Towards the end of July, I visited the Maer, a nature reserve situated at the eastern end of the promenade in Exmouth, a seaside town in the south west of the UK. With its sand dunes and sandy grassland, the Maer is a remnant of a much larger dune system that once stretched down to the beach. Nowadays, it provides an oasis of calm close to the busy sea front as well as a habitat for special plants and insects.
A slight mist softened the long views as I walked eastwards along Exmouth sea front. Some warmth penetrated the cloud and a few people were already enjoying the beach on this late summer morning. The sandy tip of Dawlish Warren lay tantalisingly close across the water and further on, the Ness at Shaldon lurked in the mist like a gigantic wedge of cheese. The commercial area with its big wheel, pubs and cafes was busy but eventually I reached a quieter part where sand and scrub tumbled downwards at the side of the beach road. This is the edge of the Maer, a local nature reserve and one of Exmouth’s hidden gems. Superficially, the Maer is a large grassy, sandy space sandwiched between the beach road and Exmouth Cricket Club but it conceals a mosaic of different environments with unusual flora and fauna.
A substantial sandy dune ridge forms the southern border of the Maer giving views across the reserve on one side and towards the beach on the other. Marram grass grows thickly giving the sand stability but there are also areas of bare sand and areas of scrub, reminders of the dune system that must have occupied this area before the beach road was built. Restharrow with its pink and white pea-type flowers and a few residual yellow evening primrose provided some colour but it was the sea holly that surprised. This is an unusual and unexpected plant that grows extensively along the first part of the ridge. Its spiky greenish-grey leaves with white margins and veins and its powder blue flowers light up the sand as though someone had spilt pale paint. Sea holly flourishes in these arid conditions by having leaves covered in a waxy cuticle to help retain water and through its deep roots. Although sea holly has some visual resemblance to our Christmas greenery, it is a relative of the carrot; in the past it was employed as an aphrodisiac.
Several large insects with bold black and yellow markings crawled about the bright blue sea holly flowers collecting nectar. These are beewolves, some of our most spectacular solitary wasps, that nest in sandy places and specialise in catching honeybees. Both male and female beewolves were feeding that day but it is the larger female (up to about 2cm long) that catches and paralyses honeybees and may be seen flying back to the nest carrying a quiescent honeybee beneath her. She digs a nest tunnel in sandy soil up to a metre long with multiple terminal branches where she lays eggs and provides honeybees as food for the developing larvae. These once rare insects have expanded their UK range since the 1980s, possibly in response to climate change and I saw them in several places on the reserve notably on a stand of mauve thistles. They are not aggressive towards humans.
Further along the ridge, before it is colonised by brambles, scrub and low trees, I found a large clump of an unruly scrambling plant covered in pea-type flowers of an impressive reddish-pink colour. This is broad-leaved everlasting pea, a perennial relative of our annual sweet pea, growing through the grasses on the Maer ridge holding on via thin tendrils. A chunky dark bee was feeding from the flowers, apparently undeterred by their jerky movements in the breeze. This was a leafcutter bee, most likely the Coast Leafcutter Bee that favours sandy habitats near the sea. They nest in burrows in vegetated sand lined with pieces of leaf cut from trees and plants. Later, when the sun came out, I saw several of these bees chasing one another around the bright pink flowers like children in a playground.
The large central part of the reserve was coated with golden brown grass criss-crossed with paths for walkers and looking very dry, a reflection of the recent lack of rain. Within the grass were mats of restharrow and many of the yellow dandelion-like flowers of catsear. One area resembled a lunar landscape with many small craters where the surface had been dug out exposing the sand. Solitary wasps and small leafcutter bees had happily nested here.
Tall clumps of ragwort with bright yellow daisy-like flowers and deeply lobed green leaves were dotted around the central area. This plant provides valuable habitat and food for invertebrates and I found one clump that had been appropriated by black caterpillars with prominent yellow bands. They were moving about, eating the leaves of the ragwort, voraciously consuming the greenery and destroying the upper parts of the plant. These are caterpillars of the cinnabar moth and as they feed, they assimilate some of the toxic alkaloids contained in ragwort, rendering themselves unpalatable to birds and other predators. It is said that their yellow stripes act as a warning to birds. Once fed and mature, the caterpillars dig themselves into the ground to spend 12 months or so as pupae before emerging as beautiful day-flying red and black moths. The adult moths live for a few weeks, feeding on nectar before mating and laying eggs on the ragwort leaves. The eggs grow into caterpillars and the cycle starts all over again. The cinnabar moth is entirely dependent on ragwort for its survival.
Towards the western end of the reserve, I found a large colony of flowering plants, perhaps suggesting damper conditions. Clumps of common mallow up to a metre tall dominated with their trumpet flowers composed of five deep pink petals each with purple stripes. At the centre of each flower was a mass of grey pollen-covered stamens emanating from a single stalk like a miniature bunch of flowers. Near the mallow, large areas were covered by a sprawling, scrambling plant richly covered with pea-like flowers above many small, spear-shaped, mid green leaves. Flower colours varied from very pale to light blue, mauve and deep purple with some plants having several of these colour variants. One plant even had bright yellow flowers. This is Sand Lucerne, a fertile hybrid of lucerne and sickle medic, naturalised in East Anglia, where its two parents grow together, but now transplanted elsewhere.
