5. Dawlish Warren National Nature Reserve
The Warren is a key part the Exe Estuary Special Protection Area and Ramsar site - an area of international importance for wildlife. It provides the main roosting site for huge numbers of wading birds and wildfowl that spend the autumn and winter on the Estuary. The Warren is also designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for its dune grassland, humid dune slacks and the tiny, rare 'petalwort' that grows there. As well as fixed and mobile dunes, there are meadows, copses, reedbeds, ponds and saltmarsh here - and the whole sandspit is of considerable geomorphological interest.
The Warren is in joint ownership:
- Teignbridge District Council owns and manages all the seaward parts of the sandspit and provides the Ranger Service and Visitor Centre. This land is open to the public.
- Devon Wildlife Trust owns the Inner Warren Reserve, which is leased to the Warren Golf Club, plus the saltmarsh. This area is not open to the public.
Dawlish Warren is internationally important for wildlife. It is an SSSI and a cSAC (for its sand dunes) and is part of the larger Exe Estuary SPA and Ramsar site, designated for the huge flocks of wildfowl and wading birds that over-winter here.
The Warren has a wide variety of coastal habitats: mobile and fixed dunes, grassland, scrub, ponds, reed bed, 'dune slacks', salt marsh and mudflat's. These habitats provide homes for a vast wealth of plants and animals including:
Numerous birds, the mudflat's being a particularly valuable refuge for thousands of over-wintering and migratory waterfowl. The Warren harbours nationally important populations of the following bird species in winter: black tailed godwit, brent goose, ringed plover, dunlin, grey plover, slavonian grebe, red-breasted merganser, oystercatcher, wigeon and teal. Around 180 different bird species are recorded each year.
It is thought that 2000 species of invertebrate are found here, including the spectacular day-flying Jersey Tiger-Moth, colourful dragonflies, such as the rare ruddy darter, and solitary sand wasps which excavate tiny burrows and stock them with paralysed insect prey for their wasp grubs to eat!
Almost 600 different types of flowering plant including the warren or sand crocus.
A major attraction for many bird watchers is the large number of wading birds, ducks and geese. As the incoming tide covers the mudflat's, which form rich feeding grounds, the birds are steadily pushed up towards the high tide mark. Here they rest waiting for the tide to expose the feeding grounds again. This concentration of birds is a remarkable and exciting sight. From the bird hide overlooking the main roost it is possible to have thousands of birds, of up to 30 species, in view. These large numbers occur during the winter months, the birds having travelled from their northern breeding grounds as far away as Greenland and Siberia to spend the winter here. Many more birds pass through going further south for the winter, using the area to rest and refuel.
At high tide, the Warren offers one of the few safe roosting areas for these birds. Undisturbed roosting is vital for them. During their stay the birds need time to build up their strength for their onward journeys and they must save energy to survive a harsh winter. To help protect these birds it is essential that areas of the beach are kept free of people for three hours either side of high tide whilst the birds rest. Even a few unnecessary flights can mean the difference between life and death. 'The Birds of Dawlish Warren' publication is available to purchase from the Visitor Centre.
Almost 600 different types of flowering plants have so far been recorded at Dawlish Warren. The high number of different species in such a relatively small area is due in part to the richness of habitat types found within the Reserve. Mobile dune, semi-fixed dune, fixed dune, salt marsh, scrub and freshwater wetland all have special plants which are adapted to the different prevailing conditions. Many of the Warren's special 'fixed dune' plants are very small - a way of coping with joint pressures of poor soil, dry summers, rabbit grazing and heavy trampling by human feet. It is probably most famous for the Warren Crocus (Romulea columnae). This small plant, with its lilac-blue flowers, grows on dry stable dunes amongst short grass and is found nowhere else in mainland Britain. It grows very close to the ground and its tiny flowers appear briefly at the end of March/early April. Another of Britain's rarest, and smallest, plants grows at Dawlish Warren - petalwort looks like a tiny lettuce only 2mm across! 'The Flora of Dawlish Warren' publication is available to purchase from the Visitor Centre.
The reserve is an internationally important wildlife site and has several designations that protect the site and its wildlife from potentially damaging activities. The recreational use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, Drones) has the potential to cause significant disturbance to wildlife and is not permitted under any circumstances. Operators wishing to conduct commercial flights must obtain written consent from both Teignbridge District Council and Natural England, and will be subject to a number of conditions.
Visitor Centre opening times:
Summer (1 April to 31 August)
2pm to 5pm, Saturday and Sunday
2pm to 4pm, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday
Closed Monday and Tuesday
The Visitor Centre has a range of displays which tell you more about the site. You can also buy books about the Warren and its wildlife.
A bird watching hide is situated approximately a mile north-east of the Visitor Centre. This has open access and provides excellent viewing for wading birds and wildfowl in winter. Viewing is best 2 hours either side of medium high tides. Maps on site show the location of the hide. There is no public access to the Golf Course, mudflats or saltmarsh.
These are situated near the 'entrance tunnel' and in the resort area only. Sorry, there are no toilet facilities at the Visitor Centre.
Car parking is available on a pay and display basis. The entrance tunnel under the railway imposes a height restriction of 2.54m (8' 4") for the seaward car park. Taller vehicles can park in landward car park.
Location and access
Dawlish Warren National Nature Reserve is open to the general public. Dawlish Warren can be reached by car off the A379. At the bottom of the hill in Dawlish Warren village, turn into Beach Road. Drive through the entrance tunnel under the railway (NB height restriction 2.54m) and park in the far end of the large pay and display car park. The reserve is beyond the wooden 'field gate'. You can also travel to Dawlish Warren by train (there is a railway station at Dawlish Warren on the mainline from Plymouth to Exeter but not all trains stop here) or by bus (a frequent bus service passes through).
Wheelchair and pushchair access
There is suitable access for wheelchairs and pushchairs as far as the Visitor Centre. The most convenient route to use for wheelchairs is along the promenade. A boardwalk at the north-east end of the promenade provides a shallow sloping route down to the Visitor Centre. Much of the rest of the site has soft sand, which makes access difficult.
Visiting in winter (1 September to 31 March)
In winter large bird flocks roost on the beach north-east of Groyne 9. All visitors are asked not to walk along the beach here for approximately 3 hours either side of 'medium' to 'spring' high tides when roosting birds will be present. Instead, please walk along the dune path. Tide times and heights are posted on notices at Groyne 9 on site, or consult tide tables for Exmouth. If in any doubt please ask at the Visitor Centre.