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Vegetated shingle

What is vegetated shingle?

Shingle beaches are made up of different sized pebbles, are subject to strong winds and waves, and are constantly shifting. Most shingle beaches are not stable enough to support vegetation and are extremely nutrient poor as any organic matter is quickly washed away. However, some beaches in more sheltered locations are eventually able to support highly specialised plants, and through the process of succession (species living in an area gradually changing over time as the environmental conditions change), we get vegetated shingle. Examples can be found at Hook Spit, Browndown (which is of national conservation importance for its rare vegetation and invertebrates), Hurst Spit, Sinah Common (Hayling Island), West Wittering dunes and East Head spit, and Thorness Bay and Newtown Harbour on the Isle of Wight.   


How does vegetated shingle form?

Waves continuously push the shingle further up the beach until eventually ridges form that are out of the water's reach. In this more sheltered area, sand and other matter begins to accumulate and starts retaining a little water. Seeds of pioneer plants can now germinate and Sanderling roost grow, thanks to their drought-resistant adaptions. When these plants die and decay the resulting debris combines to form a thin soil layer, further stabilising the shingle, increasing nutrient content, and paving the way for other plant species to move in. Invertebrates and other animals soon follow, and the result is a biodiverse vegetated shingle habitat.    


Birds of vegetated shingle

In the winter, some of the vegetated shingle habitats around the Solent provide resting spots (roosts) for wading birds at high tide. Small waders in particular love to rest on shingle as they are very well camoflagued and therefore hidden from predators. Little tern with chick Flocks of dunlin, ringed plover and sanderling all huddled together can become almost invisible to passers by. 

In the summer, vegetated shingle becomes home to colonies of breeding birds and you may find areas roped off to prevent disturbance and trampling. Common, little, sandwich, and roseate terns, as well as ringed plover, black-headed gull, and mediterranean gulls select these areas to grow their families. These birds usually nest straight onto bare shingle, creating scrapes (small indentations in the shingle) and laying eggs that look very similar to the pebbles.


Vegetated shingle plants Plants of vegetated shingle

 Common plants to look out for include sea kale and yellow-horned poppy. Both of these plants are among the first to colonise due to their 2m long tap roots that allow them to reach freshwater reserves deep under the shingle. Rarer species include little robin geranium (particularly at Browndown and Hurst Spit), sea heath (at Newton Harbour), and Ray's knotgrass (on Hayling island). Shingle plants have a variety of adaptations such as thick, waxy leaves which increase water retention; substantial root systems which help bind them to loose shingle; and growing in a matt formation with closely packed leaves which protects them from high winds. Established communities, often taking hundreds of years to develop, will eventually include other species such as bryophytes, lichens, gorse, blackthorn, and hawthorn.