There’s so much to see at the Maer and I could easily have spent several more hours looking about. But I had a train to catch so I headed back along the promenade and across the town towards the station.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. May had been a dry month and the first two weeks of June very wet, with temperatures lower than normal for the time of year. How might the changeable weather have affected wildlife? As I waited at the station for my train, the staccato spits of rain made me wonder if it was even worth making this trip. But perhaps I was being too negative. The journey along the river estuary and by the sea was as glorious as ever and, when I stepped off the train at Dawlish Warren station, there was bright sunshine and a palpable warmth.
I left the station, headed past the funfair, past the shops selling garish beach clothing, past the pub and cafes and on to the nature reserve. Evening primrose with their papery lemon-yellow flowers grew on the dry, sandy soil either side of the descending path and when the track levelled out, small areas of standing water were an unwelcome reminder of our recent weather.
A short walk eastwards took me on to a long green meadow. This part of the reserve is known as Greenland Lake because in the 19th century it was a watery inlet where fishing vessels sheltered over winter before heading back to Greenland. The area was reclaimed in the mid-20th century but is still damp so that lush grasses flourish alongside a range of plants that relish the humid conditions. Today, flowers of yellow rattle and yellow bartsia formed a colourful sheen across the meadow, interspersed with many spikes of southern marsh orchids; some were a pale lilac and others a deep reddish purple, like colourful flames flaring from the meadow floor. Towards the edge of Greenland Lake, the ground rises, becoming drier and sandier, populated by more evening primrose, their tall stems trembling in the keen west wind that blew across the reserve keeping the temperature down.
I thought I remembered where the bee orchids grew but memory is a tricky thing and the look of the reserve changes each year. Eventually I found them, surrounded by enclosures to protect against trampling; there were several spikes in each enclosure, each spike with three or more of the complex flowers, each enclosure neatly labelled. Calling the flowers complex, however, doesn’t really do them justice. Three pinkish-lilac sepals form a propeller-like backdrop; each sepal is semi-transparent with narrow green veins. The main part of the flower contains three petals including one that forms the dominant, downward-projecting labellum, a very unusual affair, engorged and bulbous with impressively furry edges and a central maroon area with yellow horseshoe patterns. This is the part of the flower in which early botanists imagined a bee and gave the flower its name.
With their vivid colours and pristine petals, the flowers looked as though they had emerged very recently and some features such as the horns and the arching yellow pollinia had not yet developed. I gazed at all of this, marvelling at the complexity of nature but pondering whether the flowers really were beautiful or were they just plain weird. I couldn’t decide but I doubt if it matters, they are what they are.
It’s reassuring to find that others feel ambivalent about the flowers and here are a few lines taken from “Bee orchid at Hodbarrrow” by the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson where he hints at their contradictions:
See the bee orchid –
Neither plant nor animal,
Conceit of a flower
I left the bee orchids and wandered about the dry sandy paths bordered by flowering brambles and rough, greenish-brown marram grass. The wardens try hard to maintain the reserve and that includes controlling scrub, especially brambles, which would otherwise take over. Sometimes they treat the scrub with herbicides and cordon off the treated area. It makes me uneasy to see this happen but it’s probably the only way to preserve the present rich populations of flowers and insects. I was, therefore, surprised to see three men festooned with cameras some with phallic lenses entering one of the treated areas and walking about noisily. It seemed as though they were looking for something but they ignored me and eventually moved on.
Then I came across the bees. They were moving about just above the dry surface of a rising sandy path, darting back and forth in straight lines but often pausing on the sand to preen and perhaps take in the warmth. Sometimes when stationary they moved their abdomen up and down repetitively, a manoeuvre that encourages gas exchange after a period of activity, not unlike human panting.
To begin with, only a few of these insects were in evidence but when the sun came out more seemed to appear and everything got busier. They were slightly smaller than a honeybee and to the naked eye they appeared golden. Photographs showed bands of golden hair around the abdomen and thorax, a pale moustache and strikingly beautiful green eyes. These are male silvery leafcutter bees (Megachile leachella) and must have emerged very recently to retain the golden look which quite soon fades to a silver, hence the name.
These males were all rather excited, bombing one another and even trying to mate and frequently looking into holes in the sand that I hadn’t seen. Then I noticed a more protracted coupling between two of the bees which confused me for a while as I hadn’t knowingly seen any females. Again, photographs came to the rescue showing me that a female was involved. The diagnostic feature is a symmetrical pair of small white hair patches on the terminal segment on her abdomen. Mated females will go on to construct nests in the vegetated sand using leaf segments they cut to line the cavity but that didn’t seem to have got going yet.
