penhale’s overgrown dunes.

These large excavators, often used to support major operations around the world, will be assigned a different mission; to support conservation a little closer to home.

In areas of low scrub, which have been previously cut by Cornwall Wildlife Trust, plant material will be raked out using the digger’s toothed bucket.

Areas of dense mature scrub like blackthorn and hawthorn, standing at over 6ft tall, will be plucked and pulled from the dunes.

And, in a previously damaged area that is now home to lower plant biodiversity than the surrounding dunes, the diggers will be used to strip away the top layer of turf to expose patches of bare sand. All this will create better conditions for sand dune wildlife.

Removed debris will be compacted and either buried or burned on site, to stop it from growing back next year.

Once The British Army have completed their work, they will be replaced by an army of volunteers, deployed to the dunes to remove any regrowth and also to monitor the site as wildlife start to use the area again.

Carolyn Cadman, Chief Executive of Cornwall Wildlife Trust, added: "Sand dunes are one of the most at risk habitats in Europe, nowhere more so than in Cornwall.

"Pressures from development, tourism and climate change mean we need to manage them as effectively as possible.

"Thanks to our longstanding partnership with the Ministry of Defence we are able to work together to improve habitats at Penhale Dunes.

"It’s going to be really exciting to see what dune species move in once the scrub has been removed."

Work at Penhale Dunes is taking place as part of Dynamic Dunescapes, a 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.

Andy Nelson, Dynamic Dunescapes Engagement officer with Cornwall Wildlife Trust, added: "We can see from historic images how much more bare sand the Penhale dune system used to have.

"Some of this was due to military exercises and sand extraction operations, so we don’t want to take Penhale Dunes back to the same historic percentage of bare sand cover.

"However, Natural England guidance suggests that because of the extensive recent vegetation growth, it needs to look a little more like it used to if our specialist wildlife is going to survive in future years."

The planned work will take place away from sensitive areas of the dunes, during a time which is outside of many species’ breeding season.