Braunton Burrows

Committee Members
UK Biosphere Reserves
"Biosphere Reserves in a Nutshell" - an explanation of the Biosphere Reserve Concept
EuroMAB Pages
Urban Forum Pages
Minutes: UK MAB Committee 2000
Minutes: UK MAB Committee 2001
  Minutes: UK MAB Committee 2002
Useful Links

Designations and schemes

The current biosphere reserve consists of Braunton Burrows SSSI, including the part de-declared as an NNR in 1996 because of a disagreement over grazing management practices between the landowner (Christie Devon Estates Trust) and English Nature. The site is also a candidate SAC (cSAC).

To the south of the site are the Taw-Torridge Estuary SSSI and Northam Burrows SSSI (on the other side of the Taw-Torridge Estuary). To the east of the site, on Braunton Marsh, formed in the lee of the sand dune system, are two small SSSIs: Braunton Swanpool (11.9 ha, of which 3 ha are owned by Devon Wildlife Trust), and Greenaway and Freshmarsh (owned by English Nature). Much of Braunton Marsh is also the subject of a Water Level Management Plan, released for consultation to landowners by the Environment Agency in November 1998. The entire marsh is also a target area for the MAFF Countryside Stewardship Scheme, as is the historically-important Braunton Great Field (mediaeval open field system) to its east, which will be the focus of a special project under the scheme.

The current biosphere reserve, and all the SSSIs and areas covered by schemes mentioned above, also fall within the boundaries of the North Devon Coast AONB and North Devon Heritage Coast, as well as the area of the Taw Torridge Estuaries Action Plan, which was developed and is being implemented through a partnership involving a wide range of statutory agencies and NGOs.

Land uses, research, and education

The principal use of the ex-NNR (604 ha), which is leased by the Ministry of Defence, is military training. It is also used, particularly by local people, for a range of leisure activities, particularly dog-walking, from three large car parks adjacent to the site. There is a long tradition of research, particularly botanical but also including monitoring of groundwater levels since 1972. Botanical research has shown, inter alia, significant changes in the composition of plant communities in areas grazed by Soay sheep, first introduced in 1987 in an enclosure. There is ongoing monitoring of the effects of this grazing, as well as cattle grazing in an adjacent enclosure. Environmental education (up to 2,000 school students/year, as well as guided walks) has also been ongoing for many years, although there are no facilities at the site. To the north of the ex-NNR is Saunton Golf Club (113 ha) and other small areas to the east are leased to local people for grazing. The foreshore (Saunton Sands) is part of the Crown Estate and leased to Braunton Parish Council, and is heavily used for beach recreation activities in summer.

Braunton Marsh is used for arable, horticulture, and grazing; its complex system of drainage ditches is overseen by an Internal Drainage Board (Marsh Commissioners). Both sheep and cattle are grazed; in this sense, the marsh is an important complement to other land owned by the same farmers on the slopes and upper parts of adjacent hills. The Great Field is used for arable. In the town of Braunton is a conservation-focused Countryside Centre established by the North Devon Environmental Trust and staffed by volunteers.

Tourism is an important use of the area in summer. In the wider area, fishing is important in the Taw-Torridge Estuary and offshore. There is another golf course on Northam Burrows, where there is also an environmental information centre.

Conservation value and management

Braunton Burrows is a prime British sand dune site, the largest sand dune system in England. It is particularly important because it includes the complete successional range of dune plant communities, with over 400 vascular plant species. The short turf communities are very rich in lichens and herbs, and the dune slacks are also rich. The many rare plants and animals include 14 with UK Biodiversity Action Plans. The site is not particularly important as bird habitat, possibly at least partly because of disturbance of ground-nesting birds by dogs. English Nature’s 1997 management guidelines identify three management needs: 1) grazing (by sheep and cattle), to maintain and, if possible, expand the area of short turf and keep invasive scrub under control; 2) raising of the water table, to maintain dune slack communities; 3) keeping the dune system dynamic, with areas of bare, mobile sand, so that geomorphological and successional processes can continue. At the time of the site visit (late November 1998), the MoD was finalising a management plan. This will propose increased grazing, in line with English Nature’s guidelines. English Nature makes an annual payment to MoD in this regard. English Nature has made site management statements with other occupiers, including Saunton Golf Club.

Braunton Marsh includes small areas of conservation importance in the remnant reedbeds and grasslands of the SSSIs. Raising the water table is a major aim of the Water Level Management Plan, not only to preserve these communities, but also to restore species-rich communities along the ditches. The Countryside Stewardship scheme focuses on raising water levels to enhance habitat for breeding and wintering birds, in combination with extensification of grazing and/or mowing, and other actions.

The Taw-Torridge Estuary is of major importance for its overwintering and migratory populations of wading birds, as well as rare plants growing along its shores. It includes the RSPB’s Isley Marsh reserve. Northam Burrows, like Braunton Burrows, is a sand dune system with a falling water table. However, it is smaller, only hosts a few rare plant species, and is heavily grazed.

