THEY are places of constant change and movement that serve as protection for the UK’s coastlines and are home to various species of plant and wildlife.

So vital are sand dunes to preserving Scotland’s beaches and acting as natural buttresses against climate change, conservationists have developed a new method of restoring them to help prevent erosion that threaten the natural ridges.

Pioneered by Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), the project, at a site near Tain in East Sutherland, aims to remove trees that were planted decades ago in a misguided attempt to prevent dune erosion and create the conditions that will allow dune vegetation to once more take hold and allow natural processes to conserve the coastline.

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Suzanne Dolby, FLS Environment forester (North Region), said: “Sand dunes are vulnerable to coastal erosion, especially in the face of rising sea levels and more frequent severe weather events.

“Decades ago, the thinking was that planting trees on dunes would help to prevent them from being eroded and that this would help protect Scotland’s coastline. However, tidal and wave action continued to drive erosion under the tree roots and actually encouraged erosion.

“These days, the awareness and understanding of the cycles that sand dunes go through – and their value as habitats in their own right – is much more prevalent so we are looking at how best we can restore sand dunes to their natural state.”

Sand dunes help to protect the coastline and are likely to be an increasingly important defence against sea level rise as a result of the Climate Emergency.

Natural and healthy dune systems change their formation in response to wave, wind and tidal action, with some sand removed only to then be replaced at a later stage with deposits of new sand.

This self-sustaining process can play out in the course of one storm but more often occurs over many years and, if viewed at a particular moment in the cycle, could give the impression that the dunes are disappearing.

Tree planting in previous generations attempted to stop this apparent erosion and fix the dunes in place – but it also interrupted the natural process of replenishment, as well as the colonisation of dune vegetation.

Ms Dolby said: “Previous restoration attempts over the last 15 years have failed to properly restore open dunes because they did not deal with a surface layer on the dunes that had been enriched by fallen leaves or needles, conditions which favour woodland plants and that effectively prevented more sensitive dune plants from surviving.

“The method we’re trialling now involves removing the trees and scrub and scraping and burying the plant litter layer to leave a bare sand surface, which will hopefully support the rare vegetation special to these dunes.”

The trial site, at Morrich More, will be closely monitored over the next five years to assess the effectiveness of the restoration process.

Scotland’s more than 50,000 hectares of sand dune systems are considered among some of the country’s most valuable habitats, thought to support more than 70 rare species.

Risks to the dunes include conifer plantations which have already claimed around 6,000 hectares and sea buckthorn which has colonised significant areas of sand dune in parts of south-east Scotland. This non-native shrub, like the tree project, was originally planted to combat erosion, but has itself become a problem.

In 2019, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) revealed that Donald Trump’s Aberdeenshire golf resort could lose its status as a protected wildlife site after the sand dunes at Menie no longer included enough of the special features for which they were designated a site of special scientific interest (SSSI).

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The designation is given to areas with rare species of fauna or flora, or with important geological or physiological features.

A three month consultation on the future status of Foveran Links SSSI began that June, but was postponed until this year only four months later.

In official documents SNH said Menie Links Golf Course had “adversely affected” the sand dune habitat with 11 per cent of the total SSSI lost and 15% of the sand dune habitat gone.

Mr Trump was granted permission to build a golf course at the site despite concerns about damage to the dunes and the links opened in 2012.

SNH said evidence showed permanent habitat loss following the construction of fairways and greens, and that the stabilisation of mobile sand “has destroyed the dynamic nature of the site”.

Trump International said the move by the Government body was politically motivated and a “stitch-up”.