There was so much sexual tension among the male bees as they waited for females to emerge that feeding seemed to be taking a low priority. It was only later when I walked back towards the railway station taking a detour via a dry meadow at the back of the reserve that I found some bees feeding. The meadow was covered in lush grass and flowers including diffuse globes of white clover and the slipper-like yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil. Silvery leafcutter males were feeding here pushing the two parts of the yellow flower apart to access the nectar.
While I was watching this, the three men with cameras reappeared. Seeing me they came across:
“We’re looking for butterflies, have you seen any?”
“Yes, I have, I can show you some pictures if you like?”
I showed them the picture I took earlier of a female common blue butterfly and they agreed sulkily with my identification, adding: “Well, we haven’t seen many, there don’t seem to be many about”
I tried to engage them in conversation about bees but they weren’t interested.
This is a long post describing how a group of concerned people, including myself, noticed some unusual plastic pellets appearing on several beaches in the vicinity of Charmouth in west Dorset in the south west of the UK. After a tortuous investigation, we identified the source of the plastic pellet pollution as a local water company carelessly and unnecessarily discharging the pellets into the sea.
The story started on a sultry day in late July 2017. I was driving back from the Wareham area where I had been walking across one of the remaining fragments of Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath, the fictional landscape that plays so important a part in his novel The Return of the Native. I found myself approaching Charmouth, a small village in west Dorset and decided I needed a cup of tea. Charmouth village lies a short distance inland from the sea and Charmouth beach is popular with families in the summer, the cliffs are famous for their fossils and in her novel Persuasion, Jane Austen refers to “its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs”.
I was the only customer in the Bank House Café that afternoon and as I waited for my tea, I noticed some copies of the village magazine, Shoreline. I picked one up and started to leaf through. It’s an interesting read but my attention was taken by an article about “nurdles” written by Eden Thomson, a volunteer at the local Heritage Centre that organises marine and fossil events. I quickly learnt that nurdles are pre-production plastic pellets used as easily transportable raw materials in the plastics industry where they are used to make many of the plastic goods we have become accustomed to. There is considerable loss of these pellets during transport and during use. Some of these lost pellets end up in the sea and Eden reported finding large numbers of turquoise pellets on the beach at Charmouth with light grey and dark grey also being common. I didn’t have time to go to the beach to look that day but my curiosity was piqued.
Looking for pellets
Now, when we walked on beaches, both Hazel and I looked to see if we could find any plastic pellets. It took me a while to get my eye in, Hazel saw them more quickly, but gradually I noticed a few pellets on most beaches. My first big find was at Leas Foot Sands near Thurlestone in south Devon after some hefty storms in mid October 2017 where hundreds were sprinkled along the strandlines. These were all 5mm or less across, some were lentil shaped and translucent, many were cylindrical and grey and a few were irregular grey and black with clear ridges. By reference to the Great Nurdle Hunt web site I reckoned most were nurdles but a few might be biobeads (see below).
Then in late October 2017 I had a chance to return to Charmouth and look at the beach. Not only was there a lot of general plastic pollution among reedy/woody debris either side of the river Char where it approaches the beach, but among this debris were many plastic pellets. There were a few of the translucent or yellow or green lentil shaped pellets, also some grey or black cylindrical pellets. Most of these were nurdles. Also, as Eden Thomson had described, there were many bright blue cylindrical pellets. When I examined these, I felt they were quite different from other pellets I had seen; in particular they had many fine ridges and I thought they might be biobeads (see below). We returned to Charmouth in January 2018 and again found many of the bright blue ridged pellets littered around the two sides of the river and on the car park edges. We also made a brief visit to West Bay, about 7 miles to the east of Charmouth and found many bright blue ridged pellets there as well.
Dawlish Warren is another beach where we find plastic debris especially after storms and we had a look for pellets in March 2018. We found them distributed along both inner and outer beaches, they were mostly cylindrical, pale blue, grey and green but there were a few knobbly dark grey pellets, some also having ridges. We also found a few of the bright blue ridged pellets seen at Charmouth.
Trying to understand
In trying to understand these observations, I was greatly helped by the influential report from the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition (CPPC) lead by Claire Wallerstein. The CPPC had found huge numbers of black plastic pellets further west along beaches in Cornwall and, following extensive investigation, showed that these were biobeads, plastic pellets used in some sewage plants to promote sewage digestion and water purification. Biobeads are usually ridged or knobbly to provide a greater surface area for bacteria to grow and help digest the sewage. The CPPC showed that most likely the biobeads they found on beaches were escaping from biobead-dependent sewage plants run by South West Water, the local water purification and sewage company.
Based on their findings, I worked out that I was collecting both nurdles (preproduction plastic pellets) and biobeads. For the most part when I collected pellets from beaches in Devon, I found mixtures of nurdles of different shapes and colours together with a few black knobbly biobeads. At Charmouth and West Bay in Dorset, however, the predominant pellet was bright blue, cylindrical with fine ridges, typical of a biobead. There were definitely also some black knobbly biobeads on the beach at Charmouth. The four pictures below showing samples of pellets collected from two regions of Dawlish Warren beach in Devon and two sides of Charmouth Beach illustrate these differences quite well.
