Natural England - North Walney: what makes it special?

North Walney: what makes it special?

A mosaic of coastal habitats supports a unique flora and fauna, including many rare, specialist species that cannot survive elsewhere.

Walney Island was formed by the erosion and reworking of glacial sediments during the last ice age. It is also a barrier island, providing protection to the mainland from the predominantly south-westerly weather fronts. As a result it is a highly exposed site, with a mild maritime climate. The sand and soil at North Walney is thin, dry, acidic and inherently unstable which allows it to support a limited range of specialist and pioneer plant species.

The 650ha of North Walney NNR has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Area of Conservation, a Special Protection Area and a Ramsar wetland site. These important designations offer protection to a variety of nationally important and rare habitats including ungrazed saltmarsh, vegetated shingle, sand dunes, dune heath, and inter-tidal mudflats.


Walney is a botanist’s delight with over 450 species of flowering plants recorded at the reserve. Many are specialists which have developed ways of coping with the strong winds and salty air. A good example is the marram grass which helps to bind the sand together, allowing dunes to build up. It can be spiky though so watch your legs!

On the dry dunes look out for sea spurge, the scented burnet-rose and the unique Walney geranium, a variety of bloody cranesbill, which grows nowhere else in the world. Its pale pink flowers are veined with a darker pink and bloom between June and September. Many of the plants found here are rare including dune helleborine and green-flowered helleborine, seaside centaury, coralroot orchid and variegated horsetail.

On the beach the shingle too plays host to some rare and specialist species. Look out for the striking yellow horned poppies flowering in mid-summer, prickly sea holly and bushes of succulent sea kale.

The marshier areas support plants such sea aster, samphire and thrift, while the ponds and hay meadows are home to several species of orchid. In late summer, the dune heath and sea lavender add a splash of colour to landscape as they come into flower.


The mudflats and sandbanks at Walney are a great place to see wading birds including flocks of knot and dunlin, as well as redshank, oystercatcher, ringed plover and curlew.

Just off shore, some of our most spectacular ducks can be seen riding the waves, including the sleek pintail, colourful shelduck and the red-breasted merganser, with its long serrated bill perfectly adapted for catching fish.

Inland, the ponds and grassland are home to many breeding wildfowl and waders, including lapwing, mute swan and tufted duck.

Walney is also visited by several birds of prey including kestrel, sparrow hawk, merlin and hen harrier. Short-eared owls are often spotted wintering in the dune heath and barn owls breed on the eastern side of the reserve.

Natterjack Toad

The reserve’s most famous resident is the natterjack toad, Bufo calamita, one of the UK's rarest amphibians. It’s only found at around 40 sites across Britain, and a small but important number of the entire UK population is thought to live on North Walney NNR, where they dig their burrows in the soft sand dunes.

The natterjack’s main distinguishing features include a yellow stripe running down its back and its ability to run rather than hop. They are largely nocturnal animals, and are rarely spotted. However, in spring-time you may be lucky enough to hear them as they’re considered Europe’s noisiest amphibians, with a rasping call that can be heard over several kilometres!

The toads hibernate during winter, re-emerging in March to feast on the rich insect life of the dunes. Between April and July the females lay as many as 3,500 eggs in the reserve’s ephemeral pools.


Several rare invertebrates are found on the reserve, with many attracted by the sun-soaked micro-climate of the dunes. These include digger wasps and solitary bees, as well as predatory robber-flies, which hunt down other smaller insects on the wing.

Some 400 different species of moth and butterflies have also been recorded, including the shore wainscot, Portland and grass eggar moths, and grayling butterfly.

Partnership farming

Management of the NNR is enhanced by a special farming partnership. By agreement between Natural England and a local grazier the two small hay meadows on the NNR are grazed by cattle during the winter months. During the summer months the hay meadows are left alone to grow undisturbed, allowing the wildflowers to bloom and attracting a wide range of insects. The undisturbed meadows are also used as breeding sites by a range of bird species such as lapwing, and other rare ground nesting birds. The insects attracted by the wildflowers provide an important food source to the newly hatched lapwing chicks. At the end of summer, when the lapwings have moved on, the grass is cut and stored as hay for the cattle’s winter feed.

Cattle and sheep also graze the grassland among the northern dunes of the reserve, and in doing so help to conserve the natterjack toad! Natterjack toads catch their invertebrate prey by chasing them through the dunes. When the dune vegetation grows long, the chase becomes far more difficult for the toads. By grazing this area, we can ensure that the vegetation is kept short enough to maximise the natterjacks’ hunting capacity.