Sand Dunes



Geodiversity is defined as the natural range (diversity) of geological features (rocks, minerals, fossils, structures), geomorphological features (landforms and processes) and soil features that make up the landscape. It includes their assemblages, relationships, properties, interpretations and systems (Gray, 2004).

The processes that have shaped the British Isles give us a particularly rich geological heritage. This land was once located in the tropics, its deserts replaced by equatorial forests and swamps as it drifted North, becoming desert again in time. The now quiet landscape was disrupted by volcanoes and glaciers have repeatedly advanced and retreated. We often discover a preserved record of the geological processes that have shaped the land today when for example, quarrying exposes rock or erosion reveals fossils in cliffs. These records aren’t permanent however, and are vulnerable to damage or loss if they are treated inappropriately. In a similar way to biodiversity loss, the economic advancement of humans has involved activities which have been detrimental to a legacy which took millions of years to develop.

This legacy of the geological past – rocks, soils, landforms, comprises our earth heritage. The term geoconservation has been applied to efforts to better understand and preserve this heritage. However, it is not just the preservation of static records but the preservation of geological processes still occurring today which is relevant to the network. There is perhaps no better current visual embodiment of geological change than shifting sand dunes, moving metres a year, eroding and accreting.  

The following pages will examine geodiversity and geoconservation in general terms and also specific to sand dunes and shingle.

History of Geoconservation

The timeline below shows some of the milestones in the development of geoconservation as a concept.

The earliest embodiment of large scale geoconservation may have been the establishment of the National Park system in the US where the first sites were created as a result of geological features and landscape scale attributes (e.g. Yellowstone in 1872). This element has been forgotten because of today’s emphasis on wildlife conservation but it is a fundamental point of understanding about the evolution of conservation philosophy which society needs to re-discover.

 In the UK attempts to preserve geological sites have been recorded from 1800 onwards, for example early legislation to protect Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh. A more formalised system for conservation came later than the USA and from a different perspective. The National Trust was established against a backdrop of protecting natural landscapes from the marauding masses, lending these early conservation efforts an air of exclusivity. In 1949, the National Park and Access to the Countryside Act broke down these barriers with the establishment of National Parks in England and Wales (Scotland’s first came in 2002) 

National Parks in the UK are very different from the USA as they are not nationally owned, often inhabited, include land with no right of way and are much more materially altered by humans. Where they contain geological or geomorphological features it is usually coincidental as parks were not established for the same reasons as those in the USA.

A more concerted effort to preserve geodiversity was begun in 1949 however, with initial identification of the most important sites. In 1977 the Nature Conservancy Council began a systematic review known as the Geological Conservation Review (GCR) which was completed in 1990.  This was a pioneering step taken by the UK using a rigorous approach where other nations were focussing on protecting biodiversity.

Sites were selected based on the following criteria:-

  • Sites of international geological importance
  • Sites that are scientifically important because they contain exceptional features
  • Sites that are nationally important because they are representative of a geological feature, event or process that is fundamental to understanding Britain’s geological history.

The significance of these sites and thus the importance of conserving them, has been discussed since their selection in the Geological Conservation Review Series. Information for most entries can be found at where the database allows you to search on a map or by title.

Designation and protection

The Nature Conservancy Council (now Natural England) was established at the same time as the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act and was given the power to designate National Nature Reserves (NNRs) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on the basis of their flora, fauna, geology or “physiography” – geomorphology. About 3000 sites were identified by the GCR – the majority of these have been or are in the process of being designated SSSIs. They have been split in the following way:-

Exposure sites are valued because geological features or deposits are exposed e.g. on a cliff, at a quarry or mine. Preserving the exposure of the landform is the aim at these sites so quarrying for example would be allowed to continue. Where the process exposing these features is coastal erosion, their designation can be controversial as residents may want to stop the process.

Integrity sites represent finite deposits or landforms that are irreplaceable if destroyed. They are usually quaternary in origin e.g. glacial/fluvial/coastal process sites. Sand dunes and shingle sites are an example of this type because their sediment supply is finite, having been deposited by glacial processes. Erosion or other damage can destroy the habitat with no further sediment supply to rebuild them.

Other designations (although not necessarily affording protection) include Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Heritage Coasts and National Trust sites.

Other sites have been adopted as Regionally Important Geological Sites (RIGS) designated by locally developed criteria, and managed by voluntary groups. SSSI sites are highly valued scientifically but often do not encompass other values which local people consider important such as amenity or education. This can lead to a lack of involvement or participation from locals which is seen as a critical factor in the success or otherwise of geoconservation efforts. RIGS were set up in the 1990s as a response to the need for more local involvement in geoconservation. The Nature Conservancy Council, English Nature and now Natural England were tasked with providing encouragement and support to the volunteer groups which carry out the actions deemed necessary for conserving geodiversity locally. Although RIGS do not attract statutory protection, they are important sites for conserving geodiversity. The group responsible for the site will inform planning departments of sites declared as RIGS, so that their value may be considered. UKRIGS is the overseeing body and provides links to all the regional sites .

Local Geodiversity Action Plans (LGAP) were first suggested by English Nature in 2001 and have used the Local Biodiversity Action Plans as a model. They may cover a county, a particular site, AONBs or nature reserves and even mineral extraction companies. An action plan typically defines long term objectives and short term targets and identifies human and financial resources needed to achieve these. A geodiversity action plan builds on inventory or audit work undertaken on the area in question to determine its management requirements. The local aspect of the plans is thought to be particularly effective as people are shown to respond more favourably to tangible local ambitions than national directives. As a lot of the conservation work carried out on these sites is by volunteers, this aspect is especially important.

More information can be found here 

European and International Context

UNESCO manages the World Heritage Site (WHS) network as part of the World Heritage Convention (WHC) ratified in 1972. There is no limit to the number of sites which can be added to the WHS list and all states are invited to submit candidate sites. The UK currently has 28 sites ( of which the majority are cultural sites. Two are designated for their outstanding coastal features but none are specifically connected with active geomorphological processes such as sand dune or shingle sites. Sites are measured against a set of criteria ( and must also evidence commitment and a rigorous planning methodology along with governmental support and legislation which will favour the sites protection.

It is important again that local people are invited to participate and be part of the management such that they feel a shared responsibility for the site and are more likely to contribute positively toward its maintenance. The IUCN recommends that the WHC should involve academics, locals and NGO’s in the monitoring of sites to make the WHC processes more transparent and democratic. UNESCO works with the IUCN, IUGS and IGCP to determine whether a site is suitable for inclusion on the list.  Continual monitoring and evaluation of the sites is required and states must report on actions they are taking including legislative changes to implement the World Heritage Convention and thus protect their sites. It is particularly important that states report on changes or exceptional circumstances which threaten the integrity of a site or its surroundings. If UNESCO deems the site to be at risk as a result of a change it may place it on the WHS in danger list.

This page ( on the WHC website defines what a natural heritage site consists of. Clearly, in order to further the goals for geoconservation in the UK, more natural sites should be nominated for WHS status and page 10 and 11 of the following document ( outline the criteria that should be met relevant to geological/geomorphological sites.

There is no comprehensive European policy on geological conservation at this time. Some EU biodiversity directives protect sites that coincidentally contain sites of geological interest., but there is no policy aimed specifically at preserving geological diversity or geomorphological processes. Policy makers are beginning to realise the importance of addressing these aspects of diversity in that much of the biodiversity we are trying to conserve depends entirely on soils, geology, landforms and active processes. Initiatives like the Pan European Biodiversity and Landscape Diversity Strategy are beginning to acknowledge the need to engage with geoconservation 

UNESCO is also working with other agencies to establish international geosites/geopark networks encouraging trans boundary collaboration as well as separate state submissions.

The Global Geosites scheme aims to identify networks of sites representing geodiversity rather than a few discrete sites. It encourages a bottom up approach where scientists in each country compile a register of sites which are scrutinised by the wider geological community. This work is co-ordinated by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) with endorsement from UNESCO. Regional collaboration aids the process, for example ProGEO oversees and facilitates a lot of the work in Europe.

Geoparks are also supported by UNESCO, but the focus here is using sites as a tool to promote economic development through tourism and education activities. The European Geoparks Network was initiated in 1997 with the following aims

  • Conserving geoheritage
  • Improving public understanding of the geosciences
  • Promoting regional economic development

There are 37 geoparks in Europe, 7 in the UK but again, none representing the interests of active processes at sand dune or shingle sites. One of the ideas behind the parks is getting local people to re-evaluate their heritage and play a more active role in the economic regeneration of their region.

European geoparks network website  

ProGEO is a European advocacy group which gives some information on geodiversity in a European context as well as links to some national sites

The IUGS is a more general NGO with aims to promote the development of earth sciences and co-ordinate international research and cooperation.

Geoconservation and the Network

The list below comes from

Gravel and shingle beaches

Sandy beaches and dunes

Sand spits and tombolos


Westward Ho!

Loe Bar, Cornwall

Slapton Sands, Devon

Hallsands, Devon

BudleighSalterton Beach, Devon

Chesil Beach, Dorset

Porlock, Somerset

Hurst castle Spit, Hampshire

Pagham Harbour, W. Sussex

The Ayres of Swinister, Shetland

Whiteness Head, Moray

Spey Bay, Moray

The West Coast of Jura, Argyll and Bute

Benacre Ness, Suffolk

Orfordness and Shingle Street, Suffolk

Rye Harbour, E. Sussex

Dungeness, Kent


Marsden Bay, Co. Durham

South Haven Peninsula, Dorset

Upton and Gwithian Towans, Cornwall

Braunton Burrows, Devon

Oxwich Bay, Glamorgan

Tywyn Aberffraw, Anglesey

Ainsdale, Lancashire

Luce Sands, Dumfries and Galloway

Sandwood Bay, Sutherland

Torrisdale Bay and Invernaver, Sutherland

Dunnet Bay, Caithness

Balta Island, Shetland

Strathbeg, Aberdeenshire

Forvie, Aberdeenshire

Barry Links, Angus

Tentsmuir, Fife

Pwll-ddu, Glamorgan

Ynyslas, Ceredigion

East Head, W. Sussex

Spurn Head, Yorkshire

Dawlish Warren, Devon

Gibraltar Point, Lincolnshire

Walney Island, Lancashire

Winterton Ness, Norfolk

Morfa Harlech, Gwynedd

Morfa Dyffryn, Gwynedd

St Ninian’s Tombolo, Shetland

Coast of the Isles of Scilly

Central Sanday, Orkney


Machair Bay, Islay, Argylle and Bute

Eoligarry, Barra, Western Isles

Ardivachar to Stoneybridge, South Uist, Western Isles

Hornish and Lingay Strands, North Uist, Western Isles

Pabbay, harris, Western Isles

Luskentyre and Corran Seilebost, Harris, Wester Isles

Mangersta, Lewis, Western Isles

Tráigh na Berie, Lewis, Western Isles

Balnekeil, Sutherland


Sand dune and shingle habitats are among the most vulnerable geoheritage features due to their moveable nature and location at the coast. Sea level rise is inevitably going to affect these habitats and perhaps even more profoundly, so will the mitigation measures we put in place. There is now greater awareness about the value and importance in conserving geological features and processes and the geoconservation message is beginning to be adopted in a more integrated approach to landscape and nature conservation. However, the dawning of realisation is slow and may be overshadowed by our desire to protect our own assets above those of our earth heritage. The threats facing geodiversity are similar to those we consider in relation to biodiversity, emphasising the importance of conceptualising these ecosystems holistically and not as distinct components of plants, animals, soils. In fact, acting upon threats to geodiversity represents action at a higher level in the hierarchy of management with the potential to have a greater impact on the levels below, including biodiversity.

adapted from van der meulen and jungerius 1989

Below is a summary of some of the main threats to the geodiversity of sand and shingle resources.

Coastal erosion is a natural process taking place all over the British Isles and Europe. Although it can be perceived as a threat to sand dunes and shingle, in an unaltered state the habitats can alter their morphology and position in response to erosive processes.

However, humans have historically always inhabited the coast and technological advances mean we can now inhabit stretches that would previously have been off limits. Coastal defence schemes are now widespread where poorly planned coastal development has allowed housing to be built near eroding coast or agricultural land cultivated downwind of mobile sand dunes for example. Coastal defence schemes are designed to alter the natural evolution of the coast as described above meaning they are a fundamental threat to geodiversity.


  • Stabilisation of mobile systems to prevent sand blow
  • Altered sediment exchange between beach and dunes
  • Shingle bar/fore dunes become isolated from their sediment source instigating/worsening erosion.

There is a greater predilection for ‘soft engineering’ approaches today in the UK and especially in Scotland ( but it remains to be seen whether we will continue to favour this approach if coastal inundation becomes a more frequent occurrence. Clearly people with property and infrastructure to protect are not in favour of such approaches.

Coastal squeeze occurs when development or a coastal defence feature prevents sand dune and shingle features from readjusting themselves as part of natural coastal evolution. The low water mark is effectively raised by relative sea level rise while the high water mark is fixed by the presence of infrastructure. This is going to become more of a problem for these habitats as sea level rise continues to erode their seaward edge.

Afforestation is a threat to geodiversity because it obscures landforms such as dunes so that individual features and the topography of the system is obscured. Furthermore, the stabilising effect of the trees also limits the dunes’ capacity to mobilise and readjust to pressures such as those discussed above.

Although it is desirable to remove plantation type forestry planted for stabilisation, Deforestation can also cause a problem where it is done insensitively. There can be a danger of deflation, soil degradation and erosion of the unvegetated surface which is left.

Agriculture on sand dune systems has the potential to damage the sensitive habitat in terms of altered water table levels, soil degradation or the ploughing and flattening of topography. We think of grazing as a help to these habitats by keeping scrub at bay, however in Northumberland, cattle overwintering on a site damaged the vegetation and made it vulnerable to erosion. (Section 6)

Some gains have been made in protecting sand dunes from the potentially damaging effect of golf development (PPG17 recognises the need for recreational development to at least maintain or enhance the character of open spaces However, economic development still takes precedence (see Making Links) and developments are permitted, seriously threatening the geoheritage present at the sites. Significant land remodelling changes the local geomorphological character and soil conditions of sand dune sites. Stabilisation efforts reduce the mobile characteristics at some sites such as the Trump development (

Recreation and tourism affect the geodiversity of sand dune and shingle sites directly and indirectly. Erosion from walking or driving within the habitats impacts directly by destabilising features or damaging vegetation, allowing wind to erode and scour parts of the sites. Indirectly, beach use affects the build up of sand on the dune front altering the actions of dune building or renewal and beach cleaning removes debris needed for embryo dune formation.

More than anything a lack of information/education has damaged and continues to threaten sand dunes and shingle systems. In the past, ignorance has allowed sites to become degraded through inappropriate development. Although some countries like the UK are far more conscious of the need to protect these systems, this lack of education continues to threaten systems around the world. Even as close to home as Ireland, lax planning systems have allowed holiday homes, some of which were never finished, to be built in sand dune systems often virtually on the beach. Owner occupiers then demand protection from the sea and the systems are further degraded through coastal defence schemes. This factor is arguably the most threatening for coastal geodiversity, as our affinity for living and recreation on the coast is so great we are utilising its resources more and more. There has been a dawning of realisation recently as the threat of climate change and coastal inundation becomes a reality. However, the pace of change is so slow our sand dune and shingle systems are still vulnerable in the UK and elsewhere. For instance there is still a lack of trained geology or geomorphology staff working in National Parks and other designated sites today and these experts are rarely consulted during the planning process.