So, did South West Water (SWW) have a role in the biobead pollution appearing on Charmouth beach? The company runs a sewage works in nearby Lyme Regis based on biobead digestion. The actual works is located in Sleech Wood above the town but the purified sewage effluent is discharged into the sea some distance off the town of Lyme Regis below the Cardinal Buoy. I began to develop a working hypothesis whereby SWW uses these blue biobeads and probably also the black knobbly equivalent in their Sleech Wood works but containment of biobeads is incomplete and some are discharged into the sea and are washed back on to Charmouth and West Bay beaches. Another possibility was that pellets were being lost into the river Lim, which passes near the sewage works, to enter the sea with the river water.
A Nurdle Hunt
In the meantime, I took part in a nurdle hunt on Charmouth Beach organised by Sophie Thomas from the Charmouth Heritage Centre one Saturday in February 2018. There were 30 nurdle hunters on a bright sunny morning including Eden Thomson who wrote the article in Shoreline Magazine and it was good to meet her. It was also good to meet blogging friend Sarah West from Transition Town Bridport and her husband John. Altogether we collected 6650 pellets many of which were bright blue biobeads although a few black knobbly biobeads were mixed in with the blues. It is my impression that the black type may often be ignored in favour of the much more visible bright blue pellet.
I wrote an article for the local Marshwood Vale Magazine describing the nurdle hunt and its background. This was published in May 2018 and soon after, I was contacted by Joe Hackett of Transition Town Bridport who had organised a beach clean at West Bay (seven miles east of Charmouth) and found many bright blue pellets there. He had noted the similarity between the pellets found at West Bay and Charmouth and wondered if we could discuss the situation. We spoke by phone and have been in contact since then.
In March and April 2018, I became very frustrated at my inability to tie down the nature and the origin of these blue and black biobeads. I had contacted various academic experts, pressure groups and one local plastics company to ask if they could help me understand the nature of the pellets and the background to what was going on. I was very surprised to find that none of these people was prepared to get involved. Of all the people I contacted, only one replied and she was “too busy to help”.
I did investigate one possible hypothesis, namely that the biobeads were being lost from the Lyme Regis sewage works into the river Lim. I walked along the river Lim in Lyme Regis to see if any pellets were visible at the river’s edge but found none suggesting that this route was unlikely. When I talked to Joe Hackett, it turned out he had done the same accompanied by local environmentalist, Horatio Morpurgo. They also found nothing suggesting that pellets were not being lost in to the river Lim. This meant that most likely the biobeads were being discharged into the sea along with the treated sewage.
Claire Wallerstein from the CPPC offered to ask SWW what biobeads they used at their Lyme Regis sewage works and was told, “we don’t know and it would cost too much to use a crane to lift the lid to check”.
I enter the South West Water labyrinth
In desperation, I contacted the South West Water (SWW) Press Office in May 2018 and my enquiry was forwarded to Paul McNie, Environmental Manager of Waste Water Customer Service & Networks. I received a reply from Gavin Lincoln, Wastewater Treatment Process Consultant, asking what I wanted to know. I sent him a list of questions about biobead-dependent sewage treatment including asking what type of biobead was used at Lyme Regis but heard nothing. After discussions with Joe Hackett and Horatio Morpurgo, I wrote a paper letter to McNie in July 2018 asking about the nature of the biobeads used at the Lyme Regis Sewage Works. This occasioned a reply from Sue Richards, Customer Manager for SWW towards the end of July introducing herself as my dedicated case manager (it felt as though my enquiry ranked at about the same level as a leaking water pipe). I received a second letter in early August from Katie Hudson, also a Customer Services manager telling me that Paul McNie would be in touch about my queries. He never did get back to me and the rest of my interactions with SWW were through Sue Richards who, although courteous and helpful, appeared to be poorly briefed as she made some obvious errors of fact in her letters to me. The saga continued in this vein but she did reveal that the biobeads used at Lyme Regis were “black with a hint of blue” and after I asked what this meant she sent me a low-resolution photo printed on letter paper showing the biobeads used there. They all appeared to be black and strongly resembled one class of biobead found at Charmouth as well as the majority of those found by CPPC in Cornwall. I spoke to Sue Richards by phone several times and raised the issue of the blue biobeads only to have the conversation closed down quickly.
To summarise, SWW told us three contradictory stories:
They didn’t know the nature of the biobeads used at Lyme Regis sewage works (via Claire Wallerstein)
The biobeads used are black with a hint of blue
The biobeads used are black and knobbly
This was all very confusing and I was left not knowing what to believe.
Living the high life – visits to the sewage works
In the meantime, Joe Hackett had been busy organising visits to Exmouth and Lyme Regis sewage works as it was felt that this was our last chance to understand what was going on. The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition had visited the Plympton sewage works early in 2017 and found biobeads littered about the site. This was a key piece of information linking poor biobead housekeeping by SWW at the Plympton sewage works to the extensive biobead pollution on Cornish beaches.
