Each month our teams write a blog about the special places they look after. Here, Justin Lyons, our Senior Reserve Manager at Dyfi Ynyslas, talks about the spectacular Orchids that light up the sand dunes each summer…

There are numerous sand dunes along the 2,750 kilometres of our Welsh coastline. Most of these are protected because they are home to rare plants and animals, and many of them are National Nature Reserves managed by us at NRW.

From Merthyr Mawr and Oxwich in South Wales to Newborough Warren and Morfa Harlech and Dyffryn in the North.

In mid Wales we have Ynyslas sand dunes at the mouth of the Dyfi estuary. These are part of the much larger Dyfi National Nature Reserve that includes the great expanse of the Dyfi estuary and the wonderful raised bog of Cors Fochno.

June and July are my absolute favourite time to see flowers on the sand dunes, and the best place to find them is in the dune slacks.

These are the low lying flat areas found between dune ridges - they frequently flood during the winter months and are often damp during the summer months.

The diverse range of plants to be found in dune slacks is truly spectacular

You don’t have to look hard for them during the summer – orchids can be particularly abundant with a bewildering variety of species.Orchids

Of the 12 species of orchid at Ynyslas 8 are to be found just in dune slacks.

Most of these are different species of marsh orchid and can range from the smallish sand dune variety of Early Marsh Orchid (which are my favourite and are sometimes in a sea of yellow Bird’s-Foot-Trefoil), to the much more robust larger varieties of Northern and Southern Marsh Orchid.

Identification of marsh orchids can be quite a challenge, especially as they often form hybrids with each other to such an extent that even the experts get confused!

Towards the end of June, just before the marsh orchids finish flowering, another species of orchid called Marsh Helleborine flowers en masse in the damper areas of the dune slacks.

Dune slacks, like all sand dune habitats, change over time

They are initially created by the movement of the sand and sea and at first are sparsely vegetated.

As time passes they change to damp grassland and then eventually to low scrub and woodland.Petalwort

In the earlier stages of their creation, when there is little vegetation, or where the vegetation is suppressed by grazing or trampling, the slacks are home to some very specialised and rare species of mosses and moss-like plants.

They don’t quite have the wow factor of the orchids but one species, Petalwort, can look quite impressive under magnification - like a mini lettuce!

A characteristic shrub that lives in the damp dune slacks later in their development is the low growing Creeping Willow. It has distinctive reddish stems and prolific catkins in spring.

Here at Ynyslas these catkins are an essential pollen source for the rare Vernal Mining Bee, a species found mainly on dunes on the west side of the UK. 

The diverse range of flowering plants to be found on the dune slacks are important for a wide variety of invertebrates. The Common Blue Butterfly and the day-flying moth, Old Mother Shipton, are two common species you are likely to see if the sun is shining.

To conserve many of the rare species the slacks need to be kept open, and free from too much scrub development.

We do this by using a variety of management techniques including mowing in the late summer and then some scrub cutting and grazing with Welsh Mountain sheep (provided by a local farmer) in the autumn and winter.

And now, in the summer months, we are rewarded with the wonderful floral delight that is a dune slack in June.

A summer of seaside events

Every summer we hold events and activities at the reserve to help people of all ages get outside and explore this special place we are so proud to look after. We hope these activities will inspire our visitors and help us protect places like this for future generations.

Join us at the reserve to learn more about our spectacular orchids, discover the secret history of the bog, or learn how to identify birds and mammals on the coast.

You can also find out about the surprising range of sea shells that can be found here, and of course compete in the annual sandcastle competition.

The full list of events can be found on our events page, on the Dyfi Ynyslas Visitor Centre Facebook page, or on @DyfiWardens Twitter.

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