Local involvement

While the ex-NNR was sub-leased by English Nature from MoD, up to 18 local people worked as volunteers at the site, assisting with visitor counts, environmental education, and management. The de-declaration of the site was not popular with local people. Now that the site is managed by MoD (the former site warden for English Nature is now the supervisor of the site for MoD), there are six volunteers, though it is anticipated that more will be found.

Although Braunton Marsh has been targeted for Countryside Stewardship since the scheme began, hardly any of the landowners have taken up the incentives. A major reason is the fact that the pastures are part of a rotational grazing system; also, the payments under the scheme are not perceived as adequate. On Braunton Swanpool SSSI, mechanical clearance of scrub, followed by grazing, has been successful in restoring the area owned by Devon Wildlife Trust. There are also management agreements between English Nature and the other landowners for the remainder of the SSSI for maintenance of the unusual wetland habitats. With regard to the Water Level Management Plan, the various interested parties do not entirely agree why water levels in Braunton Burrows have fallen; how this relates to past deepening or clearing of the West Boundary Drain which runs between the Burrows and the Marsh; and whether water levels can be raised significantly by the measures proposed in the Plan. In summary, although well-conceived schemes exist, their application has not progressed particularly far.

An Estuary Forum exists for the Taw Torridge Estuaries, including representatives of the various statutory agencies and interest groups concerned with the area. In 1997-98, the Forum developed the Taw Torridge Estuaries Action Plan through topic groups and open public meetings. It is being implemented through the Joint Advisory Committee (JAC) for the Coast and Countryside Service in northern Devon, which includes representatives of the Estuary Forum and the various statutory agencies concerned with the area.

Issues to be resolved if the biosphere reserve were to be restructured

The current biosphere reserve effectively consists only of a core area, which is a prime example of a habitat that is unusual in England. However, it is only one element of an ecological complex that also includes the marsh to the lee of the dunes, and is part of a larger estuary ecosystem fed by streams from the surrounding hills and subject to a variety of land (and water) uses. Accordingly, if continuation of a biosphere reserve based on this site is deemed desirable, it should be considerably expanded.

The current biosphere reserve includes the grazing enclosures which are experimental approaches for a type of management that, over the long term, would appear to be desirable over much of the dune system. All parties involved with the site appear to wish that it should be redeclared as an NNR in the not-too-distant future. Even without NNR status, it is legally-constituted as an SSSI, with a management regime agreed between the landowner and MoD with the support of English Nature, and it is also a cSAC. Accordingly, it would seem appropriate for the core area of the biosphere reserve to include this area. In addition, Braunton Swanpool SSSI, the RSPB’s Isley Marsh Reserve, and possibly part of Northam Burrows SSSI might also be considered as additional core areas.

Adjacent to the core area(s), possible areas which could be included within clearly-identified buffer zones could include:

  • Taw-Torridge SSSI/SPA and Northam Burrows SSSI, recognising their legal status and management agreements, and the potential for fostering conservation compatible activities in areas adjacent to SACs and SPAs (under the EC Habitats Directive and Regulations);
  • Braunton Marsh and Braunton Great Field, recognising their inclusion in the Countryside Stewardship scheme and the Water Level Management Plan, both of which promote conservation-compatible activities.

It should be recognised that, at present, many of the activities taking place in these areas are not wholly compatible with the conservation objectives of the proposed core area(s). However, given appropriate local consultation, and particularly in relation to the Taw Torridge Estuaries Action Plan, it would appear likely that a greater emphasis on conservation-orientated management could be achieved.

A proposed outer ‘boundary’ for the transition area could be that of the Taw Torridge Estuaries Action Plan, which would be particularly appropriate for this purpose as the Plan states that this boundary "will be defined by the particular issue rather than any fixed geographic extent" (p. 9); phrasing that is very much in keeping with the Statutory Framework. The mission statement of the Plan also accords well with the concept of biosphere reserves: it "aims to secure the sustainable use of the estuaries through the co-ordination of, and consensus between all of the agencies and interested parties that have an impact on the estuarine environment" (p. 9). The Plan has been closely coordinated with other plans for the area, and includes a series of aims, each with a number of recommended actions. To be appropriate as a ‘management policy or plan’ for the biosphere reserve, the Plan would have to be amended, to detail the relationship of the Plan area and the biosphere reserve, with a map of the biosphere reserve core area and buffer zones. Overall coordination is through the Estuary Manager, in consultation with the JAC. Members of the JAC include the full range of organisations and interests that would be appropriate for a biosphere reserve. Thus, this would fulfil the criteria under Article 4, sections 6 and 7(c) of the Statutory Framework for biosphere reserves. If the biosphere reserve were expanded, it would probably require a new name. This issue would need to be approached carefully, given local sensibilities when the NNR was de-declared.

Please send mail to with questions or comments about this web site.
This page was last updated on 04 January 2002