The Exmouth visit took place in November 2018 but I was unable to be there. Those that visited had an interesting time and learnt about the basics of the biobead sewage treatment. They did not find any biobeads loose on the site but noticed a huge pile of used/depleted biobeads, the size of two buses, covered with sheeting. The SWW representative expressed his frustration over the problems the company faced with biobeads in the following admission “If we’d had a crystal ball back in the 1990s and could have seen how controversial plastics would have become, we might not have gone down this road”. I believe this was a reference to the pressure put on the company by Claire Wallerstein and the CPPC over losses of biobeads from the Plympton sewage works.
The Lyme Regis visit took place in February 2019 and a large group of us representing Transition Town Bridport, Charmouth Heritage Centre, Litter Free Coast and Sea Dorset, together with individuals each with their own interest gathered at the site in Sleech Wood. We were welcomed by two representatives of SWW, Rhidian Howells and Stephanie Jones who were both courteous and helpful. Rhidian Howells explained how the automated process removed large items from the crude sewage and then passed the remains through the biobead reactor where bacteria digested it. Ultraviolet irradiation completed the treatment and the effluent was then discharged to the sea. He went to some trouble to explain how SWW was installing new filters on all their biobead plants to make sure that biobead loss was minimised. The installation of these extra filters is a direct result of the work of Claire Wallerstein and the CPPC identifying the source of biobeads on Cornish beaches as South West Water.
While we were looking about the biobead reactor area, one of our party found a few of the bright blue ridged biobeads on the ground. A little later, someone found a clutch of black knobbly biobeads on the ground near the parking area. This immediately answered the question about the source of the biobeads on Charmouth beach: despite what SWW had told us we now knew both black and blue biobeads were used at the Lyme Regis sewage works (Howells confirmed this) and were most likely escaping from the reactors to end up in the sea. I became very angry with Howells at this point; as I explained to him, we had spent so much time and energy trying to identify the source of the biobead pollution at Charmouth. South West Water had fed us contradictory stories, when all along they knew the source of the pollution which was their own sewage works.
Chemical analysis of pellets
The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition biobead story featured on a special edition of Inside Out South West on BBC TV in October 2018. The programme included visiting Dr Andrew Turner at the University of Plymouth where he had been analysing pellets for Claire Wallerstein for potentially toxic elements. I wondered if similar analysis might help understand the Charmouth blue pellets so I contacted Dr Turner. I was most grateful when he replied quickly and in the affirmative. I made two special collections, one at Dawlish Warren and another at Charmouth and I also sent him some of the black biobeads picked up at the Lyme Regis sewage works.
While this was in progress, Dr Turner along with Claire Wallerstein and Rob Arnold published a paper detailing X-ray fluorescence analyses of nurdles and black biobeads collected at a variety of locations in the south west (including Plympton sewage works and several Cornish beaches) and elsewhere along the English Channel. The technique identifies potentially toxic elements in the pellets and, whereas nurdles were usually devoid of these contaminants, the black biobeads contained varying quantities of lead, bromine, cadmium and antimony, a chemical signature characteristic of recycled electrical equipment containing flame retardants. Sometimes the levels exceeded permitted levels rendering the pellets toxic and potentially hazardous to life.
Black biobeads collected at Dawlish Warren, Charmouth and at Lyme Regis sewage works had the same chemical signature (bromine and antimony and sometimes lead and cadmium) as the black biobeads collected at Plympton sewage works and along Cornish beaches. This shows that the same black biobead is used by SWW at different sewage works and is escaping to end up on local beaches in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. Nurdles found at Dawlish Warren and Charmouth (lentil shaped and smooth, cylindrical) did not hold any toxic element contamination whereas the blue biobeads found at Charmouth contained copper probably part of the blue pigment used to give the distinctive colour.
I am most grateful to Andrew Turner for supporting us by analysing these pellets.
The source of the black and blue biobeads polluting Charmouth and West Bay beaches is the Lyme Regis sewage works run by South West Water where these pellets are escaping with treated sewage effluent to be discharged into the sea.
The black biobead is the same pellet found along beaches in Devon and Dorset and in huge numbers on Cornish beaches, it is made from recycled electrical equipment and may contain toxic levels of trace elements. South West Water is responsible for this extensive pollution.
Subsequent investigation found that the blue ridged biobead is also found at Burton Freshwater beach (a mile east of West Bay, found by Joe Hackett) and on the main sandy beach in Lyme Regis (about 2 miles west of Charmouth, found by Harry Dennis of Surfers Against Sewage). The pellets found on these beaches almost certainly come from the Lyme Regis sewage works
One sample of pellets that I collected from Westcombe beach near Kingston in south Devon showed surprisingly large numbers of the blue ridged biobeads. Perhaps this can be explained by proximity to SWW’s biobead-dependent sewage works at Modbury.
At Charmouth, West Bay and Lyme Regis, these biobeads are found in parts of the beach where children play in the summer. They are also found at Charmouth by the river where both gulls and ducks feed so it seems very likely that these birds will be accidentally ingesting pellets.
South West Water are installing extra filters at their biobead-dependent plants to minimise pellet loss as a result of the efforts of the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition. Providing that programme is completed and is successful, the number of biobeads on local beaches should diminish. This of course does not deal with the reservoir of biobeads now in the sea and also buried in sand. It is very difficult for me to see how these pellets can be cleaned up without damaging the fabric of the very beaches we wish to protect.
Greater legal protection for the marine environment should be introduced so that companies like SWW who release biobeads, also plastics companies that release nurdles could be prosecuted for polluting seas and beaches.
I should like to express my thanks to everyone who helped bring this tortuous story to a conclusion.
Last week I made the short train journey along the Devon coast to Dawlish Warren hoping to see some of the special late summer flowers that flourish on the nature reserve. Dawlish Warren is also a very popular holiday spot in August and, as I walked from the station, I joined shoals of people making their way to the beach laden with bags and body boards. It was all very good humoured and, as I sat on the promenade drinking my coffee and dodging wasps, children played on the beach below, shrieking as they ran in and out of the water.
[For more information on Dawlish Warren look here]
It was a gentle day with sunshine and cotton wool clouds as I followed the sandy boardwalk away from the promenade across the narrow line of dunes and down to the quiet of the nature reserve. The uneven, wooden walkway meandered across swathes of rough grass where many evening primrose stood on tall reddish-green stems, their papery flowers fluttering in the breeze like clouds of lemon-yellow butterflies.
The central part of the reserve used to be a lake, Greenland Lake, long since drained but never really having lost its watery feel. There were still a few puddles remaining after recent heavy rain and the profuse flora was dominated by damp-loving plants, especially tall, thick rushy grasses. Drifts of purple loosestrife, spiky and colourful, stood above the dark green grassy understory. Fluffy lilac globes of water mint and creamy cushions of meadowsweet also shone, along with large numbers of the yellow daisy-like fleabane. Late season insects enjoyed the many food sources.
Further on, as the ground became a little drier and the grass shorter, I was surprised to see one or two spikes of marsh helleborine. They had been flowering in their hundreds when I visited about six weeks previously but I thought they would have been finished by now. These unusual flowers are members of the orchid family and each pinkish flower stem carries several white flowers with delicate pink veins and a frilly lip, backed by pink sepals. There is something unsettling about marsh helleborine when they appear in large numbers, casting their pale colours across the damp green grassland.
There’s another orchid I have seen growing here in profusion in previous years. It’s the last of the season’s orchids to appear and I had almost given up hope of finding any when, finally, I stumbled across a few. Each vertical spike is very distinctive, a slightly hairy grey-green spiral, looking as though several strands of fine rope had been wound around one other. Perhaps it’s just the name, autumn lady’s tresses, but they also remind me of the plaits the girls wove from their long hair when I was at school. The white tubular flowers emerge from this grey-green spiral to decorate the spike in a helical manner, either clockwise or counter clockwise. Bumblebees pollinate the flowers and apparently, they prefer the counter clockwise arrangement.
My next stop was the inner bay, with its views up the river Exe towards mudflats popular with wading birds. Today the water had retreated, leaving the semi-circular bay a shining sheet of dark mud, revealing many clumps of bright green glasswort (marsh samphire). Groups of glistening, jointed stems pushed up from the mud, their multiple branches resembling miniature versions of the giant cacti often seen in Western Movies. Each stem was also dotted with particles that resembled grains of sand but in fact were tiny yellow flowers.
There was quite a bit of woody, reedy debris on the beach although very little plastic at this time of year. I found a suitable log and sat down to have my sandwiches. Boats puttered across the river between Starcross and Exmouth and a few seabirds moved about the mud. Then suddenly, as if from nowhere, a cloud of small grey birds appeared above the bay. There were perhaps as many as two hundred, moving as a group backwards and forwards above the water but continually changing formation, the outer members of the group visibly accelerating before a turn. It felt like a deliberate performance and, as they banked and changed direction, the sun caught their wings transforming them momentarily into mobile shards of silver. Suddenly it was all over and without warning they landed on the beach to my right, disappearing from view as they merged with the mud. Some passing birders told me they were mostly dunlin with a few sanderling.
After lunch I pressed on past the inner bay to the fist-shaped end of the sand spit, Warren Point, that nearly reaches the east bank of the Exe at Exmouth, but doesn’t quite make it. This part of the peninsula is fringed by sloping sandy beaches and marram grass-coated dunes but the central area is quite different. Here the land is covered with rough grass and vast mats of the tiny succulent, white stonecrop, a mass of white flowers six weeks ago but now just fleshy green growth. The dry sandy ground also supports unruly clumps of brambles and many shafts of evening primrose topped with yellow flowers. Large blue-green dragonflies swooped backwards and forwards in search of prey.
I have to admit that my visit to this part of Warren Point was not entirely unprompted. Before I left, I had read about a very rare flower appearing here and, as I passed the information centre, I asked for guidance as to where they might be found. I followed the directions and on a small rise surrounded by rough brambles I found them, several clumps of brilliant white flowers above thick strap-like leaves. These are sea daffodils, found all around the Mediterranean often on sandy beaches but very rare in this country. There are only three sites where these plants flower in the UK and Dawlish Warren is one.
In groups, the flowers look very spiky and disorganised but closer examination reveals the true beauty of the blooms. Each flower has a very large white corona, trumpet-like with a deeply serrated edge, containing six prominent yellow pollen-loaded stamens around a long white style. Behind the corona are six narrow sepals arranged symmetrically like a white star. As I stood examining the flowers a light breeze wafted their sweet fragrance up to me. I was so entranced that I failed to notice a rabbit hole and nearly fell over; it’s not called Dawlish Warren for nothing.
Sea daffodils clearly do resemble the flowers that are such potent symbols of spring in this country, but it is the late summer flowering of the sea daffodil that is so disconcerting. They are also plants of very hot climates. The Dawlish Warren specimens failed to flower last year and there has been some speculation that with this year’s long, hot, dry summer the plants felt more at home.
As we stepped off the train at Dawlish Warren station, we had our first glimpse of the river Exe, its waters a sparkling pale blue in the bright sunshine. The weather was a welcome change after so many cold and snowy days but, during our short journey from Totnes, we had passed bright ridges of snow still piled against field hedges and, in low lying places, large lakes of standing water from snow melt. Perhaps the weather was giving us a gentle reminder of its power to disrupt life.
We hadn’t intended to visit Dawlish Warren again so soon (see here for a description of our previous visit) but we wanted to get out for a walk and, hearing that some country roads were still snow-blocked, we chose somewhere easily accessible. We also wondered how the recent extreme weather might have affected this beautiful sand spit.
The view from the promenade quickly told us part of the answer. Sand was piled up on the retaining wall that slopes to the beach and, along the promenade, some of the benches were partly submerged in sand as if caught by a pale brown snow storm. On the beach, huge quantities of wooden debris lay in random heaps, along with some very large plastic items; it will be a mammoth task to clear this. A closer look showed that the debris was a mixture of wood and reeds along with bits and pieces of plastic and many industrial plastic pellets (mostly grey nurdles). I don’t want to go on too much about these industrial pellets, I’ve written about them several times already, but we found them littering all the beaches at the Warren to a greater or lesser extent. Near the promenade there must have been thousands.
As we were picking up a few of the pellets, a woman asked Hazel what she was doing. After an explanation, the woman said:
“I thought you were picking up driftwood,” and after Hazel had shown her some pellets the woman continued “still they might be very nice for decorating a mirror.”
We then walked around the Dawlish Warren sand spit following the route I outlined in a previous post, which also gives some background information about this nature reserve.
The central area of the Warren was partially flooded but still passable. No spring flowers were to be seen yet but small birds were performing florid mating displays while a group of black corvids sat judgementally in a nearby tree. Vegetation along paths over the dunes was seemingly spray-painted with a coat of rough sand, probably a result of the blizzard sucking up material from the beach. Near the bird hide, I disturbed a large flock of Brent geese feeding on the golf course. These imposing birds took off as a group and circled low over us before moving to a quieter spot.
Warren Point at the end of the sand spit was as mysterious and beautiful as always, its pale marram grass covering glowing in the sunshine. A small flock of linnets, the males with their pink bibs standing out, fidgeted in the branches of a low bush. A skylark rose from the ground, wings flapping frantically as it hovered in mid-air, singing, turning a tune over and over, changing it each time. Then, without warning, it stopped flapping and deftly descended back to the ground with subtle, steadying wing movements.
The story on the beaches bordering Warren Point was less uplifting. There was a slew of debris along the strandline, mostly wood and reeds but also many dead birds. We saw at least twenty casualties, mostly lapwings, identified by their largely black colouring combined with russet brown and white undersides. During the storm there had been a mass movement of these birds across the Warren and a proportion didn’t survive. We also saw one or two golden plovers with their exquisite pale brown and white herringbone patterns. On the beach facing up the Exe, the low sand cliffs at the back of the beach had been damaged by high water and when we rounded the point to walk back, there were more signs of storm damage. Areas of marram grass had been torn out and reddish soil had been deposited on the edge of the remaining marram grass.
The most significant damage, however, had occurred to the taller sand cliffs that abut the groynes on the sea-facing beach. Sand had been washed away from the back of the groynes and several metres of sand cliff removed exposing, in some places, the old sea defences. Some of the new fences built on the reinforced dune ridge had been torn out and now lay on the ground in casual heaps or hanging in mid-air, still partly attached. The groynes themselves seemed to be intact but plastic notices attached to them lay in pieces among the other debris. In a powerful demonstration of the scale of the storm and the water level reached, small pieces of wood and more plastic pellets lay along the wooden planks of the groynes and on top of the main support posts nearly a metre above the sand.
Despite all this, the Warren itself is intact and ready for the bloom of spring flowers. The scale of the damage to the new sea defences was shocking and a salutary reminder of the power of the sea, but at least the defences did hold. Elsewhere in south Devon, the coast road linking Torcross and Slapton was almost completely washed away. As in 2014, when the Dawlish railway line was destroyed, this year’s damage was the result of a combination of high winds and very high tides, perhaps combined with increased sea level.
As we waited at the station for our homeward train, I noticed willow trees by the platform with many plump, pussy willow catkins. A medium sized buff-tailed bumblebee arrived to collect pollen from the lemon-yellow male flowers.
I wasn’t sure what to expect today. Major engineering work had been carried out at Dawlish Warren over the past year to stabilise the beaches and dunes and this was our first visit since the project had been completed. I hoped the area hadn’t been changed too much as it’s a special place.
Dawlish Warren is a massive sand spit that extends north-eastwards for about 2km across the mouth of the River Exe from its western bank. It reaches out like a giant hand towards the town of Exmouth but fails to make contact, leaving a narrow channel where tides and the waters of the Exe flow in vast amounts each day. The sand spit is about 500m wide but incomplete; a huge bite has been taken out of the inner side creating the inland bay, leaving the tip of the spit, Warren Point, attached by a thin strip of dunes. Some of the recent stabilisation work was aimed at strengthening this dune strip against future increases in sea level. Much of the Warren is now a nature reserve with several rare habitats including vegetated dunes, mud flats and salt marsh and has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The Warren was once used for breeding rabbits for food, hence the name, but with the arrival of the railway, it became a popular holiday resort. It now also has a golf course, fun fair, shops, cafes and a pub although these are concentrated at the western end and do not detract appreciably from the nature reserve.
Despite heavy overnight rain, the day was dry, and warm for the time of year (11 degrees) but feeling cooler in the stiff sea breeze. Layers of dark cloud dominated the sky but occasional linear shafts of sunlight broke through towards the steel-grey sea. There were clear views from the promenade along the outer sea-facing beach with its many groynes and across the water to Orcombe point, the start of the East Devon/Dorset Jurassic Coast.
We left the promenade via a boardwalk descending to the central, low-lying part of the reserve, once a tidal lake but long since filled in. Today the area was puddle-strewn and barren; later in the year, it will be a colourful mosaic of wild flowers. A large pond with wildfowl lay behind a tree screen where an exquisitely pink male bullfinch showed for a while. On the water, two swans performed like synchronised swimmers.
A sandy track led us up to the marram grass-fringed path along the crest of the outer dunes with views over the golf course and inner bay to the north and across the outer sandy beach and sea to the south. A large flock of Brent Geese were feeding on one of the greens, no doubt to the irritation of the golfers. Dropping down to the inner bay we walked along the stony foreshore, finding it littered with large amounts of debris, mostly wood and reeds but also industrial pellets and shards of plastic.
On one side of the inner bay there is a large bird hide that looks across mud flats and salt marsh at low tide. Huge numbers of waders can be seen here. Yellow gorse sparkled near the hide together with several small stands of flowering ragwort; fuzzy, lime green lichen coated some bushes. From the hide, we watched ghostly black cormorants on a mud bank spreading their wings to dry and saw hundreds of oystercatchers huddled together, the colours of their plumage merging into discrete layers of black and white. A little egret flew across displaying its yellow feet and a curlew probed the mud with its long curving beak.
From the inner bay we accessed Warren Point and the soft sandy beach that leads around the tip of the sand spit. At the back of the beach there were dunes clad with marram grass, a subtle mixture of green and yellowish-brown spikes. This part of the Warren is both strangely beautiful and unsettling and as we circled the Point, we were conscious of the vast amounts of water passing at the foot of the sloping beach and the apparent proximity of Exmouth just across this turbulent channel. Again, there were huge amounts of debris on the beach, wood and reeds predominantly but mixed with plastic including more industrial pellets. On the inner beach, we also saw as many as eight green tennis balls, many plastic bottles, several golf tees and many fresh green leaves. I presume this waste had come down the Exe propelled by the heavy rain that had fallen inland over the past few days. Once we had rounded the Point and started walking back along the outer beach, the nature of the debris changed and we saw mainly plastic rope and twine, probably fishing-related.
By now it was mid-afternoon and the low tide gave us the chance to walk below the end of the newly reinstated groynes that stalk, triffid-like, across the wide sandy beach. The sea was calm but the gentle waves were enough to satisfy a lone, silhouetted surfer. Then, for a few minutes, the low sun broke through the layers of grey cloud, casting an intense yellow light across the dunes at the back of the beach, creating a mysterious, unnatural landscape where, surrounded by pink sand, the marram grass had turned to gold. At the same time, the western view was filled with an intense white light, bleaching grey out of the cloud and sprinkling silver across the sea.
Eventually, we reached the commercial part of the Warren where the mystery might have ended, but there was one final treat in store: a queen buff-tailed bumblebee as large as my thumb, collecting pollen from purple Hebe, presumably to stock her nest.
My concerns about the effects of the engineering work turned out to be mostly unfounded. Only one part of the Warren is visibly different, the narrow dune strip which is now topped with bare sand. The area has, however, been planted with marram grass which will take over in time. Overall, Dawlish Warren remains a special, elemental place.
The featured image shows the outer beach and groynes viewed from the dune strip, with, in the distance, Orcombe Point and the start of the East Devon/Dorset Jurassic Coast .