Forvie’s dynamic dunes

Forvie NNR host the tail end of one of the largest Sand Dune systems in the UK. The Dune system begins from near Aberdeen city up along the coast past Balmedie, Forvern Burn and half way through the Forvie NNR reserve before giving way to coastal cliff.

The Big Dune at Forvie NNR – a free moving dune slowly shifting North

As hard as it is to imagine, these “shifting dunes” true to their name are mobile. The dunes move with the prevailing wind, sand added and recycled from far off the coast driven by the tide.

Since starting my position at Forvie I’ve been fascinated with the dunes. The southern end of the reserve is dominated by a large expanse of sand slacks and sand dunes, partially visible in the photo above. A bleak, lifeless environment on the surface but one of stark beauty which bursts to life with the arrival of the terns and gulls for breeding.

Over the last few months here I’ve met a number of wonderful folk that have previously worked here, my predecessors on the reserve. Each of them would mention after after many years of not seeing the dunes they can’t believe how the landscape has changed. I’ve had a glimpse of this recently through an old photo of the seal haul-out that was shared. At the time we did not know how old this photo was but we took another snap from roughly the same location to compare the changes.

Old photo (Lorne Gill) – Ythan mouth from Newburgh beach
Current photo (Sep 2019)

The pill box has gone from being almost completely buried to being totally exposed – that’s a shift of at least 2-3 meters of sand deep being moved. Enough sand has been shifted to expose rock on the seal haul out where non was visible before.

Looking further into the background there is now an imposing ridge of sand with a drop onto the beach. All in all, who know how many thousands of tonnes of sand shifted changing the landscape. In the end the old photo was only taken in the summer of 2016 so this change occurred only over the last 3 years!

Even in my 5 months here, it sometimes seems to change overnight. I notice small changes over time but occasionally I find myself seeing new paths through the dunes wondering if that was there as I walked through yesterday, climbing a dune thinking this seems more steep – or was it my imagination? The dunes a labyrinth of sand, a puzzle being reworked by the wind.

These photos sparked a new appreciation for the dunes in me and their importance. Why is this dynamic nature needed on the coastline? Outside of the unique habitat that dunes create for flora and fauna, they act as a barrier against the seas. They are a natural defense against rising sea levels and given the current climate emergency they are becoming only more important on our coast, protecting inland areas from the seas and storms. Dunes are not our only natural defense on the coast. Cliffs protect inland areas from storm waves and wetlands reduce flood risks. In the end, I am all the more thankful for the dunes and our natural world here at Forvie.

Forvie NNR sand dunes – our natural defense ©Lorne Gill/SNH