Dungeness – Weird and Wonderful

‘The Old Lighthouse’ of Dungeness in the distance, the wall on the left side is part of the car park once used by the many power station employees, now mostly empty as it is decomissioned. In front of you, mile after mile of delicately vegetated shingle. (Credit: Me)

Most people who visit the region on the border of Kent and East Sussex do so by skipping by this curious peninsula. An area of arid shingles, dotted with islands of vegetation, where unusual lichens make a satisfying crunching sound in the summer, a crunch somewhere between sand and snow.

Smack bang in front of you is mile after mile of flat, pebbled terrain, the skyline dominated by a nuclear power station.

Between Folkestone to the East and Hastings to the West, not far from Winchelsea, Rye, New Romney and Lydd, Dungeness stands alone on this incredible peninsula of shingles that has been steadily changing, expanding and moving for hundreds of years. If you’re holidaying in or around Rye (as many do) and do not pay a visit to Dungeness you do yourself a disservice. (Credit: © Google Maps)

I say ‘a’ power station, it’s actually two. Dungeness A – joined to the grid in 1965, it’s two nuclear reactors helped generate thousands of Gigawatt hours (GWh) per yer. A Gigawatt hour is equivalent to one million kilowatt hours (kWh) and the average UK home today uses around 4,000 kWh of electricity per year. At peak performance, between 1967-1979, Dungeness A was producing enough electricity to power 1,000,000 homes, alone.

Dungeness A closed in 2006, entering the full decommissioning phase.

Dungeness B is a very interesting story. It is what is known as an ‘Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactor’ or AGR and was the first large scale station of this type to be built based upon a smaller design at Sellafield. It was run by a consortium of engineering firms known as Atomic Power Construction (APC).

The power stations. Incidentally that little strip of vegetation had the highest concentration of wasps of anywhere I found on the estate and a ton of butterflies and beetles, too. If you’re going for some invertebrate hunting, it’s an awesome, bug-busy but human-quiet spot. (Credit: Me)

Engineers encountered significant problems in this scaling up process. A clear example that engineering theory and engineering practice seldom walk hand-in-hand and an excellent demonstration of the expense of innovation!

The solution? The same solution private investors always come up with when their get-rich-quick schemes meet difficulties, they ended up caving under the financial pressure of having to pay for changes and dealing with the fact this power-producing cash cow was non-operational and ultimately backed out, leaving the government run Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) to foot the bill and complete the work.

A nod to how public/private initiatives would work in the UK long into the future, the ambitious and ill-considered plan of a group of private investors leant on the government for a bail-out. How very 2008 banking industry!

It worked out well for APC, as material flaws led to major redesigns and rebuilding with new, more consistent, materials. The project was finally completed in 1983, 13 years late and at around 4x the initial projected cost.

A small copper butterfly basking on a rock. (Credit: Me)

Since 2009 the station has been on shut-down due to a variety of problems. Multiple restart dates were scheduled but as of this year a decision has been made to move Dungeness B into its defueling phase, effectively starting the process of decommissioning, with the station having only produced power for only a short amount of it intended life-cycle.

So it might be hard to believe that this area is actually, in terms of its geomorphology, one of the most unique sites in Europe. This is the largest shingle expanse in the continent! Leading to a whole host of interesting nature-related letters! It’s a National Nature Reserve (NNR), a Special Protection Area (SPA), a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and part of the Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

A third of UK plant biodiversity can be found in the region, supporting a host of otherwise very rare UK invertebrate species. It was the site of the reintroduction of the short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus), a species of bumblebee last naturally recorded at Dungeness in 1988.

Whilst the reintroductions have not been as successful as hoped, with the short-haired bumblebee not thriving, the measures taken to attempt to get it to be fruitful and multiply have led to increases in populations of other rare bumblebess, such as the moss carder bee (Bombus muscorum), the brown banded carder bee (Bombus humilis) and the ruderal bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus).

I think this demonstrates one of the key things I’m always trying to talk about with ecology. When you are looking at an ecosystem and the niches within – G. Evelyn Hutchinson described it as an ‘n-dimensional hypervolume’.

Sea kale, in full berry. Interesting fact, this plant is edible and nutrient rich, however you should be careful if/when picking as it is protected in some areas (like at Dungeness due to it being an SSSI) and is prone to overexploitation. Many of these plants were in fruit on the day I visited. (Credit: Me)

Fancy words, I know, but what it basically means is ‘n’ is just ‘a number’ – indeterminate, often indeterminable, and the dimensions are conditions and resources. The ‘hypervolume’ is the space utilised by those resources, and how they are used; light, natural structures, plants, nutrients, etc.

In setting up measures to analyse the n-dimensions involved in reintroducing the short-haired bumblebee, however difficult or ill-fated the project might have been, they have improved the hypervolume to an extent that other species which exploit that ecological niche in a similar way are thriving.

Is it a win? Well the target species has not performed well, but other rare species have been given a boost by the actions intended to help the target species.

This is why a lot of modern ecological study and, particularly ecological conservation, takes on a lot more of a holistic role. It is not about “SAVE THIS SPECIES!” but rather improve the ecology of the species to minimise the number of conflicting dimensions in their hypervolume so they can save themselves. This includes working with local communities to establish sustainable, wildlife friendly enterprises and ways of life, and finding ways to minimise human-animal conflicts – two major problems in ecology.

This form of ecology recognises the levels of complexities and sensitive dependencies that life just lives with, until they become a problem.

A small, solitary bee assesses the sandy outcrop to see if it is a suitable place to dig. Other bee and wasp holes surrounding it. (Credit: Me)

Fictional example but it could be, say, that Jaguars in a particular area of the Amazon basin subsist on a diet of mainly turtles. We’ve noticed a decline in both jaguars and turtles. Which do we focus on?

Well using this model you’d look at why the decline in prey species? Perhaps a species of plant that the turtles like to eat is not doing so well.

So you look at why that? Well it turns out the local communities are pulling it all up because it makes fucking killer baskets!

Okay, so now we have to look at finding a means of transitioning these peoples from utilising wild resources vital to the turtles that are vital to the jaguars to help everyone.

So we either provide these people with alternative basket materials, perhaps some social enterprise scheme where they can sell their killer baskets to a wider market, perhaps find, and work to encourage sustainable growing and harvesting methods, we get the numbers of these plants back up but, oh no, the turtles aren’t coming back.

Then we realise that a species of invertebrate is eating these plants from the bottom up, and a predatory beetle once used to take care of that but their numbers declined too, so now we have to assess whether it is viable to reintroduce these predatory beetles to sustain the water plants.

If you’re asking “Is it realistic a decline in numbers of one beetle can so negatively impact an entire ecosystem affecting jaguars way up the trophic levels?” YEAH! It’s that mad, chaotic and interdependent!

It works, the turtles come back, the jaguars come back – but it’s taken 20 years of research, effort, study and work and in the meantime, right behind you, acres of the rainforest has been cut down for logs!

Welcome to ecology and conservation work! Long-sighted hard work is often dramatically outpaced by lucrative exploitation!

Back to Dungeness.

Abandoned huts litter the local landscape, like this one here. I know it might look like it, but it’s not a desert! Also I could hear a solid hum of bees inside this shed! Weirdly, ruined piles of human shite and rubble make excellent refuges for a lot of species. (Credit: Me)

Contrary to a lot of reports it is not Britain’s only desert. There is, as far as I am aware, no area of the UK that meets the classification of a desert. On a day like the one I visited it on, this vast, isolating shingle expense can very well feel like one.

Watching a fox dance across the shingles looking for unsuspecting rabbits under a hot, early-evening sun was the closest I’ve come to seeing a coyote in Arizona or New Mexico – this slinky canid dancing across the flat, desolate land. It was awesome.

I’m making it sound a bit Spartan but these shingle dunes and ridges are home to about a third of the UK’s plant biodiversity, making it an excellent place for invertebrates.

The fox watches me intently in the dimming light of a setting sun. Can you spot it? (credit: Me)

If you’re a fan of the lepidopterans, if you’re into your butterflies and moths, it is a must visit. Cabbage white (Small – Pieris rapae, large – Pieris brassicae – Yes there are two species of ‘cabbage white’) was all over the shop, I saw marbled whites (Melanargia galathea) a monochrome, stained-glass beauty of a butterfly, and small coppers (Lycaena phlaeas) were everywhere. It also gets a fair share of migratory butterflies like red admirals, clouded yellows, and long-tailed blues.

As far as moths go – take your pick! I mean, it is the most likely place to see a Sussex emerald (Thalera fimbrialis) but we’re talking over 600 recorded species of micromoths and macromoths. If they’re your thing, get down there during the day for some day moths and get your light box out at night, it won’t disappoint.

But I’m not about lepidopterans.

I’m a hymenopteran fan. I went to check out the bees and the wasps and it did not disappoint. Approaching any of the little islands of vegetation in this desolate shingle you will be met with the constant hum of the bees and flies around. Most of this is bumblebees, I saw more of them than anything else, although smaller solitary bees and a few honey bees were present.

A cabbage white butterfly rests on the blue-purple flowers of what I think is bugloss (not a plant guy!) (credit: Me)

As far as wasps go I found a high density in the wild carrot between the far wall of the power station and the big shingle defensive wall, as well as lots of them hanging around various apiaceae plants elsewhere. I found the highest concentration of ruby-tailed wasps I’ve ever seen, likely 5-6 individuals in one small area, indicating a healthy presence of solitary bees (which I heard, but did not see much). There were many Gasteruption (or skinny arse wasps if you prefer their scientific name), a lot of small black-and-orange ichneumons which are impossible for me to identify properly. I even spotted a couple I don’t think I’ve seen before or have seen very rarely.

A beautiful female parasitoid wasp feasts on the nectar of this wild carrot. That intimidating looking ‘sting’ is unlikely to sting you. It is an ovipositor, the egg laying apparatus of the female. It can be tough to identify these small, ichneumonid wasps – This may be a Pimpla rufipes or similar. They are known to lay their eggs in the caterpillars of cabbage white butterflies so seeing a few of them around here would make sense. (Credit: Me)

I saw the ashiest of ashy mining bees, I mean this thing was just a tiny, buzzing, floating mini old-man’s beard it was so fluffy and grey.

A couple of miles along the shingle beach will take you to the vegetated sand dunes near Romney Sands and here I, as expected, found a higher concentration of digging wasps, sand wasps that sort of thing. You can, if you’re lucky, watch these little wasps and bees digging and making their nests. Just look for areas where the sand is forming a solid wall and look for small holes. These are almost certainly bee and wasp burrows and I got to watch one little digger bee going in and out with petals from the nearby flower, as well as what I think is a wasp in full Minecraft mode (I only saw its arse as its back legs kicked sand out of the nest it was digging).

The sandy dunes near Lydd-on-Sea are another excellent habitat, only a few miles walk from the Dungeness Estate. When I went it was rich in fennel, wild carrot and ragwort and many solitary digging bees and wasps could be seen around here. (Credit: Me)

If birds are your jam there is a nearby RSPB reserve, a wetland made up from filling in the old gravel pits. Bitterns, smews, wheatears, grebes, cormorants, gulls and terns, and rare migratory visitors like collared pratincoles, rosy starlings, glossy ibis, cattle egret – I mean, it’s a fucking haven, man!

It’s easily accessible by car or bus and I just feel a little sad that generally it gets bypassed via the A259 as people make their way East or West to more ‘popular’ seaside areas, they bypass this beautiful, unique habitat to go sip pints on concrete or play fucking mini-golf!

The fact is there is not a lot of glitz and glamour to Dungeness but there is a ton of character. Some of it is amazing, as a wildlife spot it’s incredible. Some of it is creepy – It is distinctly Lovecraftian in vibe around there, I mean if a local asked you to go worship to them you wouldn’t have a clue what arcane Old God they’re praying to. Anyone who has played Bloodbourne, just think the Fishing Hamlet and that’s Dungeness!

The bored local adherents to the worship of the Old Gods often make sacrifices in the form of ritual gnomicide. Here is one such victim, proudly on display, a stark warning to any gnomes who may wander into this forgotten corner of civilisation. (Credit: Me)

But that’s what I like about it! It’s not like everywhere else. Most importantly it’s quiet. I was there on a busy day and I could walk with no one around me for miles with little trouble! There are a few nice little pub-restaurants about for your dinner, fish and chip joints and local seafood places for a little light lunch or it’s the perfect damn picnic spot. Parking is ample and mostly free on the Dungeness Estate itself.

If you’re an angler! Oh boy! The sea just off where the hot water outlet pipe of the power station is provides some of the best, weirdest fishing you can do. Expelling water that’s a good 12°C warmer than the rest of the water it creates a mini-reef like area. People love to fish down there.

The striking caterpillar of the cinnabar moth. One of our most beautiful night moths, with its bold grey-and-red colouring, has just as bold a caterpillar! I did hang around to see if any wasps wanted to come and have an egg-lay but they left these caterpillars alone. (Credit: Me)

So if you’ve never been, go. I know the temptation, as the world flings its doors open with welcome after a pandemic, is to go to the crowded spots you’ve missed. But why not play it safe, and go find a new quiet spot where you can appreciate everything you love.

Go to Dungeness, if you regret it, at least you tell everybody about how oddly creepy Dungeness is.  

Want to learn more of my South Coast adventures?

Learn about the Victorian seaside resort of Eastbourne and the Beachy Head Woman

Read about Noviomagus Reginorum, Roman Chichester, and The Novium Museum

Or check out how AMAZING Fishbourne Roman Palace, near Chichester, is!

Folkestone Museum, full of details of the town’s maritime, wartime and ancient past!

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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