Tag Archives: skylark

Death and destruction at Dawlish Warren

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.

We visited Dawlish Warren on March 6th 2018

Debris on Dawlish Warren Beach
Sand heaped on the retaining wall and debris piled on the beach at Dawlish Warren


Debris on Dawlish Warren Beach close up
Some plastic debris on Dawlish Warren Beach


Plastic pellets Dawlish Warren
A selection of plastic pellets found on Dawlish Warren Beach. If you enlarge this picture and look around you will see several clear plastic nurdles, several yellow ones and many cylindrical pellets (grey, pale blue and white). Also a few biobeads noted for the fine ridges around the outside. The larger plastic balls are not nurdles or biobeads.


Brent Geese take flight at Dawlish Warren
Brent Geese take flight above the inner bay at Dawlish Warren (photo by Hazel Strange)



Dead lapwings at Dawlish Warren
Several dead lapwings
Damaged sand cliffs at Dawlish Warren
Damaged dune cliffs and fences


Debris on groyne post at Dawlish Warren
Debris on top of groyne post


Dune fences destroyed at Dawlish Warren
Damaged dune cliffs and fences


Leats, larks and cuckoos on a Dartmoor ramble

Water bubbled and splashed in a purposeful manner along a rough, narrow trench cut in the high moor. This watercourse is the Devonport Leat, built towards the end of the 18th century to feed drinking water from Dartmoor streams to the growing south Devon port, some 10 miles away. Our walk followed the course of the Leat as it crossed rocky upland scrub and as it cascaded down Raddick Hill to cross the River Meavy on a short aqueduct to flow down a brick-lined channel through a conifer plantation.

Aquaduct & sluice gate Devonport leat
A view of the aqueduct and sluice gate from Raddick hill showing how the watercourse “turns” left after crossing the River Meavy
Aquaduct Devonport leat
A close-up shot of the aqueduct

We had reached the Leat on the high moor after climbing steadily up a rough, rocky track from the car park at Norsworthy Bridge. The soundtrack to our walk was the constantly questioning song of skylarks high above. This was the only sound until a faint “cuckoo, cuckoo” floated across the scrubby moorland, receiving a reply from a bird much closer. Then, ahead of us, we saw two large birds glide across the track in to neighbouring woodland. From their silhouettes, we guessed one of these was the answering cuckoo.

Later, as we were crossing open moorland, we noticed a large grey bird accompanied by a much smaller bird approaching a lone tree not far from the track. The large bird landed rather clumsily and the smaller bird flew off. Through my binoculars, I watched the larger bird trying to steady itself on the branch. It was surprisingly long and wobbled back and forth, wings down and long stubby tail up as though it hadn’t completely mastered the art of balancing. Its breast was white with clear horizontal black stripes as if it were wearing a Breton sailor’s shirt. This, together with its white wing bars told me that here was another cuckoo and from its comically ungainly behaviour, I presumed it must have been a juvenile. The smaller bird would have been its surrogate parent, working hard to provide food for its voracious “offspring”.

Cuckoo (from Wikipedia)


It’s a nice coincidence that, at the time the Devonport Leat was being constructed, Edward Jenner, who became one of the pioneers of vaccination, was studying the parasitic habits of cuckoos in rural Gloucestershire. He was the first to show that, after a female cuckoo has laid her egg in the nest of another species of bird, it is the young cuckoo that ejects all the other eggs and nestlings. The surrogate parents can then concentrate solely on the welfare of the much larger interloper.

The photos of the aqueduct were taken by Hazel Strange.

Our walk comes from “Dartmoor, great short walks for all of the family”, Crimson Publishing. We walked the route on June 1st 2014.