Sand dune - Country Report, Ireland

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This article on the sand dunes in Ireland, derives from the 'Sand Dune Inventory of Europe' (Doody ed. 1991) [1]. The 1991 inventory was prepared under the umbrella of the European Union for Dune Conservation [EUDC]. The original inventory was presented to the European Coastal Conservation Conference, held in the Netherlands in November 1991. It attempted to provide an overview of the sand dune resource throughout the whole of Europe including Scandinavia, the Atlantic coast and the Mediterranean.

An overview article on European sand dunes provides links to the other European country reports. These represent chapters from updated individual country reports included in the revised, 2nd Edition of the 'Sand Dune Inventory of Europe' prepared for the International Sand Dune Conference “Changing Perspectives in Coastal Dune Management”, held from the 31st March - 3rd April 2008, in Liverpool, UK (Doody ed. 2008)[2].

Status: Original author, J Patrick Doody & Tom Curtis, original text with minor revisions 2008.


The sand dunes in Ireland have developed over the last 5,000 years and derive from glacial sediment reworked since then by the tides and wind. Substantial accumulations are rare and the largest system is Inch in the south west, with a total area of 1,250ha. [There are approximately 14,300ha of dune landscape in Ireland. The information comes from a variety of sources, including personal communication from Dr. D. Jeffrey (Trinity College, Dublin) and Prof. Bill Carter (Deceased)].

Distribution and type of dune

Sand dunes occur around the whole coastline of Ireland (see Figure). There is very little new sand available for dune building and current development is restricted to reworking of existing sediments. Dune forms include hindshore systems, the most extreme form of which is the “machair” formation found on the north and west coasts (Bassett and Curtis 1985)[3]. Elsewhere, more typically undulating forms occur, many with spits and bars. On the west coast where prevailing and dominant winds reinforce each other, sand can travel some distance inland, and at a few sites over cliffs. On the east coast, by contrast, dunes are much narrower as prevailing and dominant winds are in opposition. Dune sand is both calcareous and acidic depending on the origin of the material and therefore dune vegetation may be grassland or heathland. At some sites, such as Murlough in Northern Ireland, leaching of the surface dune soil has resulted in heathland vegetation.

Figure: Map showing the location of sites in Ireland listed in the table below. Copyright: J Pat Doody


Grazing, which includes rabbits, has resulted in largely open close-cropped vegetation and an absence of scrub and woodland. Domestic stock has also grazed sand dune vegetation for centuries. This has greatly influenced its form and composition. Unlike many other areas of northwest Europe, there has been relatively little afforestation of the dune landscape.


Ephemeral communities with Atriplex laciniata, Cakile maritima, Galium aparine and Elytrigia juncea are the norm;


Ammophila arenaria is the main dune building species. Leymus arenarius does occur but it is restricted in its geographical range;

Dune grassland

Calcareous grasslands can be rich in a wide variety of herbs including Lotus corniculatus, Thymus drucei, Echium vulgare and Viola tricolor. At some sites, rarer plants may be found including a number of orchids, of which Orchis apifera at Murlough dunes on the east coast is one of the more interesting;


A type of dune grassland develops under circumstances where much of the dune topography is lost due to the action of the strong winds experienced on the west coast. In Ireland, unlike Scotland, grazing predominates, little if any of the flat plain is cultivated. It is rich in species;

Dune heath

Calluna vulgaris and Erica cinerea are the predominant species, though E. tetralix occurs in wetter hollows. Dune heath is much more restricted than the richer dune grassland;

Dune slack

Wet slack vegetation is present at a number of sites with Salix repens forming a major component of a species rich community;


There are no dunes with native woodland. However, the reduction in grazing pressure at a number of sites has resulted in the development of scrub, including the invasive Hippophae rhamnoides, at the expense of the richer grassland vegetation. At a few sites, such as Raven Point in the south east, there is some artificial planting of pine.

Important sites

The Irish Government’s Wildlife Service carried out an appraisal of the coastal sand dunes as part of a process of designating Areas of Scientific Interest. This list is based on Curtis (1991)[4].

Figure: List of important sand dunes sites in Ireland.

ASI, Areas of Scientific Interest in the Republic of Ireland; ASSI, Areas of Special Scientific Interest in Northern Ireland; NNR, National Nature Reserves, Northern Ireland; NT, National Trust.

Twelve sites are of international importance; these are included in the list opposite together with all other sites over 50ha. Two sites in Northern Ireland are Special Areas of Conservation, Site 44, Murlough Dunes [1] and Site 45 Magilligan Dunes [2].

There are two other sites worthy of inclusion:

  • The dunes in the Bann Estuary ASSI and SAC (which includes both Portstewart and Grangemore dunes - the latter a much older system) [3];
  • White Park Bay ASSI and SAC (note White Park Bay forms part of the North Antrim Coast SAC [4] with the adjoining Giant’s Causeway and Dunseverick ASSI).


The extent of grazing has helped to make the dunes of Ireland relatively stable. However, their extensive use for recreation in recent years has lead to destabilisation and erosion at a number of sites. Although open dune areas are probably beneficial to the development of the full range of dune forms and their associated plants and animals, continued use prevents natural reestablishment of the vegetation. In some areas this has led to the loss of considerable dune landscapes. In addition dunes have also been extensively developed as golf courses with the loss of much of the natural dune vegetation. Paradoxically, in recent years a reduction in grazing pressure at some sites has led to an increase in scrub development, notably with Hippophae, at the expense of the richer dune forms.

Original contact: Dr. Tom Curtis, IRELAND.

Additional Information

Further information on Site 45 Magilligan Dunes is included in a web site giving a “Virtual Fieldtrip” at [5].

Further information is also available on the Northern Ireland Heritage and Wildlife Service on the “Magilligan Lowlands” at [6]. Click links to go directly to Landscape, Geodiversity profile or Biodiversity profile.

The service has also produced a Habitat Action plan for “Coastal Sand Dunes” in 2005 with accompanying documentation, which can be downloaded at [7].

Sand dune ecology: Investigations of sand dune systems carried out at two northern Irish sites (Portstewart and Murlough Bay, Dundrum) have focused on the changes in vegetation and bare sand since the 1940s. These changes have been linked to fluctuating rabbit populations and human disturbance. See [8] and Binggeli et al. (1992)[5].


  1. Doody, J.P., ed., 1991. Sand Dune Inventory of Europe. Peterborough, Joint Nature Conservation Committee/European Union for Coastal Conservation.
  2. Doody, J.P., ed. 2008. Sand Dune Inventory of Europe, 2nd Edition. National Coastal Consultants and EUCC - The Coastal Union, in association with the IGU Coastal Commission.
  3. Bassett, J.A. & Curtis, T.G.F., 1985. The nature and occurrence of sand dune machair in Ireland. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 85/1, 1-20.
  4. Curtis, T.G.F., 1991. The flora and vegetation of sand dunes in Ireland. In: M.B. Quigley, ed., A guide to the sand dunes of Ireland, 42-46. European Union for Dune Conservation and Coastal Management, Dublin.
  5. Binggeli, P., Eakin, M., Macfadyen, A., Power J. & McConnell, J., 1992. Impact of the alien sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides L.) on sand dune ecosystems in Ireland. In: R.W.G. Carter, T.G.F. Curtis & M.J. Sheehy-Skeffington, eds. Coastal dunes. Geomorphology, ecology and management, Balkema, Rotterdam, 325-337.

See also

The main author of this article is Doody, Pat
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Doody, Pat (2019): Sand dune - Country Report, Ireland. Available from,_Ireland [accessed on 15-07-2024]