Saunton Beach has much more to offer than just the traditional delights of sand, sea and surf. It is the starting point for some wonderful wildlife walking, with access to the renowned Braunton Burrows running the full length of the beach.
For an introduction to the coastal scenery of North Devon, try a short walk from the beach along Saunton Down (behind the Hotel) to Down End (at the headland). In a couple of miles from the north end of the beach, you will visit a range of habitats which are home to a fascinating variety of marine animals, birds, plants, and insects.
The beach itself provides a foraging ground for some of our most delightful waders, Sanderling, flocks of which scuttle along the strandline just ahead of the tide searching for food. Dunlin and other wintering waders, as well as occasional mid season migrants, also rest and feed on the beach.
The delightful Ringed Plover may also be found attempting to breed well camouflaged amongst upper shore debris. Though generally unsuccessful, largely due to human disturbance, it may fare better under a recent local conservation project at Crow Point. Human and dog disturbance is a problem for all the birds and visitors are asked to take care.
A walk along the base of the cliffs reveals two very different types of rock, the upended Devonian slates, under your feet, and coarser younger sandstone forming the upper cliffs, sandstone which reveals its desert origin in the lie of the clearly visible grain.
Lying sandwiched between the two is the most spectacular of the mysterious erratics on the North Devon shores. Although its origins are obscure it is thought that this pink granite rock, the size of a small car, may have come from as far away as Scotland, brought here as ice-age glacial debris.
The pools amongst these rocks are home to many favourite animals, crabs, blennies and beautiful anemones including the well-named strawberry and snakelocks. A closer look will reveal much more including local specialties such as the Glaucus pimplet anemone and the celtic sea slug.
The cliffs themselves are home to several uncommon plants, found here in profusion, such as the elegant sea stock, the more modest sea heath and high up on the cliff the gorgeous sea lavender. One of the most showy plants, the Hotentot Fig, is an interloper which has adapted only too well to the crumbly cliffs and could easily swamp the other plants.
To see some of our native plants at their best take the path along the foot of Saunton Down to Down End. You can join the coast path on the far side of the road behind the Saunton Sands Hotel. The aromatic gorse is in flower most of the year, but the flowers are at their best in early summer when Bell Heather, Viper’s Bugloss, Sheepsbit and Kidney Vetch create a colourful border to the path. The flowers attract insects including butterflies, one of the most beautiful of which, the green hairstreak, is on the wing here in May and June.
Kestrels and Raven patrol the cliff tops, Buzzards soar and Stonechats keep their territories in the downland scrub. In the summer bird song advertises the presence of nesting and breeding birds in the gorse which include plenty of migrant Whitethroats and an elusive recent resident, the Dartford Warbler.
At Down End the path provides a good vantage point for viewing birds roosting on the rocks below, such as Cormorant and Shag, Curlew and Oyster Catcher. In the winter a flock of Common Scoter is regularly seen just offshore, and other sea birds visit from time to time.
Headlands like Down End provide good fishing for birds, for bigger fish and larger animals. An Atlantic Grey Seal is a common sight, and where you see seals, gannets and other birds feeding, porpoise may be found, even occasionally dolphin.
The walker can now return by the same route, or continue on the coast path, returning via a circular route over the top of Saunton Down, either way there are stunning views. Within a short walk of a busy beach there is a different world where wildlife thrive. We ask all walkers to take care to keep it so.
If you fancy a spot of rock-pooling at Down End (be careful of the tide), have a look first at the Devon Wildlife Trust’s website about the North Devon Voluntary Marine Conservation Area (VMCA).
It provides excellent information including a rockpool guide, details of marine litter and beach cleaning events, training for coastal businesses and much more.