Oxwich National Nature Reserve

Nature Conservancy Council, Oxwich Reserve Centre, Oxwich, Swansea, SA3 1LS

11 miles the A4118 on unclassified road 11 miles west of Swansea -signposted Oxwich Map reference: SS502

Two trails in small coastal National Nature Reserve: Sand Dunes Trail -1-mile walk illustrating dune erosion and deposition; Woodland Walk – 3-mile walk through cliffside woodland and pasture

illustrated trail brochures; exhibitions in reserve centre; car park; public beach Flanked by the Bristol Channel to the south and west and Carmarthen Bay to the north, the eighteen-mile-long Gower Peninsula has im-posing limestone cliffs which are an echo of the Pembrokeshire coast to the west. It has been inhabited since Palaeolithic times, as human remains discovered in the Gower’s many caves show, an iron age camp survives at Cil Ifor and the Normans left behind defensive earthworks and fortifications. The variety of the Gower coastline, with cliffs to the south and salt marshes to the north, has led to the establishment of three Nature Reserves at Whitford Burrows, Rhossili (the Gower Coast reserve) and Oxwich. On the Oxwich Reserve, its sandy beach a popular venue for holidaying and weekend tourists, the Nature Conservancy Council has designed two nature trails. They show two facets of the natural history – the habitat of the sand dunes and the contrasting flora and fauna of Oxwich Woods and the coastal farmland.

The Sand Dunes Trail is a three-quarter of a mile loop from the beach car park around a section of the Oxwich Burrows sand dunes. As you set out, notice that the steep woods of Nicholaston to the north cast of the Reserve Centre were once the coast; a deep bay has been eroded by the sea from a stretch of softer shaly rocks enclosed by limestone headlands. The sea steadily retreated as land emerged under the twin influences of tides and wind.

The first event in the formation of land was the formation of a vast shingle bank which was then covered to a considerable depth with wind-blown sand. This event took place about 2500 years ago and the dunes have been advancing out into the sea ever since as the sand became stabilised by plants and accrued more wind and wave-transporred material. Oxwich’s early dunes were stabilised by sea couch grass and other plants able to grow up as more sand was caught by their leaves — sea rocket, prickly saltwort and succulent sandwort are others that create the sand traps. As the dune becomes more established and higher, marram grass with its long underground stems takes over as the main binding agent.

Where this primitive cover is broken by the trampling of beach visitors’ feet, or the creation of the car park, the sand becomes as mobile as ever and is blown away inland by the strong prevailing winds. Wind can shift sand by the ton and there are several points on the trail where this erosion can be seen. The Nature Conservancy Council is countering the erosion by fencing off vulnerable areas, planting marram grass and installing brushwood hedges which cut down the wind enough to allow the growth of new embryo dunes.

While yellow sand can still be seen between the plants, the dune is still subject to erosion and deposition, so it is called a ‘mobile dune’. However, once established and carpeted with a good layer of humus, other plants begin to appear and the dune is considered fixed and some times called a ‘grey dune’. Bracken, mos-ses and lichens are the most ptimitive followers on of the marram -but the more long-standing dunes also have dewberry (one of the many blackberry species that are found within the area), wild strawberry and rangy wild privet.

As the walk returns to the centre, it passes marshland trapped behind the dunes. Once the high tides would have flooded the area behind the shingle banks and dunes but during the 18th century, the Penrice Castle estate drained the land and made grazing land. Pools and ponds were landscaped into the reclaimed land but the drainage system fell into disuse and the land is now largely freshwater marsh. Salt-marsh lies outside the sea wall. The marsh is closed to visitors as it is an important bird breeding ground but as you pass by you will see reed and sedge warblers, heron, ducks and grebes.

Oxwich’s Woodland Walk runs south from the point where you return from the dunes and starts behind the seaside church which is almost on the beach. The wooded cliff is limestone which was quarried during the 19th-century – the lime was kilned and used for cement and as an alkali with which to neutralise acid soils in agriculture. The dominant species in the wood is sycamore but clearings have been made where oak and ash can grow free from choking by sycamore seedlings.

Lower parts of the wood are very damp and shaded, ideal conditions for wild garlic which grows in profusion. Close up, you should be able to smell its characteristic odour. In the higher parts of the wood, the soil is drier and the wood floor is a carper of dogs mercury with a scattered undergrowth of privet. At the top of the woods and having passed through a scrub of tall bracken fern and then a former pasture (now- a mix of both common and western gorse) you will reach an Ordnance Survey triangulation point which is 280ft above sea level. From here there is a panorama of the Bristol Channel as far as bandy Island and down the Gower’s south coast to Rhossili.

The path continues over rough grass pasture to the clifftop of Oxwich Point, where you will find primrose growing and rock ledges supporting clumps of common rock rose and tormen-til, both yellow-flowering. Heather also grows here, despite its normal phobia for lime soils.

The reason is apparently that the thin soil has the lime leached out of it by rain to a level lower than the heather roots. Birds you will see from this clifftop include the cormorant, gan-net, redshank and oystercatcher. The return to the start is along the cliff and through woodlands which include a hazel coppice. In the Reserve Centre by the car park, the Nature Conservancy Council displays many of the interesting features of the trails and the work of the Council in studying the wildlife of the Reserve and combating erosion of the dune area – work in which you can play your part by sticking to the